Television

It’s Time for the Emmys to Salute Billy Porter for Pose

The category is: best actor in a drama.

Billy Porter in Pose holding an Emmy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FX Networks and Emmys.

Pose is far from the only TV show to underutilize its most seasoned or gifted performer, but it might be the first to give that actor so many alternatives to Elizabeth Gilbert’s mantra of “eat, pray, love.” “Live! Work! Pose!” commands Billy Porter, as ballroom emcee Pray Tell, in the opening credits of the FX drama. In one episode: “Dip! Pop! Vogue!” Later: “Pull up! Work hard! Triumph!” But while it’s hard not to notice how often he is relegated to announcing the next category and reading the judges’ scores, it’s equally hard not to notice how Porter manages to make every ball an event, how much energy he injects into every scene he’s in, and how crucial he is to Pose’s most tragic and most celebratory moments. He may not be the star of this ball, but in episode after episode, he’s the cast member most capable of making the show’s arch dialogue sound not just naturalistic but inevitable. It’s a performance that deserves its own kind of trophy: an Emmy.

It sure wouldn’t be lonely on the actor-singer’s mantle. A 25-year veteran of the stage, Porter won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical in 2013 for playing Lola in Kinky Boots as well as a Grammy the following year for the show’s cast album. That means an Emmy would make him only an O away from an EGOT, and the E seems within reach. Though Pose premiered last June, months before last year’s Emmys in September, the academy’s eligibility rules meant that the first season of the show wouldn’t be able to compete until this year’s Emmys. Now, voting for this year’s Emmy nominations begins Monday, with Pose returning Tuesday night to remind everyone just what Porter can do.

There’s also precedent for at least a nomination. Pose was eligible for last year’s Golden Globes, and he earned a nomination, though the Hollywood Foreign Press Association didn’t give him the win. Perhaps voters didn’t sufficiently appreciate how Porter made the most grounded character on a show also its most enigmatic, or how he was able to straddle the line between the practical and the apocalyptic as Pray Tell considered the devastation of the AIDS crisis in his own life. It’s also possible that Globes voters didn’t recognize the considerable charisma and humanism that Porter brings to his role, so Pray Tell’s haughty reads of the occasional unlucky contestant never feel personal, and hammy insults like “I don’t come to your job knocking dicks out of your mouth” feel like effervescent witticisms.

Or maybe it was a category error. Pose doesn’t make the most of Porter, but it probably shouldn’t. Porter stated in a recent Rolling Stone interview that he would be the first queer black man to win Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series. “Awards matter for this little black gay boy,” he said. “If this black queen walks up to take a Best Lead Emmy? That’s the first time it will ever have been done.” And FX is pushing him as a lead, with many awards prognosticators expecting him to get a nod in that category. But Pose is an ensemble drama with trans women at its center. And for as much as Porter does—he acts, sings, emcees, and literally wears many different hats—it’s all in a supporting role.

In some ways this is Porter’s fault for making so much of a role that’s often quite tiny, but he shouldn’t be punished for that. Pray Tell is a man who’s fascinatingly big and small. In the ballroom, he’s a godlike, infallible adjudicator of what’s fashionable and what’s not, overseeing the ballroom and the feuds between its houses without ever being a part of it. But in the straight, white world, he’s a cologne spritzer at Macy’s who failed to become the world-famous designer his close friend Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) is convinced he could’ve become, and could become still. (That Macy’s job impresses the hell out of Blanca’s adoptive “kids” anyway.) A lifetime of thoughts flits through Pray Tell’s eyes whenever Blanca mentions the calling he (as far as we know) never pursued, inadvertently salting his wounds. One also senses the ambivalence with which Pray Tell helps parent Blanca’s children. He’s certain he’s got the hard-earned wisdom to guide them, like when he takes three of her “sons” to get tested for HIV. But he also doesn’t have Blanca’s patience or pureness of soul, and he is all the more relatable for it. Even when other characters speak, it’s often Porter whom your eyes travel to, his silence (and physical performance) as expressive as others’ words.

But it’s the AIDS storylines in which Porter does his best work: in Pray Tell’s initial fear of getting tested, his denial that his boyfriend, Costas (Johnny Sibilly), is literally on his deathbed, his determination to give Costas and the other patients in the AIDS ward a night of music, and, finally, his allowing himself to fall in love again. By 1988, when the series is set, Pray Tell has been watching loved ones die for years, and we mostly glimpse that terrifying history through Porter’s performance, through this proudly intelligent man’s understandable embrace of ignorance about the status of his own body and this determined fighter’s angry refusal to hope that the plague will ever be conquered. Porter often plays Pray Tell like he’s willing himself to express nothing, attempting to maintain a facade of poise and unflappability. But the actor always shows us all the hurt and thoughts within as well as the mild panic that the world is so much more unpredictable than we can possibly conceive. When he reveals, on top of all that, that he can also belt with the precision of a Broadway veteran, it’s like a second ham on Christmas.