For the better TV battle, look to the runway, not the wrestling ring
Many of the TV viewers I talk to are fans of “GLOW,” the Netflix comedy about the creation of the TV series “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” And that’s great — the show is a lighthearted take on women on the Hollywood fringe who find physical, creative, and job empowerment by infiltrating a male-dominated, sexist world of hand-to-hand combat. It’s a likable whirl.
But nobody I know is talking about “Pose,” the FX drama about the LGBT ballroom runway competitions. And that’s really too bad, since it’s like “GLOW,” but better. “Pose,” which wraps its first season on Sunday night, is also about a group of outsiders who build a community in which they work to be “real.” Both series peer into lesser-known American subcultures, both are set in the rah-rah 1980s, both touch on the social and economic issues facing their lost souls, and both feature performers competing with camp stage characters.
Both are about how the phrase “Let’s put on a show” can actually be a call to radically change your life for the better.
But “GLOW,” so easy-breezy, is a superficial group portrait. It gives us a full ensemble of women who’ve come together to make the wrestling show, but we really only get to know two, Alison Brie’s Ruth and Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, whose stage characters, Zoya the Destroyer and Liberty Bell, are at war. There’s a lot of potential in the other wrestlers, but they only get small moments. Having finished both seasons of “GLOW,” I still feel as though I have a shallow understanding of everyone but the leads. I feel as though I’ve seen only four episodes, instead of 20.
“Pose,” on the other hand, is rich storytelling that does full justice to the group of characters who belong to the various “houses” that vie for statues. I’ve seen seven episodes so far, and I feel as though I know each of them already, and with a degree of intimacy. It’s an hourlong drama, so of course it’s more equipped to get inside its characters’ heads and hearts than “GLOW,” making the stakes of the runway walks much higher. The “Pose” performers are striving to pass in the cisgender world, and they’re looking to make a name for themselves in their own alternative world, too.
The trans women in the story — played by trans actresses — are particularly well-drawn, in a way that I’ve never seen on TV before. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, “Pose” brings us into some of the difficulties of these women’s lives — for Elektra, “mother” of the House of Abundance, for example, gender reassignment surgery presents an awful choice. She wants it, but her man, her sugar daddy — played by Christopher Meloni, who keeps her in a nice apartment — prefers her with a penis. “You know how I feel about that,” he says to her. “The woman I have has always had something extra.” Elektra is played with exquisite ferocity by Dominique Jackson, whose queenly look is flawless. She speaks with a forced enunciation that is more “real” than real.
Blanca, the mother of the competing House of Evangelista, is a lovely, vulnerable person who is as warm and supportive of her “children” as Elektra is bullying. Played by Mj Rodriguez, Blanca is simultaneously weary and driven, and, early in the season, she stages a nightly sit-in at a gay bar that won’t allow trans women. Her HIV diagnosis haunts her, making her both hopeless and impatient to live. The show occasionally veers into melodrama, often with Blanca-based story lines, but Rodriguez’s sympathetic presence makes that excess seem less egregious. AIDS makes an appearance around the periphery of “GLOW,” in regard to the producer Bash Howard’s sexual confusion and the death of his friend, but it is central on “Pose,” as the LGBT characters face yet another danger in their communities. Meanwhile, one of Blanca’s children, Angel, played by Indya Moore, is dealing with a married man who won’t leave his wife for her. The kicker: He works for Donald Trump.
The second season of “GLOW” includes an entire episode that is, essentially, an episode of “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” It’s a funny half-hour that finally shows us what these women have been working on. “Pose” — which, by the way, has already been renewed for a second season — takes a more immersive approach to its characters’ performances, with ballroom scenes in every episode that are out of this world. Like a sportscaster, Pray Tell — played unforgettably by Billy Porter — narrates the runway walks from the podium with brilliant, clever, sometimes adoring, sometimes cruel comments. Those scenes are magical, humorous, flashy, and fierce, as the house battles unfold with all of the bluster and choreography of a wrestling match.