Arts & Culture » Television

Strike a 'Pose!'

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Scene from "Pose," the dance musical from Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and Brad Falchuk. Photo: Courtesy FX
Scene from "Pose," the dance musical from Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and Brad Falchuk. Photo: Courtesy FX  

Every Pride we search for LGBT TV to make us feel more present for the non-LGBT viewers. Every Pride we want to be seen. Every Pride we want to remind people that yes, we are here, we are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, and it won't hurt str8 people to see us and know that we are an integral part of their world.

We can't recall a scripted series in the past few years that meets that goal more than Ryan Murphy's "Pose," the sine qua non of his gay oeuvre. Murphy has made this series with his regular partner for most of his work, Brad Falchuk, and with Steven Canals and Janet Mock.

We have fallen in love with "Pose" because so much of our own gay history is there in that show from our extreme gay youth to our AIDS activism in the 80s. We were the gay teen who left home after being hospitalized for conversion therapy at 16 after being expelled from our all-girls school for being a lesbian. We had a period of being homeless. We were embraced by older butch lesbian bouncers at the gay bar we snuck into with our fake ID.

And we were in New York City reporting and being an activist in the late 80s, the period in which "Pose" is set. These characters are people we were, we knew, we loved. We love "Pose." We love it so much that we have re-watched each episode thus far because we cannot get enough of these characters and these moments.

Mj Rodriguez (Blanca) and Indya Moore (Angel) give us two of the most believable yet luminous characters on the tube right now. As the Mother of an upstart Ball house, Rodriguez gives a magnificent performance. We see her fight battle after battle for herself, for her gay and trans family, for what she describes as her "kind." There are brutal moments. Blanca finds out early on that she is HIV+, which propels her forward to change her life's course. Later, when she goes to a bar labeled the best gay bar in the city by The Village Voice, she sits waiting to be served in the all-white, all-gay male establishment only to be rejected by everyone. She's thrown out on the street yet keeps trying, finally being arrested.

Yet with Blanca, every tribulation is turned to exaltation. When Elektra (Dominique Jackson), her former Mother and her nemesis, bails her out of jail, we are given entree into the generational differences in the Ball world.

Where Blanca is a tough mama organizer of her family with a hidden vulnerable side and the secret of her HIV+ status, Angel is always deep in her feelings. She's so pretty and has a sad look that brightens into joy readily. She's so real, it sometimes hurts to watch her performance.

There are no bad characters, no bad writing, nothing that doesn't ring true for those of us who have been deeply in our community for decades. But there are things that rise beautifully. Among those are Blanca's relationship with Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), the young homeless gay dancer beaten, then rejected by his religious parents for being gay. Blanca gives Damon the maternal love his own mother could not give him, and she elevates him with that love.

Blanca gets Damon enrolled in dance school, which gives him another gift, his mentor, dance instructor Helena St. Rogers (Charlayne Woodard), who not only makes space for him at the school, but takes him to his first ballet.

Evan Peters, fresh from his starring role in Murphy's "American Horror Story: Cult," proves his versatility as an actor yet again. As a rising star in the Trumpian business world that runs counterpoint to the ball culture in "Pose," Peters' character Stan Bowes is living a double life. There is the life he says is "middle-class white man" that he leads with his wife Patty (Kate Mara), whose deepest desire is for a dishwasher, and the life he leads with Angel, with whom he has fallen deeply and perhaps tragically in love.

There is sweetness to the coupling of Stan and Angel that belies the seeming stereotype of the "straight white guy fetishizing trans woman of color" aspect of their relationship. Stan risks his stable white life for Angel, and she risks feeling something for another person for him. There is a scene between the two of them in a diner in episode two that is so brutally emotionally real, it takes your breath away. "Pose" is a gift we have been given for Pride. Revel in it.

Taking the cake

It would seem implausible at best that we would have a queen as flaming as Olympian ice-skater Johnny Weir on prime time during Pride, right? Yet the goddesses of Pride are shining their love on us this year because Trump has made our lives so unutterably hellish.

Weir and his BFF, Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, were stars at the Olympics in Pyeonchang, giving the best commentary on ice-skating. Now they are back, together again, to give us life as the queen and queen of wedding cakes.

Yes, what the U.S. Supreme Court taketh away, the Food Network giveth back. The "Wedding Cake Championship" on Food Network debuts June 25. There are six teams of two competing for the title and a $25,000 prize. During the grand finale, the three remaining teams will have to create the perfect cake for Lipinski and her husband in honor of their one-year anniversary.

The judges are Maneet Chauhan of "Chopped" fame, and gay wedding planner David Tutera. For the premiere, Randy Fenoli, host of "Say Yes to the Dress," will serve as a guest judge. Because this is the gayest of all shows. Pride tidbit: Fenoli won Miss Gay America in 1990 performing as Brandi Alexander, and used the money he won to enroll in New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. Snap! In a tweet announcing the show, Weir wrote that the "sparkle and drama are pretty outrageous." What more can we say? Masterpiece Cakes not invited.

So AMC's "Dietland" isn't a gay show. Not really. Although there are gay characters. But it has the feel of a gay show, and after "Pose," it's our summer fave. "Dietland" is a brilliant mix of dystopian fantasy, #MeToo, backlash against fat-shaming, and acid takedown of those women's magazines that think being body positive means one can wear a size 4 instead of a size 0, and the concomitant culture of feminine perfection these magazines promote.

Marti Noxon, whom we first fell in love with when she wrote for and executive produced the groundbreaking series, "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," is the creator of "Dietland," based on a book by Sarai Walker. Noxon also created the fabulous "UnReal," and has written and co-produced series as diverse as "Private Practice," "Mad Men," "Glee" and "Code Black." But "Dietland."

"Dietland" is mesmerizing in the same way "Buffy" was. The central character, Plum (the incredible Joy Nash), has a closet filled with only black clothes, the better to cover her large body and help her to fade into the background. Plum works for a women's magazine where she ghost-writes a column for the publisher, the soigneé Kitty Montgomery, played with a slithery archness by Emmy winner Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife").

Plum wants to be thin. She dreams of herself in a different body in a clingy red dress. She's working toward weight-loss surgery, but has been unable to lose enough weight to qualify. Plum also wants to write real investigative pieces for the magazine, but remains relegated to answering the increasingly more disturbing letters to the editor from young women as desperate and despondent as she is.

She has a black gay male best friend (yes, it's a trope, but it's our trope and we might as well embrace it, since it's not going away), Steven (Tramell Tillman), who runs a café where Plum often bakes cakes with a young man who is obviously in love with her, even though she doesn't see it.

The running subplot in "Dietland" revolves around an underground movement of women who are fighting back. Plum is being seduced by and into its subversive attack on the status quo. This happens through the increasingly seductive ministrations of Julia Smith (the marvelous Tamara Tunie), who maintains the make-up and scent lines in the basement of Kitty's empire, but has a whole other agenda, and her minion Leeta (Erin Darke), who follows Plum everywhere and may or may not be in love with her. We say is.

There is deep mystery and intrigue at the heart of "Dietland." Men are turning up dead, and even dropping from the sky, dead, the work of a group of women called "Jennifer." A plethora of men known for their ill treatment of women are being abducted, tortured and forced to give video testimonies of their crimes before being killed.

And there's Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the leader of a seeming anti-diet cult, who is differently soignee from Kitty, but oh-so-mesmerizing. She wants Plum to become her best self and offers her a check to prove it, but asks that Plum wait to cash it until she has completed Verena's program.

This is not a series for everyone. Plum is the focal point, and everything revolves around her world, which is largely interior: at times brutally isolated, and at others wildly fanciful. But Nash's portrayal of Plum is lush, real and utterly engaging. She's superb. "Dietland" is the fastest-moving hour on TV. Funny, dark, mysterious, playful, bold. So bold.

If you like dark, really dark, then WGN's "100 Code" is perfect summer fare for you. This psychological thriller set in Stockholm is about two detectives tracking a serial killer and trying to escape their own demons. "100 Code" is an English-Swedish-German production. Be forewarned, there are subtitles, but only about a fifth of the time, as the central character is American and always demanding "English!" Dominic Monaghan and Michael Nyqvist star as New York Det. Tommy Conley and Det. Mikael Eklund searching for the man or team killing young, blonde, blue-eyed women in a particularly gruesome manner.

WGN has presented some really fine Canadian and British productions in the last year, like "Bellevue" and "Shoot the Messenger." "100 Code" may be the best yet. Deeply introspective, the series delves into the ways in which power and desire, sex and perversity commingle to create killers, and lays bare how little buffer there really is between that level of madness, if it is madness, and the rest of us. "100 Code" is challenging, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling, with great performances, particularly by Nykvist, who co-starred in the Swedish versions of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" films. Like "Pose" and "Dietland," "100 Code" repeats several times a week, so no excuse for missing any of these superb series.

We would be remiss if we failed to comment on Anthony Bourdain's sad and untimely death by suicide when he was such a fixture on the TV landscape over the past decade and more. We loved "No Reservations" and hated "The Taste," which brought out all the worst things in him and Nigella Lawson. But it was "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" that took us to places we had never been and knew we would never go.

Bourdain was handsome in that rough, seasoned, overly tanned and casually sexy way that men are allowed to own. He exuded an almost palpable animal energy on screen that must have been nearly overwhelming for those who were in proximity to him. It did overwhelm competitors on "The Taste," which was a wrong venue for him: too constrained, too exacting. Bourdain needed the open space and complexity of "Parts Unknown," which took him around the world. In that CNN series, Bourdain took us to meet a vast array of people of all classes and backgrounds whose relationship to food he highlighted as he also explored their respective worlds. The warmth, the humility that Bourdain evinced while meeting with these people, sometimes in groups, sometimes one-on-one, was ineffably engaging.

We watched Bourdain because we can no longer travel and he took us places we wanted to go. Whether he was in LA's Koreatown or the mysterious Myanmar, Quebec or Morocco, New Mexico or Copenhagen, Detroit or Congo, Bourdain was exploring the places others either feared going or thought they already know. He was relentlessly inquisitive, and took us with him on each new adventure. If you have a staycation planned, Netflix and chill with "Parts Unknown." It's brilliant.

What has been so hard to accept about Bourdain's suicide is that he was so overflowing with life. We felt that energy as we watched him traveling the world just so he could show it to us. We noted on Twitter after his death was announced, "Anthony Bourdain knew that food was knowledge & love, food taught us about each other & in sharing meals we learned about how others lived, struggled, remained resilient. He wasn't solitary in a kitchen, he was breaking bread in the truest sense. Do that today, in his memory."

So for the most flamboyant of Prides, the gayest of cakes, to say yes to the dress, and to mourn as well as celebrate, you know you must, as always, stay tuned. Have the best Pride ever, friends.

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