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Creators Of FX's 'Pose' Talk About New Revelations On Show


We're in the second season of a drama built on grit, glamour and gold lame.


BILLY PORTER: (As Pray Tell) The category is live, work, pose.

INSKEEP: The FX show "Pose" chronicles the lives of gay and transgender characters in New York's ballroom culture in 1990. NPR's Eric Deggans says last night's episode entered new territory for the show. He spoke with the people who wrote it. And be warned - there are spoilers ahead.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When "Pose" first debuted on FX last year, co-creator Ryan Murphy noticed a serious problem. Thanks to long-standing tropes about gay and transgender characters getting killed, fans kept expecting someone to die.

RYAN MURPHY: Every time an episode would air, we would be reading the social media feed and people would write. Oh, I know Angel's going to die this week. I don't know if I can take it. So we finally said to our audience, don't worry. That's not going to happen this year. Just relax into the storytelling.

DEGGANS: The storytelling on "Pose" has featured epic underground ball competitions filled with dazzling costumes and dancing, led by an emcee named Pray Tell, played by Billy Porter.


PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Yes, divas. I want to see all my banjee boys to hit the floor and vogue.

DEGGANS: Madonna's "Vogue" Echoes through the show's second season, raising hopes that New York's ball scene just might reach America's mainstream.


PORTER: (As Pray Tell) We done changed the culture, y'all.

DEGGANS: But Murphy and co-executive producer Janet Mock also had a devastating surprise. Along with exploring the AIDS epidemic, this season would also finally feature the death of a major character, as Mock points out.

JANET MOCK: We knew that one of the other epidemics that wasn't really being talked about that was heightened then just as much as it's heightened today is the violence against trans women. And so we knew we would have to say goodbye to one of our characters one of our leading women. Who? You know, that was always the hard question for us.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They found Candy's body dead in the closet. Oh, God.

DEGGANS: Viewers saw Tuesday that Candy Ferocity, played by transgender actress Angelica Ross, was killed while working as a prostitute. Her death inspires other transgender women, her chosen family, to work together in staging her memorial. Murphy, who co-wrote the script with Mock and directed the episode, says the loss underscores an important issue.

MURPHY: I think for many people in this community particularly, they feel unloved, unseen, unappreciated. You have that moment where you're just so frustrated. Why aren't people getting me? Why can't they see all that I can do? And many times that doesn't happen, until you're gone, you know?

DEGGANS: But the episode also raises a question. Isn't killing off a transgender woman utilizing the very tropes the show's tried to avoid? Murphy says no. Candy wasn't a plot device. Her character was fleshed out, often through her conflicts with Pray Tell. In one scene, Candy asked him to create a new performance category for the competitions.


ANGELICA ROSS: (As Candy) I'm a performer, a star. So why don't we just come up with some categories, so we can show that off?

PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Would you like us to put a pole in the middle of the room, so you can show us all your hidden talents?

DEGGANS: Later during Candy's funeral, Pray Tell imagines explaining to her why he was so judgmental.


PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Maybe I didn't want to look at you. You are unapologetic, loud, black, femme - all the things that I try to hide about myself when I go out into the real world.

DEGGANS: Then Candy's mother imagines telling her she accepts her, finally.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Wasn't no guidebook instructing me on how to raise a child like you. You know, the outside is different. But beneath it, all I see is my baby.

MURPHY: When you're watching the episode, what you're seeing is the first take that those actors did. I guess we had maybe a hundred people all, you know, from the LGBTQ community. And everybody in the room was crying because I think everybody in that room wishes their parents would say those things to them.

DEGGANS: "Pose" features the largest cast of transgender actors in regular series roles in scripted TV. Five major transgender characters and over 140 LGBTQ people total in the cast and crew. Murphy says giving them a creative voice is important because he remembers how hard it was as a gay man to speak up on the first TV show he co-created in 1999, the WB high-school drama "Popular."

MURPHY: My first show, you know, that I created, I had to fight to be able to direct it. And they told me, well, we don't really know if you understand the tone. And I kept saying, but I (laughter) wrote the show.

DEGGANS: These days, Murphy's the king of television, with a string of hits like "9-1-1" and the "American Horror Story" franchise. But one show in particular taught him the power of TV to teach acceptance for gay and transgender characters...


GLEE CAST: (As characters, vocalizing).

DEGGANS: ...The high-school musical drama "Glee."

MURPHY: Television is important because when you watch it, you fall in love with those characters. And those characters are your friends. You know, when "Glee" came on the air in 2009, which is right around when people started talking about gay marriage in this country, I feel like that show and "Modern Family" and others like it - Will & Grace" - really pushed awareness because people knew someone in the LGBT community.

DEGGANS: Mock was already a successful author, TV host and transgender rights activist before Murphy brought her to work on "Pose." And she's since become the first transgender woman of color to sign a production pact with a major studio - at Netflix, where Murphy also has a $300 million deal. Ask how they work together, and Murphy jokes that Mock just tells him what to do. But he's also given her something new, a mentor.

MOCK: You know, I've never had any mentors myself. I've always just created a way out of no way. I just kind of saw what other people did. And I was like, oh, that's kind of interesting. Let me try that myself. But to meet someone who's like, I see something in you. And I'm going to help you get there. And I'm going to give you the opportunities and let you fail - he's very fraternal and loving in that way.

DEGGANS: It's Murphy's strategy of showrunning as advocacy, empowering once-marginalized people to tell their own stories on TV, redefining history in the process. It's also why Murphy says "Pose's" story will end in 1996, when more effective drugs to combat AIDS emerged, winding down a terrible era.

MURPHY: Because so many mentors of ours died early and prematurely. You know, there's a need for history. There's a need for legacy and storytelling that remembers that period.

DEGGANS: Mock and Murphy vow to keep telling such stories, even when they require sacrificing a valued character to tell a painful truth. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.