ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
Just a quick note at the top, there is some strong language in this episode.
One of the most revolutionary new shows to appear in 2018 was the FX TV series Pose. I’m going to play a clip, just to illustrate, but first a little set-up.
Pose is set in the ballroom scene of 1980s New York. The ballroom scene, if you don’t know, is a series of underground dance and fashion competitions usually put on by queer and transgender people of color. At these shows, called balls, different houses compete. Each house is run by a house mother, usually a trans woman.
In the first episode of Pose, a young dancer, Damon, gets disowned by his family for being gay and finds his way to New York City, where he’s adopted into a house run by a trans woman named Blanca. You’re going to hear Blanca in this scene, talking to the dean of the dance school that Damon wants to get into.
HELENA: Can I help you?
BLANCA: My name is Blanca. I’ll be brief because I know how busy you are. I’m looking after a young man who applied for admissions as a dancer, and was informed that he missed the cutoff?
HELENA: We’re pretty strict about those things
BLANCA: No I appreciate that …
ALEX BLUMBERG: They go back and forth. Blanca tries to convince the dean to make an exception. The dean pushes back.
HELENA: I don’t understand what you want me to do. We’ve accepted our fall class, we are full.
BLANCA: No but he is special! He’s got all the talent and all the hurt you need to be a true artist! Let him dance for you, give him a chance, give him three minutes of your time. When was the last time you were truly surprised by something in your life?
HELENA: Who are you again?
BLANCA: … I’m his mother.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Watching that scene, a trans woman, played by a trans actress, boldly declaring that she’s the mother of a young gay man. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like that on television.
After its first season, Pose won a coveted Peabody award. It was nominated for two Golden Globes, and was included on the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten TV shows of the year.
My guest today is one of the creators of Pose, Steven Canals, the show’s co-creator and executive producer. And if there aren’t that many shows like Pose coming out of Hollywood, that’s at least in part because there aren’t that many people like Steven Canals in Hollywood.
I sat down to talk to him about his long, somewhat improbable journey to get there. He said it started a long way from Hollywood, in the Bronx, where he was growing up in the 1980s.
STEVEN CANALS: The neighborhood was really dangerous. Um. And it was a scary time, particularly for me I think as, like, a young kid who just was really sensitive.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
STEVEN CANALS: And at that age, you know, like I was often picked on for being — you know, people were always calling me gay, and I certainly wasn't out. And I didn't have a sense of my identity at that point. And so I — you know, I just... You know, I spent a lot of time sort of in my head and, um, for a little while we lived with my grandmother in Harlem, and my grandmother was up on the 14th floor of a 20-story tenement. And so, you know, I used to love to look out of the window because you could see, you know, the river. And my grandmother, despite the fact that she really didn't speak a ton of English, she had a subscription to National Geographic. And so, you know, I remember being a little boy and flipping through that, and just having a real awareness and a sense that there was a really large world out there, you know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
STEVEN CANALS: Like, I remember, like, just knowing like, "Okay. Like, we're on a planet that's called Earth, you know? And this micro pin represents, you know, where we are in New York. And then there's still this whole other huge planet and all these other places." And so I could remember flipping through that magazine and thinking like, "Oh, God. Like, I want to be able to go to all of these other places." Even if those places weren't real. And — and film and television's allowed me to do that. It was fun, and it was an escape, it allowed me to just exist in my imagination. Like, I could go away, you know? Like, I didn't have to be here. And that was powerful.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What kinds of things were you watching as a kid growing up?
STEVEN CANALS: Gosh, I was watching everything. You know, I loved a Saturday morning cartoon.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh. Who doesn't?
STEVEN CANALS: So...
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs]
STEVEN CANALS: What else? I would always watch, you know, The Color Purple because I loved to cry at the end when, you know, Celie and Nettie were reunited. But then I also really loved genre. So, like, I loved Alien and Aliens and, like...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
STEVEN CANALS: You know, I love, like, Terminator. And so, you know, like, it just — it ran the gamut, but I just, I spent a lot of time in front of the television.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. So it sounds like you were a lover of — of this medium from a very early age. Did you think, like, "Yeah, I want to go and make TV when I get older?"
STEVEN CANALS: No. Like, I don't — like as a really young kid, like, I would say six, seven, eight, I wanted to be a scientist. And my dream at that point was, you know, I was like, "I'm gonna — I'm gonna go become an astronaut and I'm going to travel around space." Like, my goal was to, like, go to Saturn, because that was my favorite planet. And I was like, I just — I need to see those rings. Like, I want to stand on those rings of Saturn, which obviously is impossible. Um…
ALEX BLUMBERG: It's just dust and meteors, young Steven!
STEVEN CANALS: Yeah, exactly. [laughter] I was like, "I'm going to work for NASA one day." Um. Yeah. And then there was just like, you know, growing up, it wasn't like I was seeing individuals on screen who were reflecting the experience that I was having, right? Like, as a young, Afro-Latin kid from the Bronx, anyone who looked like people in my family were typically playing, you know, the dealer, or they were the body in the gutter, you know? They were the — the maid, you know? Like, they weren't centered, and they certainly weren't centered in positive ways.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
STEVEN CANALS: There wasn't a place for me to look and see my experience or my friends and family reflected back at me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But then Steven had this experience. There was this after-school program that started at his high school, where they taught kids how to make documentaries. Steven signed up and helped create a documentary about violence in his neighborhood. And for the first time, he was seeing people like him on the screen. The experience was transformative. So much so, that by the time Steven graduated, he had a new professional goal in mind: he wanted to be a director.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So you graduate from high school, you go to college, you get a degree in film, right?
STEVEN CANALS: In cinema.
ALEX BLUMBERG: In cinema. Oh, sorry. Uh, what is the distinction? I'm sorry to ask a super-crass question, perhaps.
STEVEN CANALS: So my — so I went to Binghamton University.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
STEVEN CANALS: Um, the cinema program at Binghamton was created in the late '60s, and it is an experimental film program. And so my program, I think the reason why they called it 'cinema' not 'film,' is that it was equal parts production and also, you know, like, appreciation, you know? So we were — we were spending as much time talking about the art and the craft of film as we were actually out in the field creating it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And this was not the program where they were gonna be like, "Okay, your script has three acts. In the first act, this has to happen." It wasn't that kind of place, doesn't sound like.
STEVEN CANALS: Oh, absolutely not. No, no, no, no, there were no beginnings, middles and endings at Binghamton University. No, no, no, no.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh. So — when you're going to your classes and watching these experimental films as somebody who had been, you know, who — who grew up sort of like on Transformers and The Color Purple and, like — how was that? I don't know much about — all I know are the jokes about experimental film, because I've never actually seen them. But, like, isn't there one where it's like somebody’s eye getting pierced and a fly walking up a wall for a long time. Like, did you see the — the classics of experimental cinema?
STEVEN CANALS: Yeah. I mean, I will be honest. I remember very early on in my first semester at Binghamton, one of my first classes, they showed us — and I'm blanking on the name of the filmmaker, but it was — it's a film where it's just — it's just a lemon. It's like a lemon on the table rotating. And so you're just watching this lemon rotate over and over and over again. And you're seeing, like, the way that the shadow is moving because of the way that the light is hitting the lemon. And just thinking like, "What are we — what is happening right now? Like, what are we watching?" And, you know — and it was tough because I remember being in classes with individuals who were like, "I think that that lemon is, like, reflective of the way that my heart feels when I'm falling in and out of love." And it's like, "What? Like, what are you talking about?" It's like, "No, that's not what it is. It's a lemon fucking rotating." Like I remember thinking, "Oh, shit. What did I get myself into?"
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. No I mean, it's just like I remember so much that — that — that experience in college of just sort of like, I felt like everybody else was so much more sophisticated than I — than I was. Um. I remember just, like — this one — this one moment in, like, a fiction class where I was like, I really thought hard, and I was like, "Oh, my God! Wait, that person's a symbol for God." And I remember talking to this woman in my class and I was like, "You know, I think that's a symbol for God," and she was like, "Oh, I know. It's so obvious in this. But he's a good in this way and in this way and in this way." And she totally dismissed the thing that I had to, like, really look hard to see. And I just remember feeling like, "Oh, God. I'm not — not worthy."
STEVEN CANALS: Yeah, I mean, I think that that was, particularly when I was in classes where folks were talking about and making meaning of the films that we were consuming. But it’s also tough to be in those production classes and you were picking up 8- and 16-millimeter cameras, you were expected to make your own experimental videos. And so if I'm already not working on that frequency where my brain has calibrated to understand the process of it, then that's not what I'm creating, you know? Like, more often than not the films that I was creating as an undergrad had some narrative embedded in them.
STEVEN CANALS: They had to, because for me that was important. Um, you know, and so you can imagine what the response was from my professors. More often than not they were like, "This just doesn't work." You know, they wanted me to, like, scratch the film. They wanted me to bury the film. They wanted me to paint the film, you know? And that's just not what I was doing. It's really tough to be graded for your art, right? Because the — the process of creating is one that is so personal. And so to have someone tell you, like, that isn't quality, you know, is really, really, really tough. And that's what the experience was for me. I was like, "Gosh, I guess something is just wrong with me." Like, it just — it created a lot of doubt, frankly. You know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Steven says he did eventually learn to appreciate the experimental stuff, but he’d concluded, if this was what filmmaking was, then he wasn’t a filmmaker. And he gave up on the idea of one day telling stories in film himself. Even when those stories seemed like the perfect ones for him to tell. For example, late in his time at Binghamton, in his junior year, he had a visiting professor who took an interest in him. Steven says she could see he was struggling a bit. And she recommended a documentary for him to watch. Paris is Burning, by Jennie Livingston, about the ballroom scene in New York in the late 1980’s.
STEVEN CANALS: It so deeply resonated with me because, you know, these young people who are in the doc looked like me and, you know, the fact of the matter is I was, like, blown away that during that period of time being, you know, the — the mid-'80s which, you know, as I've shared was such a just difficult and fraught time for — for me and for my family and really for anyone living in New York, that this incredible community existed and I had no idea that they existed. And that in spite of, and in the face of, you know, poverty and disease and violence, that they were still able to find joy, and that they were able to create family, and that they found a safety net in one another just blew my mind. Like, rocked my world, you know? Really truly rocked my world. Um, and I really — I took strength from their strength. Like, I ultimately finally wound up coming out specifically because I had watched that documentary and I thought, "Well, you don't have any excuses to walk around with shame or with fear." Like, if in the face of HIV/AIDS these individuals could still navigate the world with pride and with strength in the way that they did, you have no excuse. Um, and so I very vividly remember walking back to my residence hall after screening the doc for the first time, and having the thought “that would make a really wonderful TV show about, you know, a young boy moving to New York to make it as a dancer and getting enmeshed in a war between two house mothers.” And that was the idea that I had. But like, I certainly didn't think that I would ever be the person to tell that story. I just remember having that idea, that kernel of an idea and thinking, "That's gonna make a really great TV show one day. I can't wait to see it."
ALEX BLUMBERG: After the break, it takes ten years, and a nudge from one of the biggest names in show business, but Steven finally does start to see himself as the person who should tell that story. That’s coming up.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Pose co-creator Steven Canals.
By the time Steven graduated from college, he had basically given up on the idea of being a filmmaker. And was pursuing a different career, in higher education. Steven had been a resident assistant at Binghamton, the guy on the dorm hall that other students go to for advice. And he’d enjoyed the work. He liked helping people. And so after graduation, he got a job doing that full time, first as a residence hall director, essentially, the person managing all the RA’s, like he’d been. And from there, he continued to advance, up the ladder of higher ed student life administration.
ALEX BLUMBERG: how long was that period where you were working in higher-ed?
STEVEN CANALS: Uh, professionally? Seven years.
ALEX BLUMBERG: How are you feeling — is this feeling like your career?
STEVEN CANALS: Yes and no. I mean, the truth is that the experience, of working in higher-ed never quite felt right. So, could I do the job? Absolutely. Is that the job that I was supposed to be doing though? You know, I would argue now, no. I just never had a passion for it in the way that some of my other colleagues did. You know, I enjoyed working with students like as a people person. Like, I love — like, I'm a Chatty Cathy. So like, I love talking and, you know, there were parts of my job that I absolutely loved. But by the time I was working as an associate director, my job was primarily administrative. So I was spending a lot of time behind a desk, a lot of time, you know, on the phone or answering emails. And so what I realized is as I continue to move up the ladder in this field, the job is just going to continue to get more administrative.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
STEVEN CANALS: I felt like all the best years were passing me by. And so I just had to be honest with myself and say, "Do you really want to continue to deal with the politics of working in higher-ed, and all the red tape that one has to deal with?" Um. And — and the answer was no
ALEX BLUMBERG: Steven decided he owed it to myself to give this filmmaking thing one more shot. And so, he enrolled in an MFA program in film screenwriting. This was at a very different place than Binghamton: UCLA. a program where they do talk about three-act structures, and beginnings and middles and ends, and the professors are known for writing unapologetically commercial movies. And it was at UCLA that the idea for Pose went from something that Steven thought somebody else should do, to something that he thought, maybe I should try that. Although the reason he thought he should try it, was borne out of necessity. He was trying to get into a screenwriting class.
STEVEN CANALS: So you had to audition essentially, or pitch is the language that they use. So you have to pitch to get into the class. And so I pitch two ideas, one of those ideas being Pose.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
STEVEN CANALS: Really simply because those were the only two ideas I had left at that point. Like, my brain truly was just a desert wasteland, and I was like, "I don't know what to write. I don't have anything else. I better write something. And so I sort of dusted that idea off. And it just so happens that the — my other workshop classmates were really excited by Pose, so I thought, "Okay, I guess that's the one that I'll put on paper." And...typically, writing for me is a lot of work. So I really have to put a lot of effort into thinking about, like, what is the world? Who are the characters? And very rarely do I have the experience that I had while writing Pose where it's like a flood. It's like, the characters, the world, the story, like, everything just comes to you, and you're like, "Oh, I know exactly what this is." You know, it was like Steven in all of his queerness and all of his, you know, Afro-Latin-ness and all of his traumas and all of his hurts and all of his joys. Like, every single part of me had to show up. every fiber of who I am I was putting on the page. So that quarter I, you know, was, I'll be honest, a little bit of a nightmare, because typically in a workshop, you know, you want to, you know, listen to the feedback and the notes of your workshop mates who are hopefully giving you really great notes and aiding in you crafting a wonderful story. Um. And I was just not that person that quarter. You know, I went in and I was like, "I know what the story is. I know who these characters are." And so I was really resistant to notes, because I just — I was so assured that what I was putting on the page was great. [laughs]
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] What do you think gave you that assurance?
STEVEN CANALS: I think it's that Pose was the very first time as a screenwriter that I was putting a story on the page that through and through just truly felt like it was me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
STEVEN CANALS: And so I wasn't open to hearing feedback because I was like, "No, no, no. I got this. You know, I know exactly what the story is, I know who these characters are. I don't — I don't need to hear what you think I should be doing, you know? I don't need to hear notes or be given directions of the version of this story that you want to hear. I'm putting me on the page. This is the version that I want to tell."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Steven submitted his pilot for Pose to a student competition. The script caught the eye of one of the judges, and things started moving quickly from there. Pretty soon Steven had signed with a management team and was taking meetings with executives all over Hollywood.
STEVEN CANALS: My managers very early on were like, "Pose is great. This is a wonderful sample. We are going to use this as your lead." Meaning this will be the sample that we will send out first, um they were like, "Listen, you know, we really think that we could — we're gonna try and push to get this sold." Your whole career will sort of be built on the strength of this one pilot. Um, and then I just start the, what we call, like, the water bottle tour, where I'm just meeting with executives. Um, I think I met with about — in that period of time, I'm guesstimating it was like just under 150 executives.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow!
STEVEN CANALS: And — and no one was interested. You know, like, that's the truth. It's like, in that period of time it was, going in and out of rooms and talking about the show and being told, "I love the — I love the script. I love the world. I love the characters. I love your voice. What else do you have?"
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
STEVEN CANALS: And — you know and then being told "This doesn't feel like a show. I don't think that there's an audience for a story like this."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
STEVEN CANALS: People were like, "I just don't think that the industry is looking for this story right now."
ALEX BLUMBERG: So Steven had to put Pose aside. He took a staff writing job on a TV show called Dead of Summer, which took place in a very different world — it was a horror story set in a midwestern summer camp… but he and his team kept pitching Pose when they could. And at a certain point, he found an executive who didn’t say no. Sherry Marsh, an established executive producer.
Together, Steven and Sherry created a formal pitch, that laid out the characters, the world of the show, the vision for it. And took it around Hollywood. And after their first few meetings, they landed THE meeting, the one that changed everything. With one of the hottest names in TV: producer Ryan Murphy. The force behind hit shows like Nip Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story.
STEVEN CANALS: It just so happens that Ryan at that point had been working on a show that was going to be an adaptation of Paris Is Burning, and I think he was having some difficulties with figuring out what that was gonna be. Um, he then hears that I'm out there pitching a project with Sherry. And so he called her. She sends him the script, and then I think we met, like, a — maybe four or five days later.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What did you know of Ryan Murphy before that meeting? What was he in your mind?
STEVEN CANALS: A genius storyteller. A prolific television producer, you know? I knew that I was a huge fan of his. Um, this was, I want to say a week and a half maybe two weeks after he had won a slew of Emmys for The People Versus OJ Simpson.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
STEVEN CANALS: And so I was super intimidated because that was my favorite piece of TV. And I loved, um — Glee was like, you know, my — one of my favorite things when it was on television. And...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
STEVEN CANALS: So I was really intimidated. But anyway, so I go in and I just start pitching. I just go through the pitch, and — and I don't even make it through the entirety of it, because halfway through he then starts sort of throwing out ideas, and basically pitching his version to me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.
STEVEN CANALS: We were like two kids in a — in a sandbox, you know, like, sharing our toys. And I was like, "Well, here are my toys." And he's like, "Well, here are some of mine." And then he just started doing this really incredible thing where he started melding parts of my story with — with parts of his. And so literally in the course of a 45-minute meeting, we sort of landed on, like, here's what this show could look like if you and I are partnering on it. Um, and then at the end of that meeting he just stood up and looked me in the eye and said, "Okay. Well, we're gonna make that together." And then he walked out.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] Are you serious? That's how it ended?
STEVEN CANALS: Yeah. I was in complete shock. Like, I don't think I really processed it at all, to be honest. Sherry and I just kind of got up and we walked out of the office. And so we get in the car in silence, and Sherry and I just drive off the lot together, again not saying anything, because I think in my head I was like, "Wow, I just —" I think I was still in a place where I was like, "Holy shit! I just met Ryan Murphy!" So I don't even think I was processing like, "Oh, yeah. And now we're gonna work on a show together." I think I was still like, "Wow, I just met Ryan Murphy!"
ALEX BLUMBERG: Did I have anything in my teeth?
STEVEN CANALS: Yeah. Like, what just happened? And so Sherry calls my — my team. She calls my agents and my managers, and she's like, "So Steven's gonna be working on a show with Ryan." And they all start screaming, and I'm still like, "Wait, is that actually what's happening?" Like, I just — it — wow, it just — right over my head.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow!
STEVEN CANALS: I was like, "Oh, I guess that is what's happening." And to be perfectly honest with you, I still didn't really believe that it was happening until the very first day that I went back to the office and sat with him to start breaking story for season one. I was, you know — like, I was calling my team like, "So should I be looking for, like, the next staffing opportunity?" And everyone's like, "Dumb-ass, you're making a show. Like, you're making a show with Ryan Murphy." And I'm like, "Am I?" Like, I just couldn't quite wrap my brain around it. And I think I also was just waiting for the shoe to drop. I was like, "Yeah, okay." Like, I kept waiting to get that phone call where it was like, "Just kidding, you're punked." Or you know, "He changed his mind," or something. I just really couldn't believe that that's what was happening.
ALEX BLUMBERG: After the break, Steven still can’t believe it’s happening, so Ryan Murphy has to snap him out of it. That’s coming up.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Steven Canals.
After a long string of rejections, Steven’s show Pose was finally going forward, after big-time Hollywood producer Ryan Murphy got on board. Steven and Ryan and Ryan’s longtime collaborator Brad Falchuk got to work, rewriting the scripts. And unlike at UCLA, it was easier for Steven to take notes on the scripts when Ryan Murphy was the one giving them. In fact, it was a little too easy.
STEVEN CANALS: When we first started working together and we started breaking the story for the first season, I was like, I just want to — I want to be a sponge. Like, I want to absorb all the knowledge. I need to make sure that I am present at every moment, and that I am learning. And so despite the fact that I came in with a, you know, an MFA in screenwriting, I walked into that experience very quiet, because I was like, "Okay. Like, Ryan has been doing this for, you know, at that point, you know, 15-plus years, almost 20 years. And — and I — and I revere this man, and I and I truly believe he is a genius." And so in the beginning I was very quiet, and there was finally a moment very early on — I want to say within, like, the first two or three weeks of us working together. I just remember him, he, like — he was talking story, and at one point he got very quiet. And I was just sitting there listening, waiting for him to say something, and he kind of leans forward and he's like, "I stopped talking because this is your time to talk now." I was like, "Oh." And he's like, "Hey, just a reminder. Like, your name is also gonna be on this project as a co-creator. So I'm gonna need you to start contributing." I was like, "Oh, right. Yes. Exactly. Uh-huh." And the thing that’s great about Ryan is that he’s someone who isn’t precious about the work in that way. So, you know, it's not about, like, whose voice is the loudest or any of that. It's like, what's best for the material? What's going to make the very best show possible? And so very early on, I knew that if something didn't feel right, that there was space for me to voice that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
STEVEN CANALS: You know, I knew that I was in that room for a very particular reason, you know? Like — and I bring my full self to the table. So Ryan and I's experience overlaps in that we're both, you know, queer/gay men, but my experience is also different in that, you know, I grew up in the housing projects. I grew up in — in the Bronx. I'm a person of color. And so I knew that I could bring those elements. Um. And so if — if there were choices that we were making narratively that just didn't feel authentic to the world or to the character, there was room for me to say, "Wait a minute," you know? And — and we could adjust it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
STEVEN CANALS: You know? It's — it's a script. It's not a stone. It's not a hieroglyphic. So we can make a change to it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
STEVEN CANALS: You know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
STEVEN CANALS: And so it took a while for me to realize like, "No, Boo Boo. Like, but this is also your show. Like, you know, we're working on this together. And so, your voice is as important, and you need to use it."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Hm. You know that thing we were talking about before, the fear of, like, not wanting to lose your vision for it. Did you ever feel that with Ryan?
STEVEN CANALS: No. You know — no. And I'll tell you why. Because early on — it's funny because I, like, there have been some folks who have read, like, that first draft that I wrote, which was much darker and much grittier than the version that now exists. And the truth is that Ryan, Brad and I, we actually wrote about — I'm gonna guesstimate, I think it was about four different versions of this pilot.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
STEVEN CANALS: So there is an early iteration of the pilot that was dark. And like, in my original pilot that I wrote when I was at UCLA, um, Damon — Damon is the sex worker. You know, so obviously we — Angel is in this new version, but Damon was a sex worker and he winds up having a pimp. And ...and he's also, within the pilot, is sexually assaulted by a client.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
STEVEN CANALS: And so we were moving forward with that version. And I think we were already, I think two episodes in, and then one day Ryan came into the room and he was like, "You know, I think right now, I think it's a little dark. I think it might be too dark." Um. And he was like, "I'm worried that a show that is gonna be centering queer and trans people of color in a way that we've never seen them centered before — and certainly not in this way — that if it's too dark the audience won't get it." And us really recognizing that we were going to be the first. Obviously the pressure was on, because if it doesn't work then we've inevitably now made it difficult for other people who have stories to tell to now tell those stories. And so, we took a step back and we really spent a lot of time talking about it. And the thing that Ryan said that so deeply resonated with me was, "You know, I think the — the joy and the pride that you have being a queer person of color, I want to see that on the page. Like, we need to infuse that into the work."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
STEVEN CANALS: And honestly that was the moment where everything changed. And so then Ryan, Brad and I went back and we rewrote that pilot. And it's — and it's what you see now. You know, it just completely changed. And, like, the tone of the show changed where, you know, we didn't shy away from the reality of being in New York in the 1980s, right? Like, we still leaned into HIV/AIDS and the crack epidemic, and what it means to be, you know, poor and a person of color. But we also really leaned into the joy and the pride and, the family aspects of being a member of the ballroom community. And so I'm really proud of what we have, and I'm glad that we made that change. But — but that really came out of — of conversation with Ryan, frankly.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Once the writers found a way to bring more joy to the pilot, they worked through the scripts for the rest of season 1. Rather than becoming a sex worker, Damon falls in love and goes to dance school, surrounded by a chosen family of other young queer and trans people of color who had been rejected by their families.
The first season of the show broke several barriers. It featured an unprecedented number of transgender cast members. And Janet Mock, another one of the writers on the show, became the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode of TV.
STEVEN CANALS: All of us recognized even before the show was ever out, that we were crafting something that was really important. Like, we all just could feel it. We knew it. And so as a result, I think we all were very, very, very considerate of the material and of the characters.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What felt important about it? Why did you — why did you guys all have that sense?
STEVEN CANALS: Because there were choices that we were making narratively that we — none of us had just ever seen before on television, you know? In the second episode when Damon comes home late, and he's been out on the town with, you know, with his friend Ricky, and she gives him a sex talk.
BLANCA: Sit down...
STEVEN CANALS: You know, this trans woman of color who is serving as a surrogate mother gives this young Black gay boy a sex talk about, you know, what it means to be a sexual being with another man.
BLANCA: Did your daddy ever give you the talk?
DAMON: The talk?
BLANCA: The birds and the bees.
DAMON: Yeah, he did.
BLANCA: Well here’s no one will tell you but me. You are a good looking young man, and soon you’re going to start exploring, but you’ve got to make smart choices...now as a gay man, you have options when it comes to sex you can be a top or a bottom.
DAMON: Well, how will I know which one I am?
BLANCA: Well there’s no rulebook. Sometimes you want to give, sometimes you want to receive...
STEVEN CANALS: You know, like, there were just moments like that where we were like, "I've never seen that before. I've just — I've just literally have never seen that before." And specifically, like, that sex talk scene, I remember Ryan and I, you know, as the only two queer men in the room were like, "How great would it have been to have had that moment, to have seen that scene when we were teenagers," you know? So there were choices that we were all making narratively that we just felt like, either the audience is gonna be there or they're not. You know, like, they're gonna be behind us and they're gonna get it or they aren't. But we knew even if — even if the critics didn't love it, that there was gonna be someone out there — even if it was just one person, that one person was going to watch this show, and there were gonna be moments within this show where they were going to feel seen and heard, and that their identity was gonna be affirmed. And for all of us, that was so important. And again, just felt bigger than creating TV, you know? And so I think through Pose a door has been opened. And so, you know, I just — I feel fortunate that I get to sort of put my foot in the crack if you will, and hold it open while more folks come in.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Steven Canals is now in the midst of production on the second season of Pose. It picks up a couple years later from Season 1, opening on the day in 1990 when Madonna released her hit song “Vogue,” which borrowed heavily from the ballroom concept of vogue-ing. That second season premieres June 11th.
Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick and Rob Szypko. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.
Music and mixing by Bobby Lord.
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