How do you end a beloved series? How do you make sure you don’t overstay your welcome? Programs such as “Homeland,” “Shameless,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “24” all probably went a few seasons longer than necessary. For Steven Canals, the creator and executive producer of “Pose,” the decision to end the landmark FX series came much sooner than many expected.
During a conversation reflecting on his three 2021 Emmy nominations, Canals said the initial discussion about bringing the story to an end began during the hiatus between the second and third seasons. Each season of the series took a “time jump” ahead of several years, and Canals said he always saw it ending at a specific moment during the AIDS crisis. Needless to say, time was running out.
“I realized that we were getting closer and closer to what I always intended the end of the series to be, which was what you see in the show, which is 1995,” Canals says. “The HIV cocktail ’95, ’96. HIV is no longer the death sentence that it was in the eighties and nineties. Do we put the setting deep in ’92 or ’93 or ’94? I want this to end in ’94. I felt like, “O.K., I think this is it, I think this is the end because I don’t know how you stretch that out any further. the narrative has always been so deeply intentional and thoughtful, so I didn’t want to give the audience a filler season.” I think, for me, I went into the third season asking those questions that writers would. Do we stretch this out for four seasons? I’d always envisioned that the show would be no more than five. To me, it was like; it could work anywhere with three to five seasons. It just so happened that we got to what felt like the end much sooner than I think anyone else anticipated we would. But it was definitely… I wouldn’t say it was by design, but we certainly got where we needed to go. I feel good about ending it when we did.”
Canals, who has a development deal with 20th Television, reflected on the buzzworthy “Sex and the City” moment during the series finale, how the show has helped viewers find their true selves, and what’s next.
The Playlist: You earned nominations for producing, writing, and directing this year. Which one means the most to you this year?
Steven Canals: That is a hard question to answer; that’s like Sophie’s choice. Each of them is so special for different reasons. If I had to pick one, I would say the Directing nomination, solely because I worked really hard in prior seasons and particularly on that episode. I was very nervous about directing it because I just didn’t want to mess it up. The stakes felt very high. [For] the last episode, collectively, the other writers were trying really hard on that script. I just wanted whoever was going to come in to film to really elevate the material. Then, filming it, working through that process alongside my collaborators. As well as Janet Mock there and any support, emotional or otherwise. My grandmother passed away, and just the filming process, it took a lot out of me. I think that’s probably the most special one because there’s so much emotion wrapped up in it.
In that context, were you nervous before showing it to execs, critics, the public? Or, or did you have a sense of satisfaction that you nailed it?
That’s an interesting question, as well. I felt good about the material. I should say it all starts on the page. I felt really good about the script. What’s that adage about…how does it go? It’s like you can’t ruin a bat… How does it go?
I’m not sure. There are so many adages. [Laughs.]
I don’t know which one it is. There’s an adage that’s like, “you can take a bad script, and you can make it better, but you can’t take a bad filmmaker and make a script bad.” I forget how it goes, but it’s like that. I’ll just say that I felt really good about the script on the page. I thought that there were many great moments in it and what felt to me like themes that were going to resonate with the audience deeply. Then, while cutting it, it made me feel something. I think ultimately, as a storyteller, [that’s] what you always hope to accomplish. It’s like you want to put your work out in the world, and you want your audience to be moved by it if it’s a drama. I was moved by it, and I know that my editors were moved by it. I felt good about it, but you never know how it will be received until it goes out into the world. I don’t know. I’m proud that everyone else who’s watched it has felt as strongly about this episode as I did. Then, there are certain moments, which on the page were… it’s just a couple of words. Then, the audience sees it, and they have this really intense reaction to it that surprises you; for example, in the script, Our Lady J [wrote] the quick pop where the women are walking down the street heading to their lunch toward the end of the episode. I loved how she replied that it was like a “Sex in the City” moment. I was like, “Oh, I want to have a lot of fun with this.” We were in New York location scouting; I found this really beautiful cobblestone street. We were location scouting for a completely different scene. We just happened to go down the [same] street, and I was like, “Wait, stop the car. I think this is the street I need for this other scene.” I took what was on the page, and I feel like I elevated it. I heightened the moment. There are so many ways you could have played that. Then, we cut it, and I thought it was a fun pop, but then it goes out, and it’s part of the trailer for the third season, and everybody freaked out about it. Then, suddenly I was having all these conversations about that moment. There were parts of the episode that I didn’t expect to be as big as they became. That’s really special.
Were you concerned they showed a scene from the finale in the season trailer?
No, I didn’t feel that way. It wasn’t like they knew what episode those pops were coming from. If anything, I think it just elevated the excitement level for the final season. I thought it was great. I thought it was really smart.
I know that you’ve been asked this many times, and I apologize if you’ve given a definitive answer for it, but when did you guys decide that this was absolutely the final season? Was it after the first season, “Hey guys, this is a three arc story. We should just do three seasons.” Was it after the second season? Was it during COVID?
I think a combination. It started between the second and third seasons. There was already something in the water going into the third season. We had a conversation in our hiatus between seasons two and three about what year we were going to time jump to because we did a time jump every season. We actually did another time jump. Yep. We’ve always been really intentional about what year the season is going to take place. I would say for me, that’s really where I started leaning people into [the idea] and having to ask myself those tough questions about, is this the final season? Because we were discussing where to land the third season and what year the third season will take place. I realized that we were getting closer and closer to what I always intended the end of the series to be, which was what you see in the show, which is 1995—the HIV cocktail ’95, ’96. HIV is no longer the death sentence that it was in the eighties and nineties. Do we put the setting deep in ’92 or ’93 or ’94? I want this to end in ’94. I felt like, “O.K., I think this is it, I think this is the end because I don’t know how you stretch that out any further. the narrative has always been so deeply intentional and thoughtful, so I didn’t want to give the audience a filler season.” I think, for me, I went into the third season asking those questions that writers would. Do we stretch this out for four seasons? I’d always envisioned that the show would be no more than five. To me, it was like; it could work anywhere with three to five seasons. It just so happened that we got to what felt like the end much sooner than I think anyone else anticipated we would. I wouldn’t say it was by design, but we certainly got where we needed to go. I feel good about ending it when we did.
These characters are so beloved by the millions of fans who watch the show worldwide. Can you ever imagine five years from now, maybe even 10 years from now, revisiting them to see what happened to them, I don’t know, in the ’00s maybe?
Yeah. It’s funny because folks have asked that question quite a bit, and I know that the characters are beloved. Yeah, I would never say never. Obviously, I love Blanca, and I love all the characters that she loved; sometimes, that’s co-characters. I think, just as a storyteller, I’ll be curious about them. “Where are they in the world? What are they doing?” I’m curious, as the audience is. Speaking from the perspective of a Writer-Director, I think to revisit them; I would need to have interesting themes that I would be exploring. I know it’s probably hard for the audience to understand, but I told the story for three seasons, and I feel like all the things I wanted to say through these characters and through the themes that the show explored, I’ve done. I think for me, it’s like, “What new elements to the story could I add?” I think it’ll take some time for me to land on something. If I do, then I certainly would be open to revisiting these characters.
Obviously, the show has had such an impact on people in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s opened many eyes for people who may not have realized the Trans experience before watching the show. Are there any stories you’ve heard or any experiences you’ve had about the impact of the show over the past three years that have really resonated with you?
Oh my gosh, yeah, there’s tons. One of the ones that resonated the deepest for me was [when] we were invited to be part of the PaleyFest. I think it was right after our first season. When the panel ended, some of the people in the auditorium came up to the stage, just to say congratulations, [and] to introduce themselves. was getting ready to leave, and [a woman] flagged me down, and another couple of people were like, “You have to talk to her.” I walked over to say hello. She informed me that she was 60-years-old and she found out that she had cancer when the first season was airing. She was watching the show while going through her Chemo and hadn’t come out yet, hadn’t begun her transition yet. She watched the show and told herself that if I survive this, if I make it, then I have to start living my life authentically. Her cancer was in remission; she beat it. When she came out, she transitioned. That was definitely a story that meant a lot to me, and I thought it was pretty powerful and special that she shared her story with me. That’s the beauty of the show; that’s the reach of the show. But there are so many people out in the world now who are getting affirmed by these characters and the actresses on the show who are having a trans experience themselves. That’s so incredible to me that the show has impacted the audiences that way.
It was recently announced you have a deal with Twentieth to develop new shows; how hard is it to move on to something else? Or, do you have something else that you’ve wanted to work on for a while that will be your next project?
That’s a good question. It’s equal parts exciting and tough. Exciting because I have plenty of other stories that I want to tell and other themes that I’m excited to explore. Then, it’s also tough because A, I’m going to miss working with these characters and writing them and working with this task of working with the crew as the producer. I’m collectively going to miss the “Pose” family, and also tough because the truth is that it’s the first show that I’ve created, and it just became so much bigger than I ever could’ve dreamed it would be. The reach of the show is global. I’ve been invited to France, I’ve been invited to New Zealand to speak to folks about the show and to talk about my work. I’ve met the Ballroom Community in Auckland, New Zealand; it’s so incredible and beautiful. I think it’s tough because I just want to make sure that whatever the next story I tell, it also has as much impact and means as much to the audience as “Pose” has.
“Pose” season three is available on FX and FX on Hulu.