“Pose,” like its own unsung heroes, is revolutionary.
FX’s new drama devotes the kind of attention (and budget) that typically goes to conflicted straight male antiheros to the glittering grunge of New York City’s ballroom scene circa 1987. It centers LGBTQ communities whose ambitions are so much bigger than the infinitesimal spaces society affords them. It weaves stories of triumph and steel will with the creeping terror of the AIDS epidemic that constantly reminded everyone that this one wild night could very well be their last. Its stars are lost queer teens, hopeless romantic sex workers, defiant trans matriarchs.There’s simply never been a show on TV quite like “Pose” – a fact that “Pose” knows, relishes, and celebrates.
“Pose” is also notable for being the last original series that uber-producer Ryan Murphy will produce for FX before launching a new empire at Netflix. “Pose’s” devotion to queer spectacle makes for a fitting final note, especially given Murphy’s purported business ethos of extending a hand beyond his own experiences to lift up others that would have a much harder time getting noticed without him. For one, Murphy co-created “Pose” with frequent producing partner Brad Falchuk and newcomer Steven Canals, whose script about New York’s queer scene couldn’t get made before Murphy signed on. For a significant other, “Pose” takes the rare extra step of having its trans characters be played and written by trans people who can actually speak to the experiences they’re portraying. (Episodes three and four are credited to “Transparent” writer Our Lady J and author Janet Mock, making her TV writing debut with “Pose.”)
Some will undoubtedly recognize “Pose’s” ballroom jargon from the seminal 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” whose influence is all over the series. Far more, however, will know now ubiquitous phrases like “throwing shade” and “snatching wigs” from the pop culture juggernaut that is “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the reality competition show that brought drag to the masses in 2009. While RuPaul knows he’s referencing ballroom emcees when kicking off every episode’s runway portion with “category is …”, it’s unlikely that many younger viewers have any idea that their favorite “Drag Race” catchphrases were actually coined decades ago by queer and trans people of color whose ingenuity could make even the dingiest of spaces come alive. “Pose” aims to make that oft-buried history vibrant and current, with all the glitter and heft that FX can give it.
As “Pose’s” Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) puts it to wide-eyed newcomer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) in the premiere, the ballroom scene made room for a “gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else, a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.” Balls allowed the LGBTQ community to express the kind of glamorous creativity it couldn’t elsewhere by staging elaborate and defiant spectacles of fashion, dancing, and exquisitely pointed wit. There, likeminded people could find each other, build communities as distinctive “houses,” and, more powerfully still, choose each other as family.
“Pose” introduces us to the unique magic of these chosen family dynamics by way of two competing “houses,” or collectives that band together in the name of solidarity and slaying ballroom challenges. The legendary House of Abundance is headed up by the statuesque Elektra (Dominique Jackson), who rules with a combination of killer cheekbones and acid disdain for anyone who would dare question her. The upstart House of Evangelista is born in the premiere when Blanca, once an Elektra devotee, strikes out on her own to make a name for herself and leave a lasting legacy while she still can. Elektra and Blanca disagree on most everything, but as transwomen fighting for the right to express and be themselves no matter the considerable cost, they begrudgingly respect each other’s ambition.
While House of Abundance has legacy cachet, the House of Evangelista reigns supreme as far as “Pose’s” most compelling storytelling goes. Damon’s dance dreams take some time to coalesce as a narrative, but his fellow Evangelista recruit Angel (a luminescent Indya Moore) is instantly magnetic in her search for something, anything, resembling stability. Their new house mother Blanca is equal parts warm and determined as she becomes a strong backbone for both her fledgling house and the show itself. Rodriguez is especially good when paired with Billy Porter’s Pray Tell, a gifted designer and ballroom emcee who makes it his mission to find joy in his community even as AIDS keeps tearing a devastating hole right through it.
“Pose” does make a glancing effort to include perspectives from outside the balls. Evan Peters takes a break from terrorizing innocents on Murphy’s “American Horror Story” to costar here as restless ladder climber Stan, whose beautiful wife (Kata Mara) and fancy new job at Trump Tower (yes, that Trump Tower) still can’t stave off his attraction to Angel’s sparkling smile and earnest charm. James Van Der Beek (yes, that James Van Der Beek) occasionally shows up as Stan’s oily caricature of a boss to encourage infidelity, snort cocaine, and proclaim “God bless Ronald Reagan.” Neither are particularly fascinating, but it bears repeating that on the vast majority of other TV shows out there, Peters and Beek would be the stars. On “Pose,” they’re sidenotes.
In fact, given its sprawling cast of characters and perpetually swollen runtime (each of the first four episodes runs at least an hour long), “Pose” can sometimes feel like it’s tackling everything all at once just because it can. But it proves just about impossible to hold “Pose’s” ambition against it. In true House of Murphy tradition, “Pose” is blunt and opulent, confident in its individuality and palpably eager to please. Even when it stumbles, it’s hard not to admire its electric spirit.
TV Review: ‘Pose’
Drama series (8 episodes, 4 reviewed): FX, Sun. June 3, 9 pm
Credits: Executive producers: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Alexis Martin Woodall, Sherry Marsh, Steven Canals, Silas Howard.
Cast: MJ Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Hallie Sahar, Angelica Ross, Dyllon Burnside, Angel Bismark Curiel, Billy Porter, Evan Peters, Kate Mara, James Van Der Beek.