Category is: Ryan Murphy one-hour dramas based on a historic real-life counter-culture phenomenon!
When it was announced that the guy who created Glee and American Horror Story was helming a show following the 1980s ball scene of New York City, red flags immediately went up as Murphy is known for Murphy-izing subject matter into a hyperreality that’s sensational, over-the-top and oftentimes campy — but that is in his wheelhouse, and he is unapologetic about it. Admittingly, I’m not a devout passenger that rides the Murphy train. If I happen to hitch a ride on one of his many properties, I usually offboard halfway through the season (if not earlier).
But based on the first four episodes of Pose, this FX drama may be the first Murphy journey that I will watch from start to finish.
Pose, which premieres Sunday at 9 PM, is not just the start of another one of Murphy’s long list of projects, but it is a history lesson in LGBTQ culture. Set in ’80s New York City during the era of shoulder-padded boldness, the drama dives into the ball culture, a counterculture movement steeped in queerness and defiance.
Before I get into my thoughts on Pose, here’s a little background on the ball scene that will make this review easier to unpack. During the ’80s, members of the LGBTQ youth would gather for “balls” where they would compete and “walk” in various categories of costumes and vogueing in front of a panel of judges. Those who participated were members of houses which had a house mother. They would compete against other houses in various categories for trophies and, most of all, glory and bragging rights. Think of ball scene as a team sporting event but with a lot more fabulousness, ferociousness and tons of style and lace front wigs.
Balls were essentially an event for misfits and outcasts of society where they can be themselves in a safe space with their peers and without judgment — but there was plenty of shade thrown if your costume or vogueing skills were anything less than slay-worthy. That said, Madonna was not the high priestess of vogueing. She did what she does best: take something from underground/counterculture and curate it into the mainstream.
Now that the history lesson is over, let’s move on.
With the iconic documentary Paris is Burning as the standard for everything ball-related, Pose had a lot to live up to. Then again, Paris is Burning was a real-life documentary, whereas Pose is fiction, so if you’re expecting something similar to Paris, then put those expectations at bay because Murphy didn’t make a Xerox copy. In the first episode, we are introduced to the House of Abundance, headed by the sharp-tongued and domineering house mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson). As they plan for their next ball, Elektra asks her children what category they should walk. The well-meaning and moral center of the series, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), suggests they walk in “royal” wear, an idea Elektra reframes as her own.
Elektra takes her family and they rob a museum’s exhibit of royal wardrobe — which I find very unbelievable considering it was a New York City museum, but hey, it was the ’80s. Security wasn’t as tight back then, I guess.
Nonetheless, they slay the ball in their sickening gowns and walk away winners, but Blanca isn’t satisfied because of the way Elektra stole her idea and continues to humiliate her and the rest of the family. She says she is going to start her own house and Elektra laughs in her face.
Determined, Blanca starts her own family with Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), an aspiring dancer who was violently kicked out of his house when his parents find out he is gay; Angel (Indya Moore), a fellow House of Abundance refugee; as well as street hustler Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and, later, Damon’s boyfriend Ricky (Dyllon Burnside). She calls her house the House of Evangelista (named after the famed supermodel, obviously). This establishes the battle of the houses of which the entire series is based.
There’s a specific fabulousness about Pose that can easily just be window dressing for an empty drama based on a soulful era in LGBTQ history. Pose works best when it serves up some ball culture realness and queer-oriented narrative which is mostly attributed to its cast of transgender actors and a writers room that includes Janet Mock and Our Lady J, two trans women at the forefront in Hollywood.
With its storytelling perspective from trans people, there is a thoughtfulness and narrative authenticity to Pose that is not felt in other Murphy shows. Murphy’s stamp of oversaturated visuals and TV richness is ever-present in Pose, but you can tell that there was extra care in handling this story because it’s not a wildly bloody horror anthology, true crime retelling or a show about a bunch of high schoolers belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” at a regional singing competition. This is a story that never gets told and Murphy wanted to get it right — and he does with a jam-worthy soundtrack of songs that range from Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” and 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love.” Even though some of the songs in the series do not coincide with the era of Pose, I can look past that because it’s inspired me to make a Spotify playlist inspired by the show.
Sure, it’s groundbreaking that Pose has the largest transgender cast in the history of television, but if those trans characters have no nuance, then it does no justice to the community and it’s just bad TV. Pose gives different layered narratives to its core characters and explores sexual and gender identity and how they interact with each other, mainstream society and ’80s New York, which included hyper-transphobia outside and within the LGBTQ community, the growth of the greed-is-good Donald Trump empire, and the tragic AIDS epidemic — all are folded into the show as vital plot points that push the story forward rather than shoehorned necessities.
Rodriguez is certainly a standout as Blanca bringing a humanity, humility and soul to the series. In the first episode, she is diagnosed as HIV-positive which fuels her determination to live her best life for her and her house — especially Damon. Like a mother, she is strict but fair as she raises him to do right and enrolls him in a prestigious dance school. On the flipside, you have Elektra who is brash, rude, and will step on anyone to get what she wants. Her Alexis Colby-esque flair adds lots of soapy moments of lashing out, but at the same time, she tones it down to show vulnerability when she struggles with her decision to get gender reassignment surgery. She balances out Blanca’s warmth and heart, making a good mother-bad mother dynamic that is a solid foundation for the series. Whether or not it will crumble beyond four episodes is yet to be seen, but I have an enormous amount of hope that Mock, Our Lady J, Rodriguez, Jackson and company will not let this series go off the rails.
Moore, who appeared in Damon Cardasis’ indie LGBTQ-driven musical drama Saturday Church alongside Rodriguez, is easily another standout. As Angel, she delivers a softspoken performance that breathes gorgeous confidence, but at the same time, she is vulnerable — specifically when she develops a relationship with Stan (Evan Peters). Peters finds a solace and fascination with Angel that he is not getting from his home life with his basic wife Patty (Kate Mara) or his boss Matt played by James Van Der Beek, who delightfully leans into his douchiness as they both work for Trump (yup, Murphy folded Trump into his repertoire again). And I would be remiss to not mention the force that is Billy Porter. The Tony Award-winning actor of Kinky Boots shines and gives a jolt of glam as ball emcee Pray Tell who isn’t just a tertiary character but crucial to the show’s narrative — that goes for all the characters. Murphy has mapped out enough characters to sustain the series — something he excels at — to leave the door open to more storylines.
Murphy fits in a lot in the first half of Pose, but it isn’t forced or pandering — but there are times when it can be a bit extra. Then again, I wouldn’t expect anything less from him. From Blanca getting kicked out of a gay bar for being trans to Damon’s first Fame-like journey (he is giving off some major Leroy vibes) and Angel’s general flawless presence, Pose delivers a marriage of Paris is Burning and Rent that lives, breathes and slays in the Murphy TV universe.