There’s a lot going on in Pose, the new FX drama that explores the origins of New York’s ball culture, but little of it feels superfluous. The opening sequence alone is packed with introductions, finery fit for queens, a heist, choreography—and every entertaining bit of it is significant. Not a single stitch is dropped in crafting this memorable and meaningful first impression.
That thoughtfulness runs throughout the first half of this vibrant, extravagant series from creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, the latter of whom had been trying to execute this vision since 2003. After teaming up with Murphy and Falchuk, Canals moved forward with his story of the marginalized groups that spring up even among the already disenfranchised. And Pose is unflinching in its portrayal of the racism and transphobia that exist in the LGBTQ community, but the show seems more interested in protecting its characters from further abuse. Here, it’s queer people’s joy and ambition, instead of their suffering, that drives the story.
In that same whirlwind of an opening, we meet the members of House Of Abundance, including the imperious Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and ambitious Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), whose rivalry is at the core of Pose. When Blanca feels the need to secure her legacy, she establishes her own house, the House Of Evangelista (named after then-“upstart” model Linda Evangelista). Elektra makes her displeasure known with exquisite elocution and intermittent trouncing of the newcomers, led by her former disciple. These dance-floor battles are frequently the most breathtaking moments of the show, but Murphy’s latest onscreen feud is a clean fight; the house mothers trade plenty of barbs and disdainful looks, but their competition is equally marked by a grudging mutual admiration. Instead, the reading is primarily left up to Pray Tell (series MVP Billy Porter), a ball emcee possessed of a withering wit that belies his great affection for Blanca and her scrappy mentees.
The creative team behind Pose—including Janet Mock and Transparent scribe Lady J—wants to move the discussion of ball culture (and more generally, drag culture) beyond touchstones like Paris Is Burning. Not that the show is in any way dismissive of its creative forebears; it’s actually quite reverential, with frequent nods to Jennie Livingston’s documentary throughout. But Pose aims to expand the understanding (especially for the uninitiated) of just how these houses worked as creative springboards as well as places of refuge. Blanca quickly takes in another Abundance defector and trans woman, Angel (a radiant Indya Moore); teenage dancer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), who was kicked out of his home for being gay; and even Lil’ Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), despite his utter lack of skill. Even Elektra, despite her seeming disdain for everyone around her, offers guidance for multiple trans women at the House Of Abundance. These chosen families spar with each other (and among themselves), but they also share a sense of community.
Pose is easily the warmest of all of Murphy’s series, but it’s not without conflict. Aside from Elektra and Blanca’s sporadically friendly competition, this period drama addresses transphobia, homophobia, the growing AIDS crisis—and the callous indifference of the Reagan administration toward the disease—economic inequality, as well as the disproportionately high rate of homelessness among trans and gay youth. Impressively, the sprawling scope of the show is rarely an issue, but it does struggle to establish a sense of place. On Pose, New York is both a beacon and potential doom for the characters, yet it rarely ever looks forbidding. There’s little evidence of the grimy metropolis of yesteryear, and far too much time and effort is spent at Trump Tower. It’s where Stan (Evan Peters) works under Matt (James Van Der Beek). The Dawson’s Creek alum is as game and vaguely sociopathic as ever, but Matt only exists to tout conspicuous consumption. Even Stan is a second-string character; his relationship with Angel, a sex worker, is one of several ways the show investigates class divide and gender constructs. But because she’s rightly the focus, their story is infinitely more compelling when they’re ensconced in their hideaway, far from that glass-and-steel monument to ego.
The series is ultimately more mindful of keeping Stan in his place than Matt, whose presence comes across as a clumsy attempt at timeliness. But that’s the rare stumble in this exciting first season, which is an earnest and loving showcase for the lives of LGBTQ people. Early on, when Blanca tells Damon that ball culture centers and celebrates lives “that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration,” that assessment could serve as the mission statement for Pose, whose creators have taken great care to make it one of the most inclusive shows on TV. Not only does it boast one of the largest trans casts ever, but there are also trans writers and consultants working behind the scenes. Blanca’s words speak to the obligation that Murphy et al. feel in getting such a groundbreaking premise right. Occasionally, this leads to the characters—namely, Blanca and Pray Tell—being more saintly than relatable, and the storytelling bordering on a history lesson. But it’s hard to hold a preference for heartwarming moments over heartbreaking ones against the show, especially when its creators are motivated by a reality that’s frequently the opposite. Pose has many excesses, and that level of consideration is just among the more positive ones.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run weekly.