Image: Pose (FX)

“Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else.” And just like that, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) ushers new-in-town Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) into the glistening, restorative world of NYC ball culture in the 1980s, where queer and trans people of color have carved out a place for themselves, their dreams, their beauty.

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Moments later, they burst into that world, Blanca opening the door for Damon into a place he has never been before, a place where he can be himself completely, without hesitation, without fear. The look on his face says it all: He has been waiting his whole life for a place like this. In its movie-length pilot, Pose, FX’s newest Ryan Murphy production, harnesses that overwhelming feeling of inclusion and acceptance, of feeling like home. The result is an immersive, emotional, complex celebration of queer joy and resistance.

Pose pushes the marginalized front and center, telling the stories of people often left out of mainstream narratives set in New York. Film and television more often tells the stories of characters like Stan (Evan Peters) and Patty (Kate Mara), a white married couple from Jersey dazzled by the wealth and excess of Manhattan’s money-flaunting upper-class. Stan literally gets a job at Trump Tower, the epicenter of the emerging 1%, embodied by Stan’s boss Matt (James Van Der Beek), a Wolf Of Wall Street-esque business brute who inhales cocaine and throws his wealth around. In Pose though, these characters become the side players rather than the focus.

Rather, this is the story of Blanca, an HIV-positive trans woman who leaves House of Abundance (“A house is a family you get to choose,” she tells Damon) to become a house mother, someone who brings in and guides people who have been rejected by their birth families, of her own. It’s the story of Damon, a talented dancer who wants to be a star and Blanca’s first adoptee. It’s the story of Angel, a trans woman and sex worker who also leaves House of Abundance to follow her friend Blanca down a new path. It’s the story of Pray Tell, the aspiring fashion designer and loving but tough father of the ball scene.

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It’s the story of how people pushed to the side carved out a space for themselves, found a way to honor their inner truths and to celebrate the very things that society condemned them for. Television has never shown the queer and trans ball world before, and the fact that Pose does so on such a big-budget, cinematic production scale feels invigorating.

In its pilot, Pose spotlights joy, glamour, and fun. The first sequence, of Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) and her children gleefully pulling off a heist at a museum—all for the sake of winning at the ball with their regal realness—sets that tone. That’s not to say that Pose glosses over the more painful parts of its characters’ narratives. Blanca’s HIV test results are given on-screen, and she talks about not wanting to die in the first of several powerful monologues that Rodriguez nails over the course of the pilot. Damon’s father thrashes him with a belt after Damon comes out as both a dancer and as gay. Blanca shares her own stories of having to hide who she was when she lived at home over a diner meal with Damon. Angel is crushed by the realization that she’ll never get her prince charming, never be granted romantic agency in a world that doesn’t accept her as beautiful.

Pose crucially acknowledges its characters’ trauma without making it the sole focus, without becoming indulgent trauma porn. Too often, stories about queer and trans black and brown people feel exploitive and voyeuristic. But Pose’s greatest act of resistance might be its fierce and unwavering assertion that these characters have found community, safety, and happiness in each other. Balls and houses, after all, are places of healing and love that transcends conventional definitions of family and friendship. That love is shown in the way Angel and Blanca talk to each other and in the budding relationship between Blanca and Damon. She becomes his mother very quickly, pushing him to apply to dance school, advocating for him and his dreams in a way that no one has ever done for him before.

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Damon’s arc over the course of the episode is powerfully reproduced in the pilot’s grand finale. He has to dance before the school’s dean in a high-stakes audition that Blanca secures for him even though he missed the application deadline (another impassioned monologue from Blanca does the trick). The resulting dance—set to Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”—hits all the emotional beats of Damon’s arc. He starts out unsure of himself, holding back, too worried about what the people watching might be thinking. He forces a smile, but inside, he’s panicking. Then, something shifts. Damon’s confidence builds, and it shows in his face and movements. He unlocks something within himself and lets it free, his choreography suddenly coming to life. It’s a tremendous feat of dance and acting on Swain’s part (he has training in both).

“I’d be dead if it weren’t for you,” Damon tells Blanca after the audition. His words, so raw and true, underscore the necessity, the life-saving significance of LGBTQ chosen family houses. He then tells Blanca he got in. His new mother not only gave him a home but also a shot at his dreams, which Pose suggests is a vital part of surviving, too.


Stray observations

  • Welcome to weekly coverage of Pose!
  • Best Lewk: I haven’t recovered from the sight of Angel in that regal gown at the top of the episode.
  • Best Shade: Elektra easily wins this one with “I’m going to eat you like an after-dinner Rolaid.”
  • If you haven’t heard these stats yet, they’re worth highlighting: Pose features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles in TV history. Later episodes were written by Janet Mock and Our Lady J. Pose centers trans talent, which is a crucial part of good representation.
  • Turning in a pilot that clocks in a an hour and 17 minutes is very Ryan Murphy (he co-wrote the pilot with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals and directed it), but I surprisingly don’t find the episode overstuffed. Every scene matters, and Murphy’s proclivity for doing the most is actually welcome in this case.
  • I do hope Patty becomes a more fully realized character, because right now she’s just simply… the clueless wife. We get a glimmer of her inner personality when she talks about the lobster, but that’s about it.
  • There’s an element of cishet voyeurism in Stan, who Angel accuses of “window shopping” after he repeatedly drives past the corner where she’s working.
  • Blanca’s house rules: Take your vitamins, stay safe (avoid white boys), and pursue an education. I love how quickly she becomes a tough mother who just wants the best for her children.

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