'Pose': TV Review
On the surface a flamboyant and progressive depiction of New York's underground '80s ball scene, Ryan Murphy's new FX series plays more as a well-acted, inclusive family drama.
On the surface, Pose is all about outrageousness. This depiction of drag ball culture in New York circa 1987, juxtaposed against the acceleration of Manhattan's Trump-driven conspicuous consumption, boasts what FX is calling the largest cast of transgender actors and LGBTQ regulars on a scripted series. Everything about the show is outsized, from its impeccable costumes to its hit-driven soundtrack to its episodes' running times. (The shortest of four episodes sent to critics runs 58 minutes without commercials, the longest is 78 minutes.)
Pose may lead with the fabulous, and certainly that's a lot of what makes the show entertaining, but the pleasant surprise is that it also has a lot of family drama realness. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, with Murphy directing the first two episodes, Pose starts as a story about the ballroom rivalry between the House of Abundance and the break-off House of Evangelista, both committed to excellence and run by two very different den mothers. Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) is a harsh taskmaster, seemingly driven by ego but actually haunted by insecurities, some involving the fact that she's been deliberating for years whether to have gender-reassignment surgery. Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez), having just discovered she's HIV positive, wants to make a mark with her remaining time. She gathers together a plucky gang of neophytes and outsiders, including aspiring dance student Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and yearningly optimistic Angel (Indya Moore), with the watchful support of the ball circuit's enthusiastic master of ceremonies, Pray Tell (Billy Porter).
Angel is in the early days of a romance with Stan (Evan Peters), who goes home to his wife (Kate Mara's Patty) and kids in New Jersey after days working for the Trump empire under the watchful eye of Matt (James Van Der Beek), a hustler with fancy suits, a bulky mobile phone and a standing reservation at Indochine. Matt's excesses are, if anything, even more performative than anything in the world of the balls, and those excesses are what the ballroom competitors aim to achieve and surpass. Trump, entirely unseen, represents hollow braggadocio, in contrast to our real heroes' sincere pageantry. Still, as good as Van Der Beek is at embodying this type of Wall Street swagger, the Trump stuff feels less like an integral part of the story than an effort to be topical.
Pose is progressive in subject and casting, but its themes, structure and style are hardly radical; the series is about people craving a stable home and parental figures. We see Damon's attempt to come out to his abusive father early in the pilot and hear stories of other, similarly nightmarish experiences, so it's no wonder the characters find comfort in Blanca or Elektra sitting them down and lecturing them on safe sex or the importance of getting an education. The show's focus is on characters like Damon, a virgin who wants a monogamous relationship, and Angel, who views being a kept woman as a fairy-tale ideal, the alternatives being to walk the streets or work a booth in a Times Square peep show.
Murphy and subsequent directors aim for aesthetic and narrative familiarity rather than outre shocks (perhaps the most shocking sight in the early episodes is a sex scene treated as just an old-fashioned kiss and fade to black). The pilot contains a wacky museum heist, an audition scene essentially cribbed from Flashdance and myriad hints of Fame. Painstaking effort is made to connect Damon and his "legitimate" dance aspirations — Swain is superb — with the "fringe" choreography of the ball scene, confident that audiences will be able to draw a throughline from the mainstreaming of that ballroom culture to so much of what makes up modern dance today. The balls themselves, choreographed by Leiomy Maldonado and Danielle Polanco, and featuring a team of consultants including several members of the House of Xtravaganza, are shot with exuberance and polish; they resemble the most joyous reality TV show ever.
Familiarity, however, isn't the same as homogenization. Early episodes prove that Pose is versatile, capable of both universality and vivid specificity. The third episode, featuring an emotional family Christmas plotline, is followed by a very detailed, somewhat technical episode featuring, among other things, extensive talk of AIDS testing, surgical procedures, the factors attracting straight men to trans women and drag queens, and a body augmentation arc handled with vastly more compassion than a comparable arc on Netflix's She's Gotta Have It. Despite their length, the episodes move fast and efficiently establish the characters and their individual voices, clearly the most important part of this feast of representation. One of Angel's frequent refrains is that she just wants people to see her as "real," and that's the message of Pose as well.
The largely unknown actors are exceptional. No matter the order in the credits or on the call sheet, Rodriguez earns her status as the show's star, doing her best work in the quieter scenes of a fairly loud show. Jackson initially dominates with Elektra's cattiness, but locates the character's pain as she goes along. Moore gives Angel the kind of confidence that other characters comment on, plus a fragility and sweetness that the story needs. Kudos also to castmembers Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross. If Pose gets any sort of traction, you can expect Kinky Boots Tony winner Billy Porter to be in Emmy conversations a year from now; his Pray Tell combines emcee bravado (a la Cabaret) with nurturing.
There's an introductory quality to the opening episodes of Pose. Murphy and his fellow creators want viewers to be immersed, but they're also mindful of those unfamiliar with the rites and rules of the ball circuit; the show anticipates many of the questions certain viewers might have. Opinions on that approach may vary, but for now it looks like a winning strategy: Pose is poignant, funny and completely accessible, whether you've been part of this community or your only point of reference is Madonna's "Vogue" video.
Cast: MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, Angelica Ross, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Billy Porter, Dyllon Burnside, Evan Peters, Kate Mara, James Van Der Beek, Charlayne Woodard
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals
Premieres: Sunday, June 3, 9 p.m. ET/PT (FX)