Dance and Musical Realness from the 1980s Queer Scene
Streaming on Netflix | 2018 | TV-MA | 1 Season
Why We Watched: When a new Murphy–Falchuk project hits FX, I'm always up for it. Sure, it might implode halfway through—I'm looking at you, AHS "Coven" and Scream Queens—but that's half the fun! I'm here for their brand of over-the-top weirdness, and so can move past all the plot holes and didacticism that come along with that. Pro Tip: I firmly believe in the power of the binge when it comes to overlooking the stumbling blocks that tend to bog down their series. As much as I was eager to watch Pose, I waited for it to push to Netflix last month rather than watching it as it aired live on FX. (And honestly, who can stand those commercial breaks?)
You Might Also Like: If you're not familiar with Jennie Livingston's 1991 Paris Is Burning (on Netflix), I'd suggest you watch the 70-minute documentary before binging Pose. The FX series fictionalizes the subculture that Paris Is Burning recorded, that of black and Latinx men and transgender women who competed in the 1980s New York drag ball scene. The film was a surprise arthouse hit, winning a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and becoming a landmark film in queer cinema.
It's 1987 and HIV/AIDS is ransacking the gay community. The first case of AIDS was reported in 1981, and over the course of the next seven years, 47,993 people would die of the disease. (That number will reach 448,060 by the end of the millennium.) But when she discovers that she is HIV-positive, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) decides to fuck death and live life: She's ready to get out from under the shadow of the legendary Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) to start her own house as the Mother of the Evangelistas.
If you're not familiar with the world of mothers, houses, balls, and categories, then buckle your seatbelts! FX's Pose follows the New York City's ballroom scene, where black and Latinx gay men and transgender women would compete in elaborate drag competitions under their house's moniker. "A house is a gay street gang," an interviewee explains in Paris is Burning. "Now, where street gangs get their rewards from street fights, a gay house street fights at a ball. And you street fight at a ball by walking in the categories."
For those gay men and trans women who were ostracized by their birth parents and society, a house is a family. That's the story of Blanca's first recruit, Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a black cis gay teen who is living on a park bench after coming to the city from Pennsylvania, when his parents kicked him out. Ostracization is also the story of Angel, a trans sex worker who becomes the mistress of the very married up-and-coming yuppie Stan Bowes (Murphy and Falchuk regular Evan Peters). Damon dreams of becoming a dancer and Angel craves safety; Blanca, as their mother, helps them find their way.
Pose is melodramatic camp at its finest, leaning into the performativity that underpins the ballroom scene. In the first episode, the House of Abundance flees from an art museum with bright and feathery costumes in tow, running straight to the ball where they win the Royalty category, only to be arrested on the runway. Elektra Abundance recalls Bette Davis in All About Eve as she throws stunningly written burns at her younger counterpart Blanca ("Not much of a house with only one bitch in it. More like a studio apartment.") The Houses of Evangalista and Abundance's feud is the story engine, but the side plots are numerous—Angel and Stan's affair, Damon's dance career, Stan's rise in the Trump Organization (where Dawson's Creek's James Van Der Beek is his schezy boss!), the pervasiveness of HIV/AIDS, struggles with drugs and homelessness. Sure, the series does at times feel a bit kitchen-sink-ish—as if Pose is trying to fit every 1980s story into one 1980s story. But as I noted earlier, that's why this is a good binge. If you feel your attention drifting, just hang in there. The next category is sure to please!
Pose is most likely to deviate from originality toward more after-school-special plotlines when its characters are in crisis. When ball emcee Pray Tell (Tony Award-winning Billy Porter) grieves at his boyfriend's death from AIDS, the show follows up with an episode in which all of the characters get tested for HIV. Similarly, when Stan's wife Patty (Kate Mara) visits the gynecologist, the dialogue is a bit heavy-handed in its display of the homophobic and sexist nature of the era's medical care. But if imbibing social justice lessons alongside entertaining dance numbers isn't what you expected from this project, you clearly missed the phenomenon known as Glee. (And, well, if you somehow did miss Glee, now you know what to expect!)
I hate to say things are politically groundbreaking because it feels like people assume that means a project isn't also entertaining and formally brilliant. Pose is all of these things. The series marks the first time this subcultural world has been visualized for mainstream audiences, and it's clear that rather than hedge its bets, FX spared no expense. Between elaborate costumes, an A-list cast and crew, indoor and outdoor/daytime and nighttime scenes, and a primetime slot, the network spent a fortune. And it even signed on for a second season—which premieres on June 11, 2019—prior to seeing how the series did on Netflix. Also noteworthy, Pose has the largest ever transgender cast in a television series, with only trans actors playing trans characters.
In the words of Pray Tell, this show is giving us fierce realness. I wish I could watch this season for the first time again, it's honestly that good. Enjoy it, y'all!
Happy streaming, Liz