From the very first shot, which pans from a disco ball to a pair of voguing hands flexing to the beat of Taana Gardner’s classic dance hit, “Heartbeat,” I knew Pose would likely become a staple in my summer viewing schedule. True confession: In addition to being a sucker for anything fashion-related, I also swoon for ’70s-’80s nostalgia (the eras of my childhood) and retro soundtracks, and—as gruesome and problematic as it can often be—I have been showing up for creator Ryan Murphy’s particularly splashy brand of camp since Nip/Tuck.
I’m also a longtime admirer of ballroom culture, which dates back almost a century and continues today, but reached its contemporary apex (read: crossover appeal) in the ’80s to early ’90s, thanks in large part to the premiere of the groundbreaking documentary Paris Is Burning (which, if you haven’t seen, you should, before watching Pose), and Madonna’s 1990 hit single “Vogue.”
The drama of Pose, which clearly draws much of its inspiration and dialogue from Paris Is Burning (sometimes verbatim), occurs just prior to this cultural zeitgeist. Set in 1987, the underground yet over-the-top glamour of the New York City ballroom scene is juxtaposed with the real estate boom then (and now) shamelessly epitomized by Donald Trump (whose empire provides a not-so-subtle subplot) and the AIDS crisis, which was then at the forefront of American consciousness and a death knell within the gay and transgender communities.
As with most Murphy vehicles, it’s a lot of plot, as worlds collide and characters begin to develop. But what’s special about most of these characters—black and brown transgender women and gay men played by actors of the same identifications—is that they’re among the most marginalized in our society. That’s perhaps the most striking part of Pose’s premise: Thirty years after the plot’s setting, trans women of color are still the most endangered minority population in the United States, disproportionately affected by both violence and poverty.
Starring an array of lesser-known actors who rarely have opportunities to be centered on-screen, Pose introduces viewers to ballroom culture and the personalities who inhabit it—the oft-rejected gay and trans kids on the streets of New York City—from an insider’s lens. The heroine, Blanca (played by Mj Rodriguez), is our guide as she uses a terrifying diagnosis to fuel her dream of founding her own “house”—or, as she describes it, “a family you get to choose”—that will compete in “balls” for prestige and affirmation within their community.
“Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else; a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration,” she explains to her young protégé, Damon (played by newcomer Ryan Jamaal Swain).
And oh, do they celebrate. Even one episode in, the ballroom scenes in Pose prove to be big fun, in no small part because the flawless delivery of Broadway star Billy Porter as ballroom emcee and wannabe fashion designer Pray Tell. With every biting quip, his character reminds us that many of our favorite contemporary phrases originated in ballroom culture, including “work,” “gagging,” “the shade of it all” and “realness,” which is a recurrent theme in Pose.
“‘Realness’ is what it’s all about,” Blanca tells Damon. “Being able to fit into the straight, white world to embody the American dream. But we don’t have access to that dream—and it’s not because of ability, trust me.”
The American dream is another motif in Pose, whether it’s escaping rural America in search of a brighter future, reaching the top of the corporate ladder on Park Avenue, having a home and family of one’s own, or “passing” as female. “I want to be treated like any other woman; that’s my dream,” transgender prostitute and house daughter Angel (played by Indya Moore) tells her new client Stan (played by Murphy-series stalwart Evan Peters).
The pursuit of those dreams will hopefully provide some entertaining and thought-provoking summer viewing pleasure for followers of Pose, as will, of course, the fashion. There are indeed many beautiful moments in the series premiere—though far more outside the ballroom than inside it—evil house stepmother Elektra (played by Dominique Jackson) being a particularly well-sculpted and -dressed fashion plate.
Of course, Ryan Murphy’s campiness always comes with its share of cringeworthy moments, and Pose is no exception. Take, for instance, an overly long, Flashdance-inspired scene featuring an excruciatingly awkward audition by Damon, set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”—or the too predictable underdog monologue that precedes it. And New Yorkers may find themselves screaming at the screen, calling out the many inconsistencies in Pose’s locations, most of which were built well after 1987 (or even post-9/11).
But Pose’s flaws are well overshadowed by its merits, not the least of which is an unabashed celebration of queer lives of color and the centering of narratives that Trump’s America would readily eradicate altogether. And to his credit, Murphy, who also steps back into the director’s seat for Pose, doesn’t shy away from allowing his stars to shine, or for their voices to be the prominent ones in this long-overdue dialogue.
“Don’t scare the white people! Don’t scare the white folks, y’all!” Pray Tell implores a packed ballroom in the premiere. It’s a sarcastic remark, but as imperfect as the show might ultimately be, it’s impossible to ignore that the irrational and ongoing fear of so many so-called well-meaning folks is exactly why Pose is so necessary right now.