Pose, Ryan Murphy’s latest show on FX, will hopefully go down as one of Murphy’s best, if not one of the best shows period of 2018. It’s not just television for television’s sake; it’s television that teaches, inspires, and of course, entertains like good TV should.
The show is the first to hire multiple trans women as leading characters (trans women of color at that) as well as hire trans women as consultants and writers, including writer/activist Janet Mock, pianist, singer and Transparent writer Our Lady J and and dancer/choreographer Leiomy Maldonado. With this show, it’s not about pretending to be trans and “learning” about the struggles and triumphs of the LGBT community. These stars and women behind the scenes live this truth every day, which brings a singular authority to the show.
That authority is present in Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who has a dream for stardom, a dream she realizes won’t come to fruition if she stays in her current house, the House of Abundance. She’s hungry to carve out her own mark on society, especially since she’s reckoning with her own mortality after being diagnosed with HIV (the series is set in 1987, and while the scariness of the AIDS epidemic was just beginning to turn towards a more stable existence, the stigma was–and in some cases, still is–deeply rooted). She knows the pain of losing the love of her family, something that endears her to Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain, a Birmingham, AL native and my youngest sister’s former public school classmate), a dancer who has been kicked out of his home by his homophobic parents and left to live on the New York streets. He becomes Blanca’s first member of her new house, the House of Evangelista.
The house mother over Abundance, Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), also commands that authority of trans womanhood. However, instead of being the show’s good force, she’s the show’s villain. Dressed in clothes that evoke both Diahann Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty and Jasmine Guy’s Whitley Gilbert on A Different World, Elektra prides herself on being able to “pass” as a woman in transphobic 1980s America and get treated “like a rich white woman” in stores, but as for right now, it seems like most of her pride hinges on her looks; she steals ideas from Blanca (part of why Blanca decides to leave) and insults her work ethic and her looks, telling her she can barely pass. Surely, this negative exterior covers something much more wounded–in the preview for this season, we see her in a bedroom with a white (presumed rich) man, a man who probably also has a wife and kids. I’m just spitballing here, but I’d imagine she keeps this side of her life to herself so her house children won’t see that she also takes love where she can find it, even if that love isn’t real.
In this vein, Elektra might have more in common with her former house daughter Angel (Indya Moore, pictured above in the gilded frame) than she realizes. Angel, who transfers to Blanca’s House of Evangelista, is a sex worker who is beginning to fall in love with one of her clients, Stan (Evan Peters). Stan is also falling in love with her, or rather, he’s quickly becoming obsessed with her, even though he has a wife (Kate Mara) and children as well as a new high-paying job in Trump Tower under the hedonistic, yuppie eye of Matt Bromley (James Van Der Beek). As expected, Stan accosts Angel when she turns up at Trump Tower (she was originally there to try and get a job at a small boutique, but she was discriminated against because of her race and for being trans). For Stan, appearances are everything, but even still, he somehow finds the gall to drive to Angel’s corner at night, expecting her to hop in (which, unfortunately she does).
We’ve yet to learn more about the other trans characters, Lulu Abundance and Candy Abundance (Hailee Sahar and Angelica Ross, respectively), but their time is coming; we already know from character descriptions that Candy and Lulu are suck-ups to Elektra, but they secretly hate her. To me, that seems to suggest that they’re planning for a coup at some point so one of them can become the next mother of the legendary house.
To put it in Alabama college football terms (since that’s where I live), the rivalry of the Houses of Evangelista and Abundance is like the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn or Alabama State versus Alabama A&M. Even though Evanglista might be new, the rivalry is already deep and intricate, and since they will be circling in each other’s orbit, they’re bound to split the ballroom down the middle in terms of factions. Thankfully there’s someone like Pray Tell (Billy Porter), aspiring fashion designer, ballroom emcee and “grandfather to all the legendary children who compete in the house balls.” He helps guide Blanca and her new house while simultaneously dragging them when they need it if they’re messing up on the ballroom floor. Case in point: When Blanca challenges Elektra before her house is fully formed, she pays the price and Evangelista loses. Even though they racked up a considerable amount of 9s and 10s, Pray Tell tells them afterwards he feels they should have been given a lot less. But even in their loss, they inspire others to join their cause, like Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), a b-boy who wants to learn how to vogue.
Overall, I found the show to be exciting, fresh, and honestly, I think it should be required viewing for some out there, especially those who are intensely homophobic or just plain ignorant. The scene when Damon’s parents throw him out–not without his dad beating him first–is visceral and heartbreaking, and parents with LGBT children should probably give this show a watch so they can see how it feels for the child when their parents disown them. Parents can be selfish sometimes, thinking about how their kids reflect on them, when instead, they should figure out how they can nurture their children, regardless of their sexuality, to be the best they can be. The things Damon’s parents were worried about–dance, disco music, and a dirty magazine–aren’t enough to throw their child away like garbage. Hopefully there will be an episode where they come to their senses.
There are some parts that I found overexpository, but I think that just might be because I have personally invested tons of time in learning about ball culture, including watching Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary this show is loosely inspired by. I already know what “walking” is, what houses are and what house mothers do, and what a house represents to its members. But others watching the show might not know that, especially if they’re young viewers whose exposure to the LGBT community and LGBT culture is limited to just what’s “mainstream.” So for that reason, I won’t knock the exposition too much. The New York Times‘ James Poniewozik, for example, didn’t think the show was overexpository, and perhaps that relates to how much he did or didn’t know about ball culture before diving into Pose. (This is just an assumption, though: I won’t pretend to know his life.)
There were certainly two parts I found particularly hokey. The first is the extravagant beginning scene in which the House of Abundance steals historical royal artifacts from the museum, which somehow results in them being arrested but not going to jail for an extended amount of time. How’d they get out of jail? How did they not get charged with stealing? Out of everyone who has discriminated against them in the show, how is it the New York City Police Department in 1987 does the least damage?
The other moment being Damon’s last-ditch dance audition, which was choreographed by Ryan Heffington. Usually, I like Heffington’s work, but IDK about Damon’s audition; if I were Helena St. Clair (Charlayne Woodard), the dean of the New School of Dance, would I have accepted Damon? Maybe I’m just tough, but I might have told him to reapply in the fall when his skills were more polished. I know I’m no dancer, but you know, armchair quarterback. Maybe I’m just being too harsh. I guess what I’m saying is that if I were judging him, I’d want him to tell me, a judge, a story. Instead the story was directed at the viewing audience–we got the arc we were supposed to see of him struggling to get out of his shell enough to dance his heart out–but there wasn’t enough skill directed at the judges to make them convincingly decide to take him on as a late-minute addition. Am I making any sense here? If not, that’s fine.
There’s also something that could be said about slight colorism; it didn’t go past me that the “good” character is lighter than the “bad” character. I know Elektra isn’t necessarily “bad,” just “misunderstood,” and I’m sure with the amount of trans women behind the scenes, there will be proper attention paid to her character. I’m just saying that the optics are still there.
But overall, Pose is fantastic. It’s a breath of fresh air and I hope it inspires others who have always wanted to showcase their stories but felt like no one would listen. Pose is proof that people will listen. Even if you don’t think people are ready for your story, Pose proves why it’s important to tell it anyways; you never know who will be inspired to live out their dreams.