Popularized by the Madonna hit “Vogue” and the 1991 Jennie Livingston documentary Paris is Burning, 1980s NYC ballroom culture was an anatomical study of life among society’s most disposable and marginalized human beings. Amid strobe lights, pulsating house music and highly stylized posing, vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community would score the validation and victory denied them by the straight world via glamorous dance contests. They would find in each other what they couldn’t find in the families that had birthed and then tossed them out for being different: a purpose, an identity and, often, a family. For many, unfortunately, it would also be on borrowed time due to a certain deadly contagion. But, as depicted on Ryan Murphy’s eight-episode TV series Pose (which premiered on FX in June and has been renewed for a second season) even with the ominous specter of AIDS looming like a toxic mushroom cloud, humanity intervened.
Embodying this spirit best is Blanca (the charismatic transgender actress MJ Rodriguez), a kind and wise HIV-positive woman (also transgender) desperate to leave a legacy of love before the still-dormant virus kills her. She does this by taking under her wing several young cast-offs with whom she forms a family. Named “House of Evangelista” for the 1990s iconic supermodel, its members include Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a homeless gay dancer, and Angel (Indya Moore), a transgender sex worker. Angel’s affair with the married Stan (Evan Peters) both illuminates and merges the jarring extremes of two distinct universes: the underground-ball scene, with its lost souls, and Trump Tower, where New Jersey wannabes like Stan and his yuppie, douchebag boss, Matt Bromley (James Van Der Beek), work. Thankfully, a crass 1980s impersonation of you-know-who is nowhere to be seen, although he is referenced.
AIDS loomed like a toxic mushroom cloud.
The foray into this bourgeois enclave does seem gratuitous, cheesy and contrived on the part of Murphy and co-creators Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals to capitalize on the Trump presidency. On its own, focusing on anemic subplots like the barely existent triangle between Stan, wife Patty (talented Kate Mara, mostly wasted) and Matt, the uptown narrative falters. It’s only when that milieu collides with the more interesting drag scene, when Stan is torn between his desire for totems of respectability — wife, family, house in the ‘burbs — and his desire for his trans mistress Angel, that Pose regains its footing.
Some of the characterizations are also problematic. With her exaggerated preening and over-the-top, grande dame mannerisms, Dominique Jackson’s Elektra, the show’s chief antagonist in the ball scene (and Blanca’s nemesis), is a grotesque caricature; you wonder at times if she’s auditioning to play Cruella de Vil. Unlike Blanca, who uses tenderness and encouragement to “mother” her house, Elektra, head of the House of Abundance, bullies and threatens her “family,” seeing them only as a means to win more trophies. Later, after Elektra is abandoned by all of them, even her sugar daddy (Chris Meloni), her vulnerability finally appears beneath her hard, if glitzy, exterior.
Pose is an unexpected delight.
Despite these shortcomings, Pose is an unexpected delight. It is a moving, occasionally corny, tale of two cities: one poor, but full of pluck and fortitude; one soulless and greedy — much like the man whose last name blares in garish gold in the facade of the building where Stan works.
Pose is also a powerful reminder of how far the LGBTQ+ community has traversed from the show’s late-1980s time period, when HIV was a death sentence, gay marriage was an unthinkable concept, and the closet was often the only recourse for those who aspired to reach even the lowest rung of the proverbial American Dream.
Besides Rodriguez, another cast standout is Tony Award winner Billy Porter. As Pray Tell, the ball’s bitchy, one-line spouting emcee, he is a tour de force, dazzlingly brilliant — and never more so than the episode in which he assures his lover, dying of AIDS, that he will try to move on after his death. That Pray Tell is himself HIV-positive, a fact he has shared with no one other than confidante Blanca, gives extra pathos and poignancy to this scene.
Even if Pose was drivel (which it isn’t), it makes history as the first mainstream TV series starring transgender actresses. That is no mean feat, even in today’s far more progressive times. In fact, it’s revolutionary.