Stop the real world, have some fun ... simply press ‘Pose’
A delightful drama and comedy series set in the late 1980s LGBTQI community of New York City
What is it?
Pose is the latest series by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the brilliant minds behind Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and American Crime Story. It’s a drama and comedy set in the late 1980s LGBTQI, mostly African-American, New York ball scene.
I don’t know what ‘ball scene’ is — care to explain?
In a nutshell, balls were safe spaces for the queer, poor and mostly black community of New York City in the 1980s: like a dance competition mixed with a fashion show, a beauty pageant and a Comedy Central roast. (The brilliant 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning explores not only the balls, but their purpose and the stories behind the different “houses” and the “mothers” who run them.)
As the character Blanca (played by MJ Rodriguez) explains in Pose: “Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else [and] a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.”
Got it. So what’s Pose about? The balls are a prominent feature in each episode of this show, but they are the sparkly and catty backdrop to a bigger story. At its heart (and it has a lot of heart) Pose is a story of people trying to get by with what they’ve got, and refusing to let their circumstances win.
While it is groundbreaking because it’s an LGBTQI story not centred around white characters (think Will & Grace, Looking, The Normal Heart etc), and it has the largest cast of trans actors to ever appear on screen, Pose is also important because it reinterprets the mainstream TV version of what family is and what it means. With each scene, the characters slowly reveal themselves and you learn a bit more about them beyond the lipstick, jewels, sharp nails, sharper eyeliner, sassiness, and the witty insults they trade.
Blanca, the de facto lead character, is trying to heal herself by healing others; Elektra (Dominique Jackson) – with cheekbones to die for and Naomi Campbell’s physique and energy – isn’t as self-assured as she pretends to be; Angel (Indya Moore) is more complex and wounded than her sweet face and stereotypically feminine form give away; and Pray Tell (the electric Billy Porter) hides so much pain and despondence behind his brutally witty takedowns of participants in the balls he emcees. It’s easy to identify with some struggles the characters face – you don’t have to be trans or queer to relate. But I imagine for trans men and women, the show probably strikes more nerves than it does for the cis-gendered and heterosexual.
Is it any good?
It’s brilliant. The show, which originally aired on the FX channel last year, is finally on Netflix SA – and it’s worth all the praise US media and audiences heaped upon it. It’s funny, it’s witty, it’s a spectacle – but more importantly, it humanises its various trans and gay characters. It has a raw honesty that will make you cry one moment and laugh the next. The dialogue is excellent; the storylines can be a little cheesy and simplistic sometimes but it’s mostly top quality storytelling.
While the storyline featuring Stan (played by Murphy favourite Evan Peters, who has appeared in the American Horror Story anthology series and Scream Queens), and Angel is great (it’s a beautiful exploration of love outside the boundaries of sexuality), Stan and his own backstory are given too much prominence with very little payoff for the viewer. In fact, it feels like Murphy thought: “Wait, there’s no white guy in this show!” Enter Stan, stage left.
The always arresting Kate Mara (House of Cards), who plays his wife Patty, also feels a little meaningless. But one thing about Stan that adds dimension to Pose is his professional life – his climb up the corporate ladder and his relationship with his boss, Matt (James van der Beek – yes, Dawson in Dawson’s Creek) gives us an important glimpse into Trump’s 1980s golden corporate America – the same world those at the balls pretend to be accepted by come nighttime.
In the eight one-hour episodes of its first season, Pose also skillfully and cleverly explores the 1980s Aids hysteria as well as transphobia, racism and classism in the LGBTQI community (it wasn’t – and still isn’t – a safe space for all).
In one scene, Elektra says to Blanca: “You have something rarer than beauty ... You have heart, and you’re not afraid to lead with it.” The same could be said of Pose.
• Pose has been renewed for season two, due sometime this year. You can stream season one on Netflix.