Now that we’ve left “The Americans” at the end of 1987, it’s time to travel all the way to . . . 1987 again, where Ryan Murphy et al. (and then some) have vividly reimagined a dirtier and more interesting New York, a fondly remembered grit-and-greed Gotham where Trump-inspired yuppies rule the day and, by night, organized “houses” of mostly African American and Latina transgender models and glamour queens fiercely compete with one another at events called “balls” to see whose “realness” seems most real.
It’s “Pose,” darlings, a bold yet unsteady extravaganza of music, moves and an identity awareness that emerged long before the firmer solidarity of LGBTQ. Packed with more speechifying than dialogue, the series (premiering Sunday on FX) comes with a mighty long to-do list. Murphy and FX made certain to cast the widest possible net for “Pose’s” ensemble, insisting that transgender characters be played transgender performers. With that, the show also boasts TV’s largest-ever LGBTQ cast and crew. It’s a more than noteworthy effort.
Thus ennobled and electrified, the people of “Pose” put forth a dazzling series that is all about cultural course-correction, reclaiming the ball scene and its marginalized pioneers from the pop appropriation that began in 1990 with Madonna’s hit single “Vogue.”
“Pose” attempts to lend its characters — all of them wounded in one way or another by society’s gender and sexuality norms — the shape and empathy they never had, creating forthright (if mostly fictional) quasi-history. Think of it as a belated restoration effort. Beautification, not revisionism.
Mj Rodriguez stars as Blanca, a frustrated member of the House of Abundance, whose demanding mother/leader, Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), is the all-time champion of the ballroom scene.
Fed up with Elektra’s orders, Blanca defects and starts her own family, House of Evangelista, ensuring Elektra’s wrath. (If you think “Pose” offers nothing for you, do at least stick around for all the regally sharp trash-talking.)
With early encouragement from ballroom elder Pray Tell (Billy Porter), Blanca’s first recruit is Damon (Ryan Jamaal), an aspiring dancer living on the streets after his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay.
Blanca and Damon are soon joined by Angel (Indya Moore), a Puerto Rican veteran of the ballroom scene who works the streets and Times Square peep-shows to make money. An early victory for House of Evangelista essentially declares war with Abundance, and so we’re off. It’s a Cinderella-meets-“Flashdance” story about rivalries within rivalries, with the war set to the best ’80s dance songs, all of it occasionally clouded by such outside forces as classism, racism and, worst of all, AIDS.
The “realness” stressed by the competition is all about passing in an upscale white people’s world. Elektra brags that she is so real she can shop at Bergdorf’s without a second glance (financed by her relationship with a rich white man). The mother-family dynamic offers its members a sense of shelter and belonging they’ve never had.
While acquainting a wide TV audience with the basics of a fringe culture, “Pose” also takes on the task of weaving in the uptown story of Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), an eager new junior executive hire in Trump Tower. With his newfound white-collar prestige and salary, Stan, who has a wife, Patty (Kate Mara), and two kids in New Jersey, acts on a long-suppressed urge and hires a streetwalker, who happens to be Angel.
That they fall in love — and proceed to have arguments built around her transition issues and his awkward admission of his sexual desires — is just one of the many stretches of melodrama that keep “Pose” somewhat clumsy and, at times, unsatisfyingly preachy.
“Pose” makes no bones about its intent to school us on a litany of issues. A few of these lectures are memorably and even poignantly written and performed (I could listen to Jackson’s Elektra tell people what’s what all the way to 1989, at least), but most of them strain with effort.
It’s always been hard to convince Murphy that a little goes a long way, and viewers will have to admit that most of “Pose’s” weaknesses tend to vanish during the fantastically entertaining ballroom scenes. Madonna was wrong when she said “Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.” Turns out, there’s a whole lot to it.
Pose (90 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on FX.