With the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles and the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors in a scripted series, “Pose” represents a television milestone. Equally notable is that it features LGBTQ actors as main characters rather than sidekicks and none of them struggle with their gender identity. This is not a show about LGBTQ people coming to terms with their bodies or the public forgetting to call them by the right pronoun. It’s a show about family, hope and acceptance. Uplifting and optimistic, “Pose” is a visual delight that compellingly celebrates the disenfranchised.
The action takes place in New York City in the 1980s and explores both ball culture and the rise of the “greed is good” ethos. Balls are where members of “houses” go to compete in various themed categories. They are judged on their clothes, their attitude or their dance abilities. Houses are self-selected groups that offer support to LGBTQ youth who have been rejected by their birth families. The ball culture story focuses on the upstart House of Evangelista formed by Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who decides to challenge her former “mother” Electra (Dominique Jackson), who presides over the legendary House of Abundance.
Juxtaposed with ball culture, is the story of Stan (Evan Peters) and Patty Bowes (Kate Mara), a suburban New Jersey couple who are sucked into the conspicuous consumption of the city’s financial set when Stan gets a job working for Donald Trump. Stan is conflicted about emulating his boss Matt, played by a perfectly cast James Van Der Beek, who takes delirious pleasure in the trappings of wealth.
Visually, the show depicts the balls as vibrant, flamboyant expressions of fashion, movement and music. Beyond the fun theatricality however, is a serious message that the show delivers through Blanca, a layered character who wants to live a life of purpose rather than survival. Her break with the domineering Electra is considered a betrayal and sets the stage for the show’s primary tension.
Rodriguez, in a strong and passionate performance as Blanca, explains the meaning of houses and balls in a touching conversation with Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young, black gay man who is kicked out the family home. Damon arrives in New York City to pursue his dance school dreams but immediately ends up on the streets. Inviting him to join Evangelista and use his dance skills at balls, she explains, “A house is the family you get to choose,” and “balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else.” Balls, she continues proudly, are “a celebration of a life that the world does not deem worthy of celebration.”
The ball contests also give LGBTQ people an opportunity to access segments of “acceptable” society, an idea that is beautifully expressed in a later scene when Angel (Indya Moore), a streetwalker and House of Evangelista member, wins first place in the “weather girl” category, dressed smartly in a plaid skirt and jacket.
“Pose” intersects its two plots through Angel and Stan, in what is sure to be a tender and heartbreaking story of colliding worlds. Yet, their desires are not so different as their lives might suggest. Both long to belong and ultimately to be loved. It’s a universal message from an inspiring show.
“Pose” premieres on Sunday, June 3 at 9:00 p.m. EDT on FX.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.