Article by: J Matthew Cobb
Director-producer Ryan Murphy has had his hands on some of modern-TV’s greatest breakthroughs including Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Feud. The power gay was recently honored at the VH1 Trailblazers Honors, where he was labeled a TV groundbreaker. Folks, it’s not an exaggeration, especially while thrusting his latest creation under the microscope. Created alongside longtime contributors Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, FX’s Pose — a series centered on the tale of two New Yorks in 1987 (the rising Trump society and the underground ball world) and how they strangely intersect – is unlike anything Murphy has birthed in the past.
Actually, it’s unlike anything ever created in the realm of gay TV.
For starters, the musical soundtrack is totally sickening. When telling moving stories, it’s always important to make sure it is complimented with wisely placed. The brains behind the series have done their homework to ensure that the hooky beats are endless. With a diverse mix of disco essentials (“Love Is the Message,” “Love’s Theme,” “On the Radio”), dancey R&B (“Meeting in the Ladies Room,” “Lovergirl”), timeless pop/rock (“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Breakout”) and golden age hip-hop (“Paid In Full”), the music plays like a five-star “greatest hits” compilation. Picking favorites is almost impossible; music from Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson and Diana Ross are all in rotation; Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” soars in the background of a dance audition from Damon (played by Ryan Jamaal Swain) at an Alvin Ailey-meets-Fame conservatory; Paradise Garage classics like NYC Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait,” Loose Ends’ “Is It All Over My Face,” Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” and First Choice’s “Love Thang” are also sprinkled into the action. Murphy also makes sure that newer house gems like Madonna’s “Vogue” and Crystal Waters’s “Gypsy Woman” along with modern dance masterpieces like Dove’s “Pillar Point” and RuPaul’s “The Realness” are injected into the mix. The fierce soundtrack reminds me of the musical omnipotence of Netflix’s brilliant but abruptly canceled The Get Down.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover how the series showcases a largely transgender cast, the most ever in TV history. In the past, particularly in film, acting roles for trans people were often played by cis straight men. But thanks to trans activist Janet Mock, who serves as a writer/director for the melodrama, the world is finally witnessing the hefty portion of stellar trans talent (MJ Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Angelica Ross) within a single setting.
Those familiar with the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning can visibly see where Murphy drew much of his inspiration from. The lessons on shade (“reading is fundamental”), deluxe gay lexicon and the legacies of ball houses such as Xtravaganza and Labeija (recreated here as Evangelista and Abundance) are all apparent here. Although Paris Is Burning remains a beacon in the annals of LGBTQ cinema and for being a mighty influence on pop culture (see Madonna’s “Vogue” or RuPaul’s Drag Race), its bare-bones pre-reality TV storytelling feels like a Bronze Age relic in the eyes of most millennials. Unfortunately, due to the lack of accessibility over the years, many have failed to watch it. Even with its wrinkles of time, Paris Is Burning is still a worthy watch, seen by many as a rite of passage for queer youth. Pose, a definite homage to the “two-thumbs up”-hailed documentary, goes a step further with its effervescent polish on LGBTQ life. At its essence, Pose expands the Paris Is Burning narrative and exposes the importance these institutions were on queer culture, particularly people of color. And it fully tells the trans experience, going beyond what little was presented in Roland Emmerich-directed film Stonewall or what the TV mini-series When We Rise tried to do. And honestly, never has vintage uptown ball culture been so exceptionally captured on film like Pose does. What Saturday Night Fever meant to disco, Pose does exactly the same for ball culture.
Inside one of the stranger selling points of the series, Murphy masterfully ties in the rise of Trump, giving viewers an unveiled time capsule of what was to come. It’s the end of the Reagan Eighties and then comes the rise of the pompous socialite faking their way to the top. 45 hasn’t made an appearance in the series thus far, but his presence is ever looming in the background. You can see the colossal, gaudy Trump Tower in its many scenes and the cascading behind-the-scenes corruption materializing in the storyline of Stan, an emerging player inside the Trump Organization reaching for the higher ground of nobility and wrestling with bouts of industry greed. He’s a married man who develops an unexpected relationship with Angel (Indya Moore), a trans sex worker. This narrative, one potentially evolving into a love affair, also breaks new ground of storytelling for the trans community, putting an often untold and grossly ignored experience on the small screen.
At its core, Pose is unapologetically flamboyant and abundantly queer. As the ball master Pray Tell, Kinky Boots star Billy Porter steals most of the scenes with fancy one-liners and shade galore. But there’s more to the series than its display of entertainment. So far, the series has already tackled issues of homophobia, transphobia, poverty, AIDS, drug addiction. It even addresses bias and racism within the LGBTQ community (seen radically in episodes two and three). There’s glowing conversations about gender and gender identity. There’s also a readiness of activism, which we see on episode two when Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, is denied service at a Manhattan gay bar for being trans. “I’m gonna do something about it so that my children’s world is better than the one I grew up in,” she says at the close of one of her scenes. And all of this is achieved in just the first episodes of season one.
It’s a shame that the falling viewer stats of the show per week are putting its life expectancy in limbo. After its debut, ratings dipped by 20 percent. It’s not drawing the American Horror Story and Feud numbers, and it deserves better. Of course, some of the blame falls on the lack of star power. Even with prevalent names like Evan Peters and James Van Der Beek in lead roles and a formidable trans cast, Porter, a vivacious Broadway champion, is easily the series’ strongest draw. Sadly, he or Murphy’s signature at the top of the marquee isn’t gargantuan enough to keep the series afloat. Also, it airs on Sunday evenings, the most popular night of the week for TV.
With so many great shows competing for viewers and lots of LGBTQ programming to now filter through, Sundays can be something of a rough spot for new sitcoms and dramas in the vortex of cable TV. Plus, the overtly queer content might be problematic for the mainstream, especially since it goes beyond the G-rated aura of Netflix’s acclaimed Queer Eye reboot and the PG-13 nature of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a recent Emmy award winning phenomenon. Assuming 2018’s America is shedding its stubborn transphobic skin; viewers will have to look past their selfish ways of searching for household celebs and wholly cherish the blessings that the show brings to the table. They better act fast, cue up their DVRs and round up the gang for Pose watch parties, because this kind of TV only comes once in a lifetime.