The 1980s Ball culture comes alive from the opening moments of the pilot episode and through the first four episodes. “Pose” combines the glitz and production quality of “The Get Down” with the sprawling, expansive story of the best of the “American Crime Story” anthology. Its pilot features purely electric ball performances that wow even the most unfamiliar with ball culture. The more the season goes on, the more the troubles and bond of these families yields operatic drama. “Pose” is a fully bodied meal of a TV show that deserves to be savored.
The House of Abundance dominates the ball scene. They even pull a heist on a swanky museum to impress at a royalty themed challenge. After a challenging diagnosis, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) stands up to her house mother Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) and starts her own house. As Mother to the new House of Evangelista, Blanca recruits some fellow misfits for her family. This includes Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young gay dancer thrown out of his conservative household, and Angel (Indya Moore), a trans sex worker. As the House of Evangelista works to nab trophies at the balls, Blanca lays down the law on house rules to make her children the best they can be. This pushes Damon to pursue his dreams of attending dance school. Meanwhile, Angel sets her sights on a more profitable life as she attracts the attention of a square Trump employee (Evan Peters).
Creator Ryan Murphy and Co announced the show would feature the largest cast of transgender actors for a scripted series. With at least five major roles played by transgender actors and over 50 total transgender characters expected for the show, the commitment to authenticity and inclusive casting pays off in spades. The rivalry between Blanca and Elektra Abundance comes alive with fury and heart thanks to Rodriguez and Jackson. They are able to expertly camp it up at the ball competitions, providing some truly awe-inspiring looks and performances. Even further, they each bring out the best in each other in their dramatic scenes. They are able to show care and compassion even as they war against one another. They also give additional credence and gravitas to their own plights and storylines, including being HIV Positive, struggling with hormones, passing in straight society and gender reassignment surgery woes.
While the mothers are the stars of the ball, the children in the household also stand out in the spotlight. Ryan Jamaal Swain emerges as best in show among the children, as the dance prodigy Damon. His dance sequences bring to life so much drama, heart and emotion. Every time he moves his body, he conveys the hurt of his upbringing and the hunger to make something great of himself. The relationship he cultivates in his dance teacher, played expertly by Charlene Woodard, becomes one of the most interesting of the show.
Fellow trans actress Indya Moore proves to be a beguiling presence as Angel. She wows both with her ball looks and her dramatic chops. She has a quality one can’t look away from whenever she appears on screen. It’s unfortunate she’s saddled with one of the weaker subplots, as Angel falls for a married straight businessman played by Evan Peters. Peters walks through each scene in a comatose, giving us little reason to become invested in his character’s romance with Angel. Moore gets much more exciting work to do in scenes with her House or even accompanying a fellow sister from the House of Abundance to get silicone injections.
A Ryan Murphy project carries equal parts prestige, pedigree, and flaws. His shows have given birth to a wide array of queer voices and stories. “Pose,” more than anything else he’s done, pays attention to the plight and perspective of trans women of color. However, his stories hit the nail on the head of their points in less than graceful ways. Nowhere is this truer than with the white characters (who just so happen to headline this tale filled with people of color in the lead roles). James Van Der Beek’s Matt Bromley proudly offers Evan Peter’s mawkish Stan Bowes a job at Trump’s company in their first scene. Jokes about how these men in the 80s made Trump the man he is today fall flat and pull us out of the world of ball culture.
Even broader than that, bit characters who enter into the narrative feel the need to announce their motivations and backstory outright. This extends from rich benefactors who loom over the proceedings to day player doctors who pop in for one scene. “Pose” has tremendous amounts of heart and personality, but stands to have another level of polish.