At first glance, the buzz-heavy FX series Pose could double for any other street-fueled, two-fisted show about prototypical grinders battling it out for respect. There’s the tough, all-heart protagonist, who leads a band of misfits against a former crew and subsequently gets mopped; the wise sage, who implores his dejected, defeated protégé to get off the bloody canvas, rally the troops, and fight on; and of course there’s the classic boy-meets-girl storyline, which has become so ubiquitous in Hollywood that it extends far beyond the standard rom-com genre.
And yet Pose, which features predominantly black and Latino actors and actresses, stands as a groundbreaking statement because of the new territory it boldly claims: the largest ever transgender cast for a scripted series in television history. The unvarnished drama from acclaimed show runner Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, Feud) and co-written by queer Afro Latino Bronx native Steven Canals digs deep into the world of 1980’s New York City underground Ball culture.
Factions are broken up into “houses” that take part in weekly over-the-top competitions judged on elaborate costuming, dance choreography, makeup and sheer attitude. Away from the stranglehold of the AIDS epidemic (a death sentence back in those days), homophobic brutality and blatant discrimination of the Reagan era, the LGBTQ community is free to be themselves in a safe space that is still as cutthroat as any MMA match.
And that’s why Pose should not be lazily categorized as a “gay” show. If you are a straight man who can quote any of the Rocky films by heart, you can’t help but root for underdog Blanca (played with Balboa-like grit by MJ Rodriquez , who after learning that she is HIV positive decides to leave loving but domineering mother figure Elektra and her House of Abundance to form her own “family.” "Inspired by the up and coming legendary supermodel Linda Evangelista, who stole my look and I pay tribute to in return,” Blanca says, paying homage to the ‘80s and early ‘90s runway icon before unveiling the House of Evangelista. From there, a universal story of redemption is told decades before transgender rights became part of the national discussion. Not only did trans people of color have to worry about being ostracized by the world-at-large, they also faced discrimination from the gay, white establishment who saw them as little more than an embarrassment to the cause. But you don’t have to be part of the LGBTQ community to appreciate the layered series’ unmitigated gangsta.
Here are five reasons why non-Trans people should check out Pose.
Like Atlanta, Insecure, Black-Ish, And Queen Sugar, The Cast Of Pose Is Must-See TV
The authenticity of Pose can be attributed to the inside-baseball writing led by trans activist and producer Janet Mock. But if you don’t have the talent to pull off the story lines then the words are moot. Yes, the majority of the cast is transgender and gay. But they are also damn good actors anchored by the Tony-winning Billy Porter, who plays the strong-willed, hilarious and heart-grabbing ballroom emcee Pray Tell, who has a soft spot for the emerging Evangelista clan.
After announcing one of the many themes of the ballroom competition (the prime-time ‘80s soap opera Dynasty), he dresses down some of the contestant’s less than stellar fashion choices. “Children, I repeat…the category is Dynasty!” Pray Tell burns. “Not Got Damn Falcon Crest…we don’t need no spin-offs up in this bitch!” To be sure, there’s an Emmy with Porter’s name on it. In fact, the performances are nearly all award worthy.
There’s Indya Moore as Angel, a heartbreaking pin-up trans girl who is also a sex worker “passing” in the straight world. The aforementioned Rodriquez delivers some of the most poignant scenes on the show as a lioness mother figure who keeps a watchful eye on the baby of the group, 17-year-old Damon Richards (paced with wet-behind-the-ears zeal by Ryan Jamaal Swain), a homeless aspiring professional dancer thrown out of his family home for being gay. And the scene stealing Dominique Jackson (she seems to be having the time of her life as the queen of the ball Elektra Abundance) has already dropped enough meme-worthy moments to keep social media perpetually busy.
It Has An Epic Soundtrack
Let’s keep it 100. Pose could have easily played it safe by riding a wave of stereotypes, including what many people perceive as “gay music.” Yes, there are some go-to ballroom standards here including “On The Radio” (Donna Summer); “Ain’t Nobody” (Chaka Khan); “Meeting In the Ladies Room” (Klymaxx); “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Whitney Houston); and a Control era shout out to Janet Jackson. And of course the patron saint of all LGBTQ party celebrations, Diana Ross, is represented robustly throughout as well as Pose’s unofficial theme song, the classic deep house cut “Love Is The Message”.
But Alexis Martin Woodall, Pose’s executive producer credited with pulling together the series’ eclectic array of songs, understands that the musical pulse of New York was much too diverse, even within gay circles, to be pigeonholed. In ‘87 hip-hop loomed large, so it makes perfect sense that Eric B. & Rakim (“Paid In Full” and “My Melody” ) would be blasting from car speakers and boom boxes like they were the new ‘hood prophets. There are also nods to art rock (Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”), hair metal (Whitesnake’s “Is This Love”), and dance synth funk (Laid Back’s “White Horse”). It’s the ultimate mixtape.
The Conservative Wall Street “Greed-Is-Good” Crowd Gets The Finger
There is a scene in Pose that perfectly captures the hypocrisies of the cocaine-fueled decadent ‘80s. Stan (Evan Peters makes you a believer), a ladder-climbing executive who works for the Donald Trump organization (more on that later), falls head over heels for Angel. The white married father of two wants his side chick off the streets and away from her gig as a peep show girl working within the last remnants of Times Square’s seedy underbelly.
Angel, who is not at all ashamed of her profession, tells Stan that love is cool and all, but she’s nobody’s kinky fetish. A deal is worked out: Angel will be Stan’s “kept-woman,” complete with her own high-end apartment, big screen TV, and VCR (look it up kids). The loafer-wearing corporate animal is well aware that she’s a trans female. Still Angel, who is also smitten, has doubts about Stan’s motives.
However, he quickly puts such worries to rest by delivering a self-scathing rebuke of his farce of a life, painting himself as an in-crowd chasing white man who shamelessly “accumulates” material things that he doesn’t even own. In his eyes Angel is the freest human being he has ever encountered. “But you’re who you are even though the price you pay for it is being dis-invited from the rest of the world,” he tells her. “I’m the one playing dress-up. Is it so wrong to want to be with one of the few people who isn’t?” Deep Right?
But after Stan's wife Patty (Kate Mars) is shocked to discover that her husband has been seeing another woman (and a trans woman, which adds yet another element to their incoming showdown), she tosses him out. With his secret out, Stan moves in with Angel and all seems right. They project the everyday life of a happy couple; that is until he accompanies his significant other to a Ball event. Not only is Stan not viewed by the regulars as Angel's partner he feels out of place in a world created by an ostracized segment of society seen as the other. He breaks up with Angel delivering a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Pose Is Legit Street Without Even Trying
Don’t let the regal gowns, six-inch high heels, makeup and vogue dancing fool you. The regal and bold men and women of Pose are no push-overs. While Damon comes from a two-parent middle class home and Elektra is the product of an affluent family, most of the ballroom regulars are from the ‘hoods of Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. They lived through the violent crack era and have been entrenched in B-Boy culture ever since the early ‘80s.
LGBTQ hustlers, scammers, boosters and drug dealers, such as loveable rogue Lil Papi (Angel Bismark), were not the exception to the rule. They were ghetto superstars. At a time where life for the transgender community was fraught with peril (even though in 2018 we are still seeing shocking headlines of unsolved murders of black trans women in cities like Jacksonville, Florida), you had to be tough.
President Trump’s Ominous Future Presidency Is Explained
This is where things get truly surreal. When Stan’s coked-up superior Matt Bromley (James Van Der Beek gives a howl-worthy American Psycho performance without the serial killing excess) schools his novice shark-in-training on the dark arts of becoming a member of New York’s powerful, celebrity-rubbing money class, he points to the shameless media savvy of the head man in charge. “Our boss…in the [New York] Post again,” Bromley gushes over Donald Trump, praising him as the “master of the publicity machine,” adding gleefully, “It’s so f--king awesome the way he controls them all.”
Those prophetic words can most definitely be applied to President Trump’s trolling dominance of the American press and social media outlets, which helped propel him to the Oval Office. But while 45 has pretty much been demystified as a loudmouth, corrupt, and at times racist bully who lies about everything from his monetary wealth and troubling Russian connections to inauguration crowd sizes, back in ’87 Trump was a celebrated (and respected) pop culture fixture.
Even after his racially-charged 1989 full-page ads targeting the Central Park 5--the black and Latino teenagers mistakenly charged and imprisoned for the brutal beating of a white jogger--Trump’s celebrity was such that African-American rappers frequently name checked him in songs. Indeed, Pose perfectly captures the ‘80s Trump zeitgeist. When Stan tells Angel that he works in Trump Tower she is visibly in awe. Of course we now know that his Art Of The Deal was a complete farce; gaudy gold wallpaper that he would later use to cover up his six bankruptcies and grifter scams like Trump University. But Trump’s looming large shadow over Pose gives you some idea just how such an unqualified tabloid joke could become the leader of the free world. Sobering stuff.
Season one of Pose is now in the history books and season 2 has been confirmed, so you have time to get your binge on and join the conversation about one of TV's best shows.
Photo Credit: FX Network