The FX drama — set in the burgeoning ball culture of 1980s New York City — made headlines for its ensemble of transgender actors, but the show never lets its message of inclusivity overshadow its mission to tell relatable, compelling stories meant to delight and entertain the drama queen in all of us.
The opening sequence is as deliciously outlandish as you’d expect from a show co-created by Ryan Murphy: A statuesque diva named Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) and her crew of LGBTQ “children” steal armloads of royal raiment from a museum — and then hustle the stolen goods to a downtown ballroom, where they strut their stuff to the Mary Jane Girls’s “In My House,” as the crowd shrieks and snaps in approval. About 90 miles away, a young black dancer named Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is kicked out of the house when his parents learn he’s gay. He makes his way to New York City, where he sleeps on a bench and dances for tips until Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Elektra’s protégée-turned-rival, takes him in.
Blanca introduces Damon to an underground LGBTQ community, where different “houses” of gay and trans youths compete for trophies and glory in events called balls.
“Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else,” explains Blanca.
Her mission as “house mother” is to serve as a “support system” for her children as they work to achieve their dreams. And those dreams are what Pose is made of: Does Damon have what it takes to succeed at a prestigious dance academy? Can Blanca and her upstart House Evangelista take the ballroom crown from Elektra’s legendary House Abundance? Can transgender beauty Angel (Indya Moore) find true happiness with her businessman boyfriend Stan (Evan Peters), even though he’s got a wife (Kate Mara) and kids at home?
Though Pose’s characters may be unconventional, the stories — about ambition, acceptance, love, family — are universal. Even when it ventures into territory that will be unfamiliar to most viewers — like the discrimination against transgender men and women within the gay community itself — Pose lets the characters, rather than the issues, take the lead.
The drama is bolstered by several standout performances: Newcomer Rodriguez is raw and natural as Blanca, and her confidence as an actor grows alongside Blanca’s confidence as a leader. Tony winner Billy Porter exhibits astonishing range as Pray Tell, a venerated designer whose color commentary at the balls bursts with exuberant sass, though off-stage his world is ravaged by the relentless onset of HIV/AIDS. With her regal bearing and flawless enunciation, Jackson brings a scathing force to Elektra’s many one-liners (“You are the Cracker Barrel to my Gucci and Saint Laurent!”), while James Van Der Beek makes a hilariously over-the-top debut in the premiere as Matt, Stan’s coke-snorting, big-spending boss at (wait for it) The Trump Organization.
For all of its ballroom flash and diva fierceness, Pose is a sweet, touching drama about finding your family, your purpose, yourself. The number of transgender actors in the cast may have made history, but it’s the humanity of the stories they tell that is truly revolutionary. Grade: B+
Pose premieres June 3 at 9 p.m. ET on FX.