Ryan Murphys era-defining drama about voguing and the world of underground ballroom, in late 80s New York, is a classic tale for these times
New York City. 1987. Glitterball. Vogue hands, as any Madonna fan of my generation will know them. Sometimes the right television series comes along at the moment you need it and Pose (BBC2) is just that: shimmering balm for the Brexit-eroded soul. For an hour and a bit, all the cynicism and rage evaporates and you rise from the sofa on a cloud of killer lines dropped from the hard-won lips of black trans women; the sound of Donna Summer; and sheer, fishnet-tights-clad resilience.
But this show is far more sophisticated than escapism. Its like falling in love: heightened, revelatory, bruising. Pose is that good.
None of this will be news for fans of Ryan Murphy (co-creator alongside Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals), whose signature is big-hearted, baroque, queer drama with nosebleed-high production values and old-school class. I knew Pose would be fabulous, but it is also great. Much has been made of it featuring the largest trans cast in scripted television history, as well as writers and producers including Janet Mock and Our Lady J. The result is the gold standard of representation in action. Its diversity is why Pose feels (hyper) real and gets it so right. This is era-defining television about communities only just beginning to represent themselves.
The story is achingly now and as old as the Hollywood hills. A classic New York fairytale, inspired by the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, with imperial nods to everything from John Waters to Glow. Blanca Rodriguez works in a nail salon by day and is breaking away from the House of Abundance by night: one of several teams competing in the underground ballroom scene, populated mostly by black and Latino trans and gay people. The houses are run by formidable house mothers, defiantly and poignantly recreating the families that once rejected them. Then theres New York, the most iconic house mother of all, who welcomes everybody into her bosom and stands for both nurture and danger.
When Blanca finds out she is HIV-positive, she tells ballroom MC, Pray Tell, At least now something in my life is for sure. He replies, You aint dead yet.
She rejects her overbearing house mother, Elektra, and creates her own house, adopting Damon, a prodigiously talented 17-year-old dancer kicked out of home for being gay.
She enlists Damon to walk ie compete in his first ball and blows his mind by deconstructing the American dream as being able to fit into the straight white world isnt that what youre trying to do? Dance your way into acceptability?
Voguing, we are reminded with bodies not words, is more than a way of life. Its an act of black queer resistance. In one scene, Damon auditions for the New School for Dance and literally dances for his life to Whitney Houstons I Wanna Dance With Somebody. For every reason imaginable, I cried my eyes out.
Above ground, we enter the stultifying world of straight, white, executive conventionality, embodied by Trump Tower, which is even more monstrous considering what the man who built it presides over now. Stan Bowes gets a job there while falling for trans sex worker Angel. In a masterful scene that could be straight out of Mad Men, he asks Angel what she wants from life and while she whispers the answer in bed I want a home of my own. I want a family. I want to take care of someone and I want someone to take care of me. I want to be treated like any other woman the scene cuts to Stan arriving home to his wife and kids. The life of conformity, of passing, that Angel craves is killing him. How does the scene close? With the opening synths of Kate Bushs Running Up That Hill.
Pose treats with respect, pathos and love both the glamour of the ballroom and the guts of the Aids crisis, transphobia, sexism and racism. Its a charismatic dance-off between appearance and reality, in which both sides are equally matched. Pray Tell might say the category is paramount realness! The pose, in other words, is the realness.
This groundbreaking series thrusts a subculture into the mainstream without explanation, justification or a lecture on identity politics. It merely walks the walk and occupies its space (in couture that could be nicked from a museum). I am trying to rein myself in, which is something that Pose refuses to do. So sod it I am head over heels in love with this show.