Ryan Murphy’s Pose gives good face from its opening moments. Inside the house of Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), the languorous beats of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” command a group of queens to strike a pose. The mood is a seemingly incompatible mix of warmth, sauciness, and narcissism that will make perfect sense to fans of Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about the golden age of New York City’s drag balls. Then, Candy (Angelica Ross), as she plays with Lulu’s (Hailie Sahar) hair, wonders how she can get her own mane to look like Madonna’s in Desperately Seeking Susan. This reference to the world’s most famous woman—who was three years away from releasing “Vogue”—is itself a pose, by the strivers in the room but also by Murphy and co-writers Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals. The category is “Stars, Statements, and Appropriation” and it’s immediately clear that Murphy will not settle for anything less than tens across the board.
Though Pose features the largest cast of transgender actors in history for a scripted television series, it’s still easy to imagine the clap backs that will greet it: for the way Murphy brazenly walks, to quote Amanda Hess in The New York Times last year, “right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation.” Much has been written about “Vogue,” Paris Is Burning, and “Deep in Vogue,” Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra’s dance hit from 1989, as examples of white artists playing the part of voyeurs, or colonizers—exploiting the lives of queer people of color for their own gain. And almost all of those broadsides downplay or ignore the fact that the drag ball scene, while fabulously defiant of gender norms, does not always regard the spectacle of internalized racism—the playing at being white—with apprehension. That’s also, alas, a conundrum with which Pose doesn’t wrestle, at least not in the four episodes (of eight) available for review.
The savviness of Madonna’s “Vogue” isn’t any sense of irony or camp, but rather its complete transparency: the pop icon’s lucid understanding of the ballroom as an aspirational space. The song is about the desire for the status of a Hollywood legend, and Madonna, after suffering a string of box-office flops, makes it seem as if that ambition, for her at least, is still attainable. Also, at the heart of David Fincher’s music video for the song is that drive shared by ballroom culture to reflect the culture back on itself. Murphy’s best work, such as American Horror Story: Roanoke and the second half of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, follows in the same footsteps, while also refreshingly indulging in camp. There was hope, then, that Pose would do the same, but rather than reflect the culture back on itself, it reflects a more confused than confident simulacrum of that culture back to audiences.
In short, Pose has a verisimilitude problem. The grimness of the city in Paris Is Burning has been replaced by a spic-and-span look that doesn’t suggest the Pop Art dimensions of Feud: Bette and Joan. This is a show about young people of color trying to loudly own their identities during the dawn of AIDS, but it doesn’t even try to pretend that New York City isn’t submerged in a sea of gentrification. (One may wish that some of the budget that went into meticulously inserting the Twin Towers into the Manhattan skyline had gone into making the Christopher Street pier seem like a place of danger—or at least one where you could easily score a blowjob.) Multiple references to Donald Trump—several characters work for the future president’s corporation—suggest that Murphy may be playing some kind of long game: that the aesthetic of Pose, like the constructed façades that walk the runways of the show’s ball scenes, will be placed in some kind of meta-conversation with the façade of Trump’s existence. But after four episodes, Murphy just appears to be putting some distance between Pose and Paris Is Burning.
Like the subjects of Livingston’s documentary, the show’s characters are defined by their present conditions—looking forward toward a dream they probably know isn’t realistically within reach. Only Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young black dancer, gets any sort of backstory. Kicked out of his house for being gay, he makes his way to New York and is eventually taken in by Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who’s recently estranged from Elektra and is looking to populate her House of Evangelista. Blanca, wise beyond her years, says, “We do not have the luxury of shame,” as she charges into the New School’s dance department, with Damon in tow. By the end of the episode, he’s auditioning for Helena St. Rogers (Charlayne Woodard), one of many characters throughout the series who are committed to being mothers—a lifeblood—to the lost queer boys and girls of the city. At its best, as when Helena tightly embraces Damon after he slays his audition—a vogue-inspired dance set to Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—the series is subsumed in a hyperbolic warmth that makes Murphy’s Disney-fied sense of place suddenly feel like a vital fantasy of cocooning.
Pose is also at its best when devoted to advancing its representational politics. In another storyline, Angel (Indya Moore), a sex worker and recent House of Evangelista inductee, begins having an affair with a married businessman, Stan (Evan Peters). In a series dominated by people of color, almost all unknowns, the presence of Peters and especially James Van Der Beek—playing a broadly drawn real estate hustler—initially feels like a focus-pulling blunder. But Murphy is careful to neither center Stan in Pose’s narrative nor extol his attraction to Angel. In fact, it’s Stan and Angel’s relationship that allows the series to widen its compassionate scope as a consideration of gender in relation to matters of race, sexuality, and class.
And it’s the knottiness of Stan and Angel’s scenes that lays the foundation for our awareness of why characters like Elektra and Angel are so desperately driven to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, which promises them a certain freedom even as it threatens to alienate them from their lovers. It’s very easy to imagine what these scenes would have meant to the subjects of Paris Is Burning, most of whom died of AIDS. And then there’s the scene of Damon kissing Ricky (Ryllon Burnside)—a moment captured with a confrontational tenacity that feels like a rebuke to the melancholic sense of self-pity that’s Moonlight’s governing principle. It’s a scene that will surely also mean the world to any queer person of color unaccustomed to seeing their passions depicted on screen so openly and without shame.
Right when Helena and Damon’s relationship becomes fraught, it feels as if we’ve returned to the dominion of Glee and its fourth-season standoffs between Lea Michele and Kate Hudson’s characters, with Pose taking easy potshots at the dance world’s haughtiness. But then the series makes room for our grasping of Helena’s behavior as another pose: fear disguised as elitism. Later, an entire episode appears motored by the dubious suspense of which of the show’s characters has acquired H.I.V. But if you’ve ever quaked at the prospect of being handed a death sentence, that dubiousness becomes a reckoning with an experience that has so rarely been depicted in popular culture. And that’s ultimately the triumph of this series. Bristle at Pose’s dissonant style all you want, like the judges might during the too-few ball sequences, but recognize that Murphy’s empathy is neither cheap nor self-flattering, and that it gives the series its unmistakable life.