The Category Is … Pose


Each competition in “Pose,” the boisterous, resplendent drama of the 1980s ball scene on FX, begins with a ritual phrase from Pray Tell (Billy Porter), the M.C.: “The category is …”

That category — the theme to which teams dress, strut and, yes, pose — might be royalty, or the military or “Dynasty.” The categories are both a competitive challenge and a way of claiming social spaces from which the cat walking combatants, gay and transgender, black and Hispanic, have been excluded.

“Pose,” which begins Sunday, is itself a space-claiming project. Viewers today might recognize the “category is” phrase from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or know the slang, if not its provenance. But “Pose” puts its characters, subculture and history stage center. It stands, bold and plumed, and demands attention.

Ryan Murphy (the co-creator, with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals), in his last FX series before founding his Netflix empire, was also assiduous about hiring transgender actors and creative staff, including the author Janet Mock and Our Lady J (“Transparent”) as producers and writers.

“Pose” wears its purpose confidently but lightly. Yes, it’s a story of struggle — the AIDS crisis is a constant shadow — but it spotlights its characters’ aspirations. It’s sincere, buoyant and fun, stunningly designed, mindful that a show about balls should be capable of having one.

At its heart is an underdog story. Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) breaks away from the imperious ball legend Elektra (Dominique Jackson), mother of the House of Abundance, to form her own house, which she christens the House of Evangelista. (“Game of Thrones” has nothing on the regal nomenclature here.)

A “house” is both a team and, literally, a home, and Blanca assembles a crew of misfits and castoffs in her apartment. She forms an especially maternal bond with Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a gay teenager and aspiring classical dancer from Pennsylvania who was kicked out of his home.

The pilot, kinetically directed by Mr. Murphy, introduces a world — familiar from the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” but never detailed like this in series TV — without feeling mechanical or over expository. The vogue battles, choreographed by Leiomy Maldonado and Danielle Polanco, are thrilling, art-as-combat duels. Mr. Porter (“Kinky Boots”) makes Pray Tell a wry guide to both the balls and the larger community around them.

The series feels, like the “Angels in America” revival on Broadway or even (from a different ’80s subculture) the women’s-wrestling comedy “GLOW,” like an attempt to better understand the present by re-examining the 1980s as an origin story.

At its periphery is a more familiar, heavy-handed story of greed-is-good-era New York City, with a ubiquitous 2018 hook. Stan (Evan Peters), a social-climbing young businessman from New Jersey, lands a job with, yep, the Trump Organization.

The company’s celebrity leader is spoken of but not seen. Stan’s boss, Matt (James Van Der Beek), personifies the age’s conspicuous consumption and Velociraptor aggression. Mr. Van Der Beek has a gift for playing this kind of cocky boor, but when the show introduces him saying, “God Bless Ronald Reagan” while hoovering lines of coke, it manages to be both on and up the nose.

The two worlds connect when Stan falls for Angel (Indya Moore), a prostitute and house member. (The series’ casting in general is a coup; Ms. Moore, a model, is a relative newcomer to acting but you wouldn’t know it from her presence and shaded performance.) They begin a long-term affair even as he and his wife, Patty (Kate Mara), build an overspent life in the suburbs; his life, too, is about the cultivation of appearances.

“Realness” is a recurring theme in “Pose,” which is nuanced about the conscious and unconscious assumptions the term can involve. Elektra uses authenticity as a cudgel with Blanca, whom she insults for not “passing” well enough; a gay-bar manager ejects Blanca, saying, “I’m not throwing a costume party.” A later episode deals with the pressure to get often-dangerous augmentations and injections.

But “Pose” is broadly empathetic and nonjudgmental. Each character is making complicated decisions about how to define her- or himself, including Elektra, who presents herself as unbreakable but is wrestling with getting gender-confirmation surgery that her lover (Chris Meloni) is vehemently against.

The series is not afraid of melodrama, the first four episodes suffer peak-TV bloat (at a full hour and up) and the scripts veer into the kind of speechy dialogue that comes across as read more than spoken. But the rough patches are lofted by its vitality and refusal to draw its characters in terms of tragedy. As a sometimes-competitor to Elektra puts it: “How lucky are we? We create ourselves.”

Like its characters, who sift through a larger culture’s looks and iconography to create a custom-fit expression, “Pose” at its best produces a hybrid — an old-fashioned story of surrogate family and putting on a show, remixed into something novel. It is not flawless, but it defines its own category. A must see.

Courtesy of NYT