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FX’s Pose turns ’80s gay and trans culture into a heartfelt celebration of found families

TV super-producer Ryan Murphy finds a new definition of “family values” in this warm drama.

Pose is set amid the drag ball world in ’80s New York.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Pose is a family drama that imagines the underprivileged and underloved of a whole city as its family.

Its tenderness makes up for any flaws, to the degree that I know I should tell you about the flaws, but I almost want to lie and say they aren’t there, because it carries itself with the confidence of a show that knows it’s good, and if you can’t recognize that, well, that’s your problem.

The new FX series, the last produced for FX by super-producer Ryan Murphy as part of his deal with 20th Century Fox (he’ll soon move to Netflix), never tightens when it can sprawl. That expansion sits close to the heart of everything good and bad about the series. Why tell one story when you can tell seven, especially when they’re all about the sorts of characters we almost never see depicted in fiction? Conversely, why tell a story in 45 minutes when you could in 75?

So no, Pose isn’t perfect. It occasionally becomes too enamored of its freedom to explore all of this territory television has so rarely opened itself up to. But it’s true, in that way that helps you ignore its less successful pieces in favor of celebrating its best qualities.

And because it’s set in mid-’80s New York City, it put me in mind of a bunch of other fictional representations of the period, the city, and the LGBTQ communities the series presents. Here are five of the show’s seeming influences, from most to least obviously influential.

1) Paris Is Burning

The members of the esteemed House of Evangelista.

Director Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1991 documentary chronicled the New York City “drag ball” scene, in which gay and transgender contestants, quite often black or Latino, competed against each other around central themes, wearing elaborate costumes and walking the runway for a panel of judges. At roughly the same length as the 77-minute Pose pilot, Paris Is Burning was a key pop cultural work helping audiences learn about gay and trans culture during a decade when that culture increasingly moved toward the mainstream.

The connection between Paris Is Burning and Pose will be evident immediately. Indeed, Pose, at one time, was to be a straightforward fictional adaptation of Paris, until Murphy purchased a script from writer Steven Canals, which was also about ’80s drag ball culture and interlocking themes of race, gender, economics, and sexuality. (Murphy and frequent collaborator Brad Falchuk helped Canals develop the script into a television series and both have co-creator credits.)

This was probably the right call. Even a fictionalized adaptation of Paris would have required some adherence to actual history, where Pose is free to keep some elements of 1980s New York (like the AIDS crisis and a real estate mogul named Donald Trump) but build its story around a ball culture of its own invention.

But what’s at once freeing and frustrating about Pose is how decentralized the balls are to its stories. They take the form, more or less, of musical numbers, offering something new and different to punctuate the action, which allows the characters to expose some degree of their innermost selves. But the series struggles to depict the competitions between its central characters (who live and compete together as House of Evangelista) and their main challengers (House of Abundance), perhaps because the characters in Evangelista are much better-developed than those in Abundance.

Thus, the ball scenes end up feeling a little decentralized, and they feel only more so once directors other than Murphy take over the helm. (He directed the season’s first two hours, and I’ve seen four episodes of what will be eight in total.) Murphy clearly adores watching human beings cover themselves in layers of performance, layers designed to deflect criticism and protect someone’s core; later directors too often rush through the ball sequences in a way that makes them feel perfunctory.

2) The television shows of Jason Katims

Or perhaps the balls end up feeling a little unnecessary because the rest of the show is so good. Most of its action is set among the members of House of Evangelista, centered on Blanca Rodriguez (M.J. Rodriguez), a trans woman who forms her own house and subsequently takes in a motley crew of younger trans women and gay men. The individual struggles of these characters and the relationships among them form the series’ strongest backbone.

These scenes are also warm and heartfelt in a way that frequently dark, often chilly cable dramas don’t always allow themselves to be nowadays. The central idea of Pose is that the family you find is far stronger than the family you were born into, to the degree that one of its earliest scenes depicts a young gay man being thrown out of his house far away from New York and then finding his way to Evangelista.

Thus, the series is something of a riff on the family dramas of producer Jason Katims, shows like Friday Night Lights or Parenthood, but instead of the central parental figures being a traditional cisgender, heterosexual couple, the show’s mother is a trans woman who tries to do her best by her children. The series also uses the traditional family drama structure of examining social issues through the prism of the show’s characters, but those issues involve ideas like trans women wrestling with whether to have gender affirmation surgery.

3) The Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities

Sure. Evan Peters is here.

Despite the fact that Blanca fulfills all of the roles of a drama series protagonist, the first billed member of the cast is Murphy favorite Evan Peters, who’s been in many a season of American Horror Story. He’s followed by Kate Mara and James Van Der Beek. All three are talented performers, but the storyline they exist in is way, way off the story’s center, which is located in the House of Evangelista.

Peters and Mara play the young married couple Stan and Patty, with Van Der Beek starring as Stan’s boss, Matt. (The two work, in one of the clunkier elements of the show, for an always unseen Donald Trump.) But Stan has a secret — he’s fallen completely and totally for Angel (Indya Moore, giving perhaps the show’s best performance), a young trans woman who lives in the House of Evangelista. Stan and Angel’s relationship is at once sweet and charged by all the divides between his cisgender, straight white male success and her existence as a trans Latina on society’s margins.

The scenes with Patty and Matt don’t yet justify the presence of this entire other subplot in a show that already sprawls so expansively, especially since they’re so often trite. Patty spends a lot of one episode asking Stan for a dishwasher, while Matt exists solely to prove Van Der Beek is capable of a watered-down version of Matthew McConaughey’s character from The Wolf of Wall Street.

But the connection between Stan and Angel feels like it’s genuinely interested in the many interlocking chains of privilege keeping the two from being together, right down to a fourth-episode revelation about why Stan sought out Angel (who worked as a sex worker for a time) in the first place.

This whole section of the show calls to mind Tom Wolfe’s classic ‘80s New York novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, but flipped on its ear, so it’s no longer about a handsome business exec who becomes embroiled in a situation that only underlines how little he knows of the world beyond his safe, expensive home. Instead, it’s about the people he comes in contact with once he leaves his home.

But that story is still present, and sometimes you can even see the dim reflection of the version of it that would be written by Wolfe or, say, John Irving — compassionate for Angel and her friends but still placing Stan at the center.

4) Angels in America

Tony Kushner’s landmark two-part play isn’t just evoked here because Pose is about LGBTQ New Yorkers living in the midst of the AIDS crisis — though given Murphy’s love of plays about the history of gay men in America (he produced a Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band and directed an HBO version of The Normal Heart), it’s not hard to imagine he had Angels on the mind. Plus, the show’s interest in the AIDS crisis, while ultimately minor compared to other plot points, constantly hangs over the series like a specter, as it should. Characters fret about the time a condom slipped off during sex, or taking an HIV test, or the way they’ve lost friends and acquaintances to the dreaded disease.

But the even more compelling argument for the influence of Angels is the very structure of Pose itself, which sets up its large, grand ensemble, then immediately begins throwing the characters into different pairings that will allow for the most possible discussion about topics that are rarely broached in fiction. It’s similar to how Kushner spent the first part of Angels building out his ensemble, then split them off into the most unlikely pairings in the second part — the better to heighten conflict and understanding.

And like Angels, Pose is fascinated by setting its characters on collision courses that seem driven by some unseen divine hand. It’s not hard to imagine a second season of the show where, say, Patty leaves behind her suburban life and becomes friends with Blanca, or where Matt steps down from Trump Tower and bumps into drag ball emcee Pray Tell (the great stage star Billy Porter). It’s that kind of a show, where New York is reimagined as a grand, endlessly renewable experiment, a constant reshuffling of its own deck.

Pose is not as well-written or constructed as Angels, but Angels is also a landmark work of American art, so that the comparison isn’t completely unflattering is to Pose’s benefit. And I’m very excited to see if Pose copies Angels’ willingness to pair and repair characters to better drive its story.

5) Falcon Crest

Pray Tell does not suffer fools well.

Early in the series, Pray Tell sasses some ball competitors by telling them that the theme is “Dynasty, not Falcon Crest!” This is telling of the ball culture. After all, Dynasty was the most over-the-top, campiest, most ridiculous of the popular ’80s primetime soaps, and Joan Collins’s performance in the series alone seems to have defined the word “bitchy.”

But Falcon Crest was an interesting show too, if a bit less ostentatious. Fascinated by families, interested in internecine squabbles, and always driven by the whims of its matriarch, Falcon Crest sounds a lot more like Pose than Dynasty does. And that, too, is important.

Pose is as radical as anything else Murphy has done, in its insistence on the idea that the values of this ball culture can be family values too, that the definition of “family values” is endlessly adaptable, depending on who the family is.

Pose debuts Sunday at 10 pm Eastern on FX.

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