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Pose: All that glitters in pure gold in a tale of Eighties transgender ball culture

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 21/03/2019 Natasha Sporn

Ryan Murphy is a big cheese.

Last year he became the most powerful man in TV when he signed a $300 million five-year contract with Netflix. His credits as writer, producer and showrunner include Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Feud. You may have heard of them?

Pose is his passion project. Set in New York City in 1987, it’s about the lives of gay and transgender people of colour participating in ball culture, the dance-offs in which vogueing originated, living in alternative communities known as “houses” - safe spaces for those rejected by straight society, run by “mothers”.

Pose has the largest cast of transgender actors ever assembled and nearly everybody else key to the production is LGBTQ+ too. At the US premiere last year, Murphy announced that he would donate all his profits from the series to charitable organisations working with LGBTQ+ people.

a statue of a man and a woman standing in front of a crowd: Pose: Indya Moore as Angel (BBC/FX/JoJo Whilden) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Pose: Indya Moore as Angel (BBC/FX/JoJo Whilden)

So here’s the pilot of Pose tonight, introducing the cast we will follow through eight episodes (a second series comes later this year). It opens with a joyful heist as members of the reigning House of Abundance, led by haughty mother Elektra (44-year-old trans actor Dominique Jackson) raid a museum for regal clothes to wear to the ball.

These repeated contests, vibrantly compered by OTT emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter), are key to the drama. They keep bringing it back to being a talent contest, with all the emotion and impetus that Murphy obviously loves.

There’s trouble between the houses, though, you bet. Elektra’s talented younger lieutenant, Blanca (28-year-old trans actor Mj Rodriguez), has just been diagnosed HIV positive and her courageous response is to follow her dreams and set her up her own house, the House of Evangelista, creating a rivalry with Elektra that’s going to run and run.

a group of people on a stage: Pose: Dyllon Burnside as Ricky (BBC/FX/Pari Dukovic) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Pose: Dyllon Burnside as Ricky (BBC/FX/Pari Dukovic)

Meanwhile, talented 17-year-old dancer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is kicked out of the family home by his brutally homophobic parents and ends up living on the streets in New York — until Blanca spots him in the park and takes him under her wing, helping him apply to dance school, and, in a tender thread through the next few episodes, mentoring him in his first romance with nice guy Ricky (Dyllon Burnside).

Murphy intended to portray Donald Trump as the evil genius of Eighties New York — but then he decided that “nobody wants to see that f***head”. Instead, Evan Peters (a peculiarly boyish 32) plays a junior Trump executive, Stan Bowes, recruited by a coke-snorting cartoon of a boss (James Van Der Beek).

Stan may be married with children but he finds himself falling in love with beautiful young Angel of the House of Evangelista (24-year-old trans actor Indya Moore). Tonight they have a romantic first encounter in which Angel, after admitting she’s still saving up to have her “little friend” removed, confesses her dreams: “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.”

a close up of a blue wall: Pose: The new drama airs in the UK from tonight (BBC/FX/Pari Dukovic) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Pose: The new drama airs in the UK from tonight (BBC/FX/Pari Dukovic)

Stan is smitten and tries to oblige. In the next episode, he humbly tells her that it’s because she’s so much more authentic than him: “I’m no one, I don’t live, I accumulate. But you’re who you are. I’m the one playing dress-up! Is it wrong to want to be with one of the few people in the world who isn’t?” Aw!

Pose is aspirational and celebratory — and in pursuit of that, a little anachronistic, importing to the New York of 30 years ago all the trans commitment of today. Never mind. This is, after all a study in the lives of the saints, set to disco. Denying his work is camp, Murphy insists that it’s baroque.

That seems about right. We dead white males can only hope to be cremated soon.

Related: Most popular TV shows the ear you were born [Stacker]

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