With a cast that features an unprecedented number of transgender performers, “Pose” makes a bold statement about inclusion. But this latest FX drama from producer Ryan Murphy finds familiar themes within its look back at the ballroom world of late 1980s New York, creating a strong assortment of characters that registers on the high end of the Murphy scale.
The 1987 setting not only allows for plenty of period songs (“Ain’t Nobody,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”) but the juxtaposition of the still- early days of AIDS with the repressiveness of the era, beginning with a father who slaps his teenage son – an aspiring dancer named Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) – and throws him out of the house when the boy announces that he’s gay.
“God will punish you by giving you that disease,” his equally rejecting mother warns.
Damon finds his way to the big city, New York, where his even bigger professional dreams have an undercurrent of “Fame” to them. He’s also taken in by Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), part of a colorful family that participates in the lavish balls, where performers relish the opportunity to cut loose and be themselves, a respite from the open discrimination they face by day.
“It’s our moment to become a star,” says Blanca, whose determination to chart her own course puts her at odds with the imperious Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson). Meanwhile, Angel (Indya Moore) enters into a relationship with the married Stan (Murphy regular Evan Peters), an employee of the Trump organization who doesn’t fully understand why he’s drawn to her. (Other recognizable players in the vast ensemble include Kate Mara and James Van Der Beek as Stan’s wife and unctuous boss.)
Murphy explored similar terrain in his HBO movie adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” the Larry Kramer play, and as a gay man born in the mid-1960s, has cited a strong personal connection to the show, which he created with frequent collaborator Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals.
The writing strikes plenty of conventional chords – including troubled relationships and first love – that’s wrapped in a glossy package, augmented by the exhilarating dance sequences.
Ultimately, “Pose” advances the well-worn idea that family is what you make of it, with the various ballroom groups providing “homes to all the little boys and girls,” as Elektra puts it, who would otherwise be preyed upon and vulnerable if forced to survive on the streets.
Despite series like “Transparent,” LGBTQ talent has rarely been afforded this level of opportunity on such a front-and-center stage – a wake-up call regarding performers that have traditionally been overlooked or relegated to minor roles.
It remains to be seen what sort of mass appeal the series will possess, but “Pose” will surely be celebrated on that level.
“I was an experiment to you,” Angel angrily says to Stan.
“Pose” is less an experiment than an exuberant coming-out party for LGBT actors, one that quickly locates the heart, humanity and longing in these characters. In doing so, Murphy and company have turned material that easily could have been clichéd into a drama that proudly stands tall.
“Pose” premieres June 3 at 9 p.m. on FX.