With The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story an award-winning success, and the latest season of American Horror Story having gone down a treat with die-hard fans of the show, you’d think Ryan Murphy would have enough on his plate planning the follow-up seasons for these two telly juggernauts. However, the acclaimed writer and director has somehow found time to helm a new project — and, boy, is it a good one. Pose — which began on BBC Two tonight— is not only worth watching, it’s one of Murphy’s greatest to date — and yes, I’m fully aware that I’m saying this about the man that brought us game changers like Glee and American Horror Story. Much like the aforementioned series’, however, Pose is also a game changer.
Set during the late ‘80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the series centres on a group of outcasts — all from different walks of life — who were rejected by their families for being true to who they are. On the streets with nowhere to go, these social pariahs ultimately come together in celebration of what makes them different, as they compete for trophies in the New York City ball scene.
It’s a simple enough story, although perhaps not a very original one, but Pose’s charm lies not in its originality, but in how Murphy and co-writers Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals take the tired story and make it feel authentic. It’s got heart in abundance, which is a rarity in drama these days. In this respect, the characters are undoubtedly the series’ strongest suit — specifically transgender protagonist Blanca (MJ Rodriguez).
Make no mistake, Pose is a multi-protagonist story, but the Blanca character is largely responsible for driving the narrative forward due to her desire to start out on the ballroom scene without her ‘house’ mother Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) holding her back. What’s more, her HIV diagnosis at the beginning of the episode is primarily what drives her to do so, thus making her the pivotal character in this story. Rodriguez is truly sublime in her portrayal of Blanca — as are all the cast in their roles, including Billy Porter and Evan Peters.
As with all good drama series’, the conflict — both Blanca’s and the others’ — is rife throughout, making it hard not to empathise with these characters. The great thing is is that It makes no odds whether you can directly relate to their circumstances or not, as the writing — and characterisation — is so utterly exceptional, which results in characters that feels as real as you or me.
Yes, Murphy, Falchuk and Canals — all of whom wrote the pilot — have created some incredibly compelling characters here — each of whom are armed with their own flaw that needs fulfilling. Being rejected by his parents is what pushes Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) to find a family of his own making. Similarly, Blanca’s HIV diagnosis is what drives her to become a ‘mother’, thus fulfilling her own needs as well as those of others, such as Damon, so that she can give him the family he so desperately craves. Stan Bowes’ (Evan Peters) conflicted feelings over his desire for Angel (Indya Moore) provides for some great scenes — both in the pilot and future episodes — and Pray Tell (Billy Porter), who is arguably the show’s moral compass, is a scene-stealer.
With the largest ever transgender cast for a scripted series, not to mention transgender writers and choreographers, Pose is as revolutionary behind the camera as it is in front of it. It’s a huge moment for LGBTQ+ representation, but the great thing about it is that, with or without this knowledge, it stands up as an expertly written and directed piece of compelling entertainment. Perhaps the first episode goes on a tad too long — which was a common issue with several seasons of American Horror Story too — but it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. As there is a huge focus on categories within the show’s narrative, I guess the big question here is what would Pose’s category be? Unmissable, that’s what. I’ll say it again: this one is a game changer.
Pose continues Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Two
Contributed by Stephen Patterson