'Pose': Ryan Murphy's Drag Ball Drama Is Stylish, Surprisingly Sincere

Story of 1980s LGBT subculture isn't 'American Drag Story' – it's a straightforward, compassionate look at community, family and authenticity

Hailie Sahar as Lulu, Jason A. Rodriguez as Lemar. Credit: JoJo Whilden/FX

Pose is the ninth TV series Ryan Murphy has either created or co-created (not counting American Crime Story, where he's an influential executive producer). It is also, somewhat improbably, the most restrained and earnest of all his shows, despite its subject matter.

Or maybe because of it.

Pose, which Murphy co-created with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals (and premieres on June 3rd) takes place in New York in the late Eighties, in the drag ball scene that was briefly brought into the mainstream by Madonna's "Vogue" video and the documentary Paris Is Burning. Its cast is mostly unknown and mostly transgender, playing a group of queer, brown women and men who periodically gather to compete to see who will be deemed most juicy, or real, or just plain fabulous through a combination of dance, wardrobe and attitude. Many would be homeless if not for the benevolence of the "mother" of the respective houses in which they live, which have names like House of Abundance and House of Evangelista.

Even by the standards of a far more homophobic and transphobic world than the one we know 30 years later, the heroines and heroes of Pose live on the margins of what’s tolerated by allegedly polite society. In one episode, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) – the mother of House of Evangelista, who can pass just enough to hold a steady job in the straight world, but gets read as trans in the gay one – is repeatedly kicked out of a gay bar because its white male management and clientele finds her presence embarrassing and scary, as if she’ll put them all back on the bigots' radar. When the cops arrest her for refusing to leave, the whole bar bursts into applause and derisive laughter.

"Everyone needs someone to make them feel superior," suggests Lulu (Hailie Sahar), a woman Blanca is trying to recruit from a rival house. "That line ends with us, though."

Perhaps because the characters are so marginalized and vulnerable – HIV and AIDS are a full-blown epidemic in this community, afflicting several regulars and terrorizing the rest – or perhaps because their personal style and attitude are so flashy to begin with, Pose adopts a protective attitude about them and a fairly straightforward approach to its storytelling. It's far from a drab-looking show – the opening sequence involves Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) and her "children" stealing centuries-old royal gowns from a museum to wear at a ball – but it also does without a lot of the visual and narrative gloss that Murphy tends to apply to other shows like Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story, often to diminishing returns.

At times, it's almost startlingly conventional, like the way the premiere episode climaxes with a dance school audition that’s cribbed thoroughly from similar scenes in Flashdance and Save the Last Dance. But because the auditioner is Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a sensitive gay black teenager to whom we're introduced as his religious parents physically and verbally abuse him while kicking him out of the house, the stakes feel higher and the cliché feels like something new and powerful.

A lot of Pose works that way, with Murphy, Falchuk, Canals and company trusting that their characters are distinctive and compelling enough that additional flourishes are not only unnecessary but counterproductive. The rivalry between Blanca and Elektra (whose house Blanca leaves to form her own in the premiere), the romance Damon finds with street hustler Ricky (Dyllon Burnside), and even the balls themselves are simultaneously surprising and familiar. (Within a few episodes, the rules and traditions of the balls are as clearly delineated, and the tension as engaging, as the Friday Night Lights football games would become to viewers who neither knew nor cared about high school sports.)

That trans actors were cast in trans roles is as it should be, but the sheer number of young trans characters, coupled with the previous scarcity of opportunity for trans performers, means a lot of inexperienced unknowns are handed major responsibilities. Most are more than up to the challenge, particularly Indya Moore as Angel, a sex worker whose beauty and sunny disposition attracts the interest of Stan (American Horror Story vet Evan Peters), a suburban commuter with a wife, Patty (Kate Mara), and two young kids. In some cases, though, you'll be keenly aware that you’re watching a novice doing some intense on-the-job training.

To compensate, Murphy has peppered the supporting cast with a few ringers, also including James Van Der Beek as Stan’s boss – in the Trump Organization, no less – and Tony winner Billy Porter as Pray Tell, emcee of the drag balls and a mentor figure to Blanca. (He even sews her gowns for her.) Van Der Beek's reinvention of himself as a character actor specializing in sleazeballs has revitalized his career, and Porter's sheer charisma would be enough to carry the ball sequences even if the dancing and costumes weren't so vivid. (On the whole, the show uses dance as well as any show that's not a traditional musical has or can, with long segments devoted not only to the balls, but to Damon's dance school education under the wise but stern Helena, played by Charlayne Woodard.)

The series is slipping between a lot of communities: Damon learning both traditional dance and the kind Blanca needs him to do to beat Elektra; Stan trying to understand and articulate his feelings for Angel (while hiding them from Patty); divisions between the gay and trans communities; and even within the trans world between those who have surgery and those who don't. Its sprawl keeps things lively and brisk. Each of the four episodes shown to critics clocks in at least an hour without commercials, and the premiere is practically feature-length. But Pose struts so confidently and quickly down its narrative catwalk that you'll barely feel the time go by as characters strive to constantly reinvent themselves in a world that seems to have little use or compassion for them.

As a member of a rival house tells Elektra, "How lucky are we? We get to create ourselves. Shit, we are the real Dreamgirls."

This is at once a grand and utterly innocent sentiment. It could have been presented in some outré fashion. Instead, it's two tired women chatting in a coffee shop booth after a very long night, and all the more powerful because of how simple and unadorned the presentation is. Pose celebrates many values, but realness and compassion above all else.