What is this fabulous, ambitious new drama series about? The ballroom scene in New York in 1987. And what is that? As a major character says to a young man entering this world, the ballroom scene is “a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else, a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.”
Pose (Sunday, FX, 9 p.m.) is, in truth, indescribably good. But let me try. Some advance reviews described it simply as “revolutionary.” It certainly is that in the context of who is placed at its centre and what their concerns are. This is first-rate cable drama that is not, remarkably, about middle-aged white guys and their issues. Those characters exist in Pose but on the margins. And, as it happens, the main guys in that category work for Donald Trump. This is not, mind you, a truly major plot point. It’s a deftly placed, slyly nurtured particle in the main body of things.
The ballroom scene of the late 1980s in New York was immortalized in the documentary Paris Is Burning, which clearly serves as an inspiration. The inhabitants of the scene are the LGBTQ communities who are intent on celebrating their world, their fashion, their style and their unique sensibility. This is a world of “houses” who go into faux-wars in the ballrooms, parading their clothes, looks and attitude for judges, surrounded by deliriously carousing, jubilant friends and supporters.
The series is the work of Ryan Murphy with his usual creative partner Brad Falchuk and here, Steven Canals. This is Murphy’s final work for Fox and FX, as his lavishly funded deal with Netflix goes into effect this summer. Murphy has made some of the most astonishing TV of the past two decades, from Nip/Tuck to Glee, The People v. OJ Simpson and American Horror Story. His parting gift to FX has all the energy and originality of storytelling that marks his best work and the sort of oddly earnest-activist but soaringly humorous and affirming tone that is his true hallmark. You want fun and visual oomph? This has tons of that.
The series is about two competing “houses,” which are actually collectives run by a mother figure. The House of Abundance is bossed by Elektra (Dominique Jackson), who runs her gang of fashionistas with an iron fist and unbeatable ambition for style dominance. One of her brood, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), defects and starts the House of Evangelista, aiming for fabulousness with a more charitable attitude that runs to taking in strays and lost souls. Elektra and Blanca are enemies but respect each other. What’s at stake is what happens in those wonderfully staged ballroom competitions.
Murphy and his team pack an incredible amount into the early episodes. What is, essentially, a dance musical series, is also a documentary melodrama about the period and the threat of the AIDS epidemic that is always part of the fabric of this world.
At the same time, it is about atrocious eighties excess. Part way through the first episode, a guy named Stan (Evan Peters), a vapid-looking white guy in a good suit, enters Trump Tower for a job interview. He’s interviewed by a Trump Organization manager named Matt (played with relish by James Van Der Beek) who welcomes him aboard, tells him to “flaunt your success,” then does a line of cocaine while boasting, “I drive a Mercedes 350 and my suit is bespoke.” After ingesting the cocaine, he announces cheerfully, “God bless Ronald Reagan!” The scene is so brazenly mocking, it is breathtaking.
But those guys are peripheral. The sprawling cast of characters are gay and trans people (trans characters are played by trans actors) creating their own paths. The opening scenes of the first episode tell you a lot. First, there’s a joyful heist sequence, then a ballroom celebration that is magical. Next, a young black man in a small town has a confrontation with his father and mother. “I’m a dancer and I’m gay. I’m gonna get out of this town and be a somebody,” the young man tells his father, who promptly beats him. His mother then disowns him. Then there is a scene in which Blanca is tested for HIV. Throughout, there is an extraordinary energy at work. This is lavish, stand-up-and-cheer drama of an entirely new type. Unmissable.
Also airing this weekend
Succession (Sunday, HBO, 10 p.m.) is also worth your close attention. It’s a new series about the Roys, an ultra-wealthy family whose money and power is anchored in a media empire. Dysfunctional doesn’t do justice to this crowd. Part farce and part savage satire, the drama is about the patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox is magnificently malicious) figuring out how to sort out a succession plan as he approaches his 80th birthday. There is much to admire here, especially in the florid, profane dialogue. The tone of it, at first elusive, is downright toxic.