I don’t want to say anything too hyperbolic, but I’m going to suggest that Pose features one of the best opening sequences of a TV show ever. It must be hard to try and create the most compelling possible pilot for a show focusing on trans women of colour in New York City and yet, in the hands of Ryan Murphy, it is not just a compelling pilot, but an exceptional one. From the moment a group of transgender women steal a selection of elizabethan gowns from a museum, there is nothing about this show that doesn’t scream excessive, elaborate and endearing.
Pose is the kind of show that could only come about because one of TV’s biggest showrunners is a gay man: with all that clout behind him, he went in and created a show that, based on its reception since airing in America last year, captures with accuracy and sensitivity it’s unexplored central subject: New York’s ball scene in the Eighties, via the battle between two “hauses” – elected families who compete in the balls – of trans women, homeless queer boys and society’s other oddities.
If you don’t know the ball scene, you're in luck: there's a seminal – if somewhat controversial – documentary called Paris Is Burning that acts as a great starting point. But if you have no plans to do background reading for a TV show (fair) here, to speak the local dialect, is the “t”: Manhattan’s drag scene used to be focused on pageants, rewarding female illusion and, specifically, white beauty. Black and Latinx queens like Crystal LaBeija found it stultifying and decided to set up their own scene in Harlem. These balls, centred around queer people of colour, were opportunities for queer people to dress up and present themselves in any number of “categories” – Dynasty, femme queen body, Butch Queen, Banjee Boy – and birthed “voguing”, the dance craze inspired by magazine covers: it was this that Madonna learned of, and later drew from, to create her most famous song. The ball scene is often seen as a relic of the Eighties, but has been going ever since: some of the biggest “hauses”, such as LaBeija or Xtravaganza, have been going ever since then, with new generations of “children” entering the system every year. A lot of the lingo of today’s gay community comes from the dialect of black queer people, made popular by the rise of ball scene: everything from “fierceness” to “spill the t” to more niche phrases like “she bring it to you every ball”. It is in the middle of the scene’s Eighties heyday – during New York's HIV epidemic, long before Giuliani cleaned up Times Square – that Murphy throws us.
Although the show explores the Aids epidemic, it is surprisingly low down on the list of subjects at the show’s heart. Perhaps because New York’s Aids crisis has been well covered between The Hours, Angels In America and The Normal Heart (which Murphy even produced the TV version of). Instead diagnoses and hospital appointments are woven into the general fabric of the piece, less interested in highlighting the existence of HIV positive people and instead including them as one of the marginalised communities who find family and purpose through ball culture: our point of view lead, Damon, is a gay man thrown out of his family home; Ricky, his partner, is an escort; Pray Tell is the HIV positive emcee; Lil Papi is a drug dealer. Elektra, Blanca, Angel, Lulu and Candy are all trans women looking for sanctuary in a city where even gay men don’t want anything to do with them.
Really, Pose is a study of the importance of chosen family and of lineage and of history to the queer community. Young boys left on their own due to their sexuality, transgender women trying to navigate the world and those who long ago thought they couldn’t depend on anyone can find people who have survived these same reckonings. It's a system of community and intergenerational support that, arguably, the Aids crisis tore to shreds. While it is a story of specific experiences, the end result is something universal: the most important thing we can do is learn to love other people, and be loved in return. It’s a beautiful message, plus it has one of the best soundtracks out there: one episode keeps playing “Love Is The Message” over and over (never a bad thing) and it contains perhaps the best use of “Love Hangover” ever committed to film.
What is less great, and yet somewhat understandable as a narrative choice, is the plot involving Murphy regular Evan Peters as a Trump employee, with his lazily-written wife Patty (Kate Mara) and even more caricature boss (James Van Der Beek). It makes a couple of points as it plods on – how masculinity and monogamy are performances, some fun prods at the current commander in chief – but it feels very turgid and samey in a show that otherwise always leans in to the odd, the fabulous and the underreported.
But this plot is, thankfully, a small (if important) part of the overall texture of the show: watch instead for Indya Moore as Angel, a radiant beauty with a zen sort of sass, or Dominique Jackson as the glacier-in-a-gown Elektra Abundance, or Mj Rodriguez as the self-appointed matriarch Blanca. And absolutely watch it for Billy Porter – who you may know for his fabulous gown on the Oscars red carpet this year – as Pray Tell, who can ricochet between sincerity and performativity at such speeds he should have points on his license. These are stars, honey: actors and actresses being given big opportunities and scoring tens, tens, tens across the board.
Watch it because it’s a show built with the support, advice and heart of the trans community from the ground up. Watch it for some of the best costumes you’ll ever see and a desperate performance to Whitney’s “Dance To Somebody” that will make you cry. And you should absolutely watch it because – and let’s be real here – the fact it has taken a year for this show to cross the Atlantic is an absolute disgrace. Give it your eyeballs and prove to British broadcasters that sitting on something this successful for this long is a sin. It's not even a sacrifice to do so: Pose deserves a long, lavish history telling tales of love, pain and derring-do. It has not only the best opening scene but, perhaps, one of the most satisfying finales, and one of the best Christmas episodes, ever. You will laugh. You will cry. You might, if you have the room, even vogue the house down boots. God save the queens of television.