Pose, Ryan Murphy’s latest FX series, opens with the most fabulous sequence you’ll see on TV this year. It’s 1986, and the House of Abundance — mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and daughters Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), Lulu (Hailie Sahar), and Candy (Angelica Ross), among others — is walking the royalty category at their regular ball. The members are outfitted in the finest royal regalia, all stolen from the Museum of Fashion and Design. And they are walking like they own everything, when they don’t even own the clothes on their backs.
“Category is: bring it like royalty!” ball announcer Pray Tell (Billy Porter) shouts to start the show. And bring it they do, each member of the House practically floating down the runway. The audience loses their damn minds, bowing at Elektra’s feet as she shuts it down. “Ten, ten, ten, tens across the board,” he screams as the judges reveal their scores. It’s an electric scene. It also likely sounds familiar if you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
For drag historians and connoisseurs, Drag Race occupies a precarious place. While it has inarguably brought drag into the public spotlight, it also presents a very specific kind of drag: competitive, mass-marketable, and in many cases, white. When a younger fan who mostly knows about drag from Drag Race meets one of these connoisseurs, the latter will often instruct the former to watch Paris Is Burning, or (more infrequently) The Queen. Both documentary films are by turns insightful and important looks at the drag scene predating Drag Race. The recurring Reading is Fundamental mini-challenge derives from Dorian Corey’s explanation of reading; season 9 and All Stars 3 queen Aja’s primary inspiration is The Queenrantress Crystal LaBeija.
Yet the suggestion to watch either, particularly Paris Is Burning, can often feel academic. That’s somewhat unfair; Paris Is Burning is a delightful film, and perhaps the most quotable documentary ever filmed. But it has nonetheless been weighed down in the cultural consciousness by the burden of being the ‘fix’ for some Drag Race fans’ knowledge deficit. The suggestion to watch it too often comes across as highfalutin at best, and condescending at worst, as if saying, ‘Do your research, children, and eat your vegetables while you’re at it.’
Pose offers a new opportunity for Drag Race fans to learn about the ball scene, one that is most often fun and fabulous above all else. It features an ensemble full of trans actors of color, a Murphian mix of the eleganza and melodrama, and is scored to one of the best soundtracks on television. It is, in my opinion, required viewing for Drag Race fans. But Pose is so watchable, it won’t feel like a requirement at all — just a fun trip back into the ‘80s every Sunday night.
Pose’s primary story is a fairly simple one, all things considered: Blanca is tired of being disregarded by the House of Abundance, and seeks to start her own: the House of Evangelista. (She names it so after the model Linda Evangelista — “who stole my look, and who I pay tribute to in return,” Blanca declares.) She recruits Angel from the House of Abundance, plus a talented young dancer named Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), treating them fully as her children and challenging them to better themselves both on the runway and in the world. In this way, it’s more like a family drama than anything else, one that gives as much time and attention to the mother as to her children.
Over the four episodes screened for critics, Pose effectively chronicles the pains of starting both a new house (recruiting members, the strategy of entering certain categories) and a new family (keeping one member from dealing drugs, keeping another in school for dance). In the third episode, Blanca goes the extra mile to throw a special Christmas celebration, one that will be healing for her queer and trans children, who primarily associate the holiday with family rejection. For every fascinating detail about the ball scene — a girl struggles with not having the right look to win body categories — there’s a heartwarming detail about the character’s connections to each other.
That family element is, for all Drag Race’s attempts to emphasize chosen family, or feature groups like Alyssa Edwards’ Haus of Edwards, mostly missing from the competition series. Drag Race’s queens compete as individuals; Pose’s houses compete together. Considering what a cornerstone that house dynamic is in the drag scene even today, Pose’s choice to heavily frame the House of Evangelista as a family unit is a smart one.
Not everything about Pose works. At 77 minutes, the pilot feels more like a film feature than an episode of television, which makes what should be light and watchable feel more like a chore. But the episode length decreases, and the storytelling tightens, after said pilot. The only true clunker plotline is one that follows a white businessman, Stan (Evan Peters), and his wife Patty (Kate Mara). They are connected to the House of Evangelista, but only in one specific way, and the tremulous tie isn’t enough to justify their existence in the story. (The most groan-worthy part of the pilot is learning that Stan works for Donald Trump.)
But when Pose is firing on all cylinders, it’s pure extravaganza. There’s nothing like it on television — and I include Drag Race in that. Much as I love culture’s biggest drag competition, it isn’t enough. It’s a specific kind of show, one that isn’t nearly inclusive enough of trans queens. (One Peppermint or Monica Beverly Hillz or Sonique every three years isn’t enough.) Pose is filled to the brim with trans talent, is knowledgeable about the ball scene, and puts on a damn show every episode. We need both shows — and we need to watch both shows.
During the second episode, two women show down with a walk to Diana Ross’ “The Boss” — the same song that Bebe Zahara Benet wiped the floor with Trixie Mattel on during an All Stars 3 Lip Sync for Your Legacy. That lip sync was a thrilling moment for Bebe, featuring a perfect Diana impersonation. But watching the performers of Pose preen and stomp is a whole other kind of thrill. I’ve watched the scene a few times now. When the winner is declared, I can’t help but cheer to myself — just as I cheered with the bar crowd when Bebe won her lip sync.
Isn’t that something? Two great TV moments involve queens of color getting their life to an iconic Diana Ross song. And we get to watch both within months of each other. Truly, that’s the greatest gag of all.
Pose premieres Sunday, June 3, at 9 p.m. Eastern on FX.