Ryan Murphy has been on quite the roll — a roll that recently won him a five-year deal with Netflix estimated at $300 million. In the past two years, the producer-writer-director has made timely drama out of an exhausted topic with “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” poignantly captured classic Hollywood sexism with “Feud: Bette and Joan,” reframed a high-profile murder as the result of systemic homophobia in the riveting “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” and now, with, “Pose,” painted a fascinating portrait of the drag ball subculture in 1987 — a portrait that doubles as an affecting family drama. At least he’s leaving FX, his primary home since “Nip/Tuck” in 2003, with one last goodnight kiss.
I hardly thought it was possible to make scripted TV out of the New York ballroom world of the 1980s — so memorably introduced to the mainstream in 1990 by the documentary “Paris Is Burning” and the Madonna song “Vogue” — without succumbing to fabulously hollow spectacle. But Murphy and his co-creators, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, take a deep and emotional look at the runway competitions in “Pose,” focusing on the way they served as so much more than simply fashion sport. The FX show is about black, Latino, and LGBT people finding safety and identity by walking alternative runways, it’s about creating families of choice when your family of birth doesn’t accept you, it’s about the tragedy and ignorance of the early AIDS epidemic, and its about the moral bankruptcy of the masters of the universe at the then-new Trump Tower, one of whom, Stan (Evan Peters), falls in love with a transgender woman.
It’s also about war. The central rivalry on “Pose” is between the House of Abundance and the House of Evangelista, and in particular their “mothers,” Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) and Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez). Elektra is stunning, and her perfect skin and her dramatic styles have long kept her at the top of the ball hierarchy of realness. She’s a demanding mother to her “children,” and she’s scrappy enough to steal costumes from a museum, but she has demons of her own, including anguish about whether to get gender-reassignment surgery. Blanca, who left Abundance to start her own house after learning she’s HIV-positive, is a more loving soul who wants to “build a legacy” with her house. She assembles a family of sweet babies, notably the eager dance student Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and the vulnerable Angel (Indya Moore), the trans woman dating Stan, who is married.
Most of “Pose” is set among these two houses and their characters, many of whom are portrayed by trans actresses. (The show has the largest trans cast and crew ever on a scripted series.) We see Blanca grow to fit her role as a mother, we see Damon work to fit in at his dance school and have his first love affair, we see Angel and a friend deal with body image issues over not being curvy enough. We see how some gay men refuse to accept trans women in their community, as they repeatedly force Blanca to leave a gay bar. We see how Angel struggles to understand why Stan, who doesn’t identify as gay, finds her attractive.
But most of all, we see the way these people support one another as they channel their creative energy into their ball presentations.
And those balls, they are fantastic. Those extended sequences are the most vibrant parts of “Pose.” The costuming is extravagant, the body language is dynamic and articulate, and the energy in the room is infectious. The best part is the emcee, Pray Tell, who is played with great humor and feeling by Billy Porter, who won a Tony for “Kinky Boots.” He’s the guy who calls the competitions, delivering shade and awe in equal measure, and he’s also the grandfather of the scene who has a special fondness for Blanca and her house. I’ve seen four episodes, and I’m already hoping he gets an Emmy nomination.
The other performances are strong, too, many of them by unknowns. Rodriguez broke my heart a few times as Blanca, and, surprisingly, so did Jackson, whose exaggerated pronunciation of the letter “T” is a constant reminder of Elektra’s self-drama. Peters, a Murphy regular in “American Horror Story,” is fine, but the subplot involving his wife, Patty (Kate Mara), and his repugnant greed-centric boss, Matt (James Van Der Beek), feels gratuitous and clichéd.
I will admit that, at times, “Pose” employs a number of overused tropes — the underdogs fighting to make it, for example, or the trust issues in Damon’s new relationship. Be prepared. We’ve seen them before, not least of all on Murphy’s own “Glee.” But, since the formulaic stories emerge in a world that is so unusual and unfamiliar to most viewers, they nonetheless seem fresh. Plus, they are compensated by some strikingly original plots involving trans life.
I’m certain there are people who know a lot about ballroom culture, or who’ve participated in it, who are going to find “Pose” superficial. But for those of us new to that world, “Pose” introduces us to its rituals, language, and spirit effortlessly, and enjoyably.
Starring: MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Evan Peters, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, Angelica Ross, Kate Mara, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Billy Porter, Dyllon Burnside, James Van Der Beek
On: FX, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.