FX’s Pose is set in 1987, the same year as the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities, the classic New York satire by the late Tom Wolfe. The white, wealthy world of Bonfire depicts two cities running in parallel, the ‘masters of the universe’ holding court over a gritty town broken into enclaves of race and class.
The latest show by Ryan Murphy (Feud, American Horror Story) starts with the same ingredients — everybody’s still aspiring for that Park Avenue address — but the protagonists are those who peer at Manhattan’s elite stratosphere from the outside.
Pose fleshes out a universe that audiences may only know from the film Paris Is Burning and from numerous references in RuPaul’s Drag Race — the uptown drag ballroom culture of the 1980s, a source of glamour and community for black and Latino LGBT people that has come to influence many aspects of popular culture. (Madonna’s “Vogue” is just the beginning of its wide influence.)
Drag balls, particularly in Harlem and in the Lower East Side, have existed since the late 19th century, and by the 1980s, a vibrant scene incorporating ‘realness’ drag costuming, modeling and a glorious street dance style called voguing took over the late-night streets, led by a system of houses, close-knit groups who performed together and served as families and care givers. In Pose, we follow the stories of three members of the fictional House of Abundance — Elektra (Dominque Jackson) the regal mother of the house, Angel (Indya Moore) the beautiful sex worker and blossoming romantic, and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), a strong-willed, hard-working woman with a heartbreaking secret that sets the story in motion.
(All three are played by transgender actresses. And all three are extraordinary.)
Then there’s Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), the gay African-American runaway, thrown out by his religious family and living on a park bench in Washington Square Park, reflecting the harsh reality of thousands of gay and lesbian teens who escaped to the city during this period. In classic 80s movie fashion, Damon has big dreams of becoming a dancer. In the first episode, he even gets his big Flashdance moment which will — I guarantee you — bring you to tears.
As a historical piece, Pose doesn’t not quite share the attention to period detail that its characters practice in emulating the era’s realness. But it absolutely feels authentic. And there’s something so energizing about seeing these sorts of stories being taken seriously on screen — by a sizable cable network — for the first time.
Into some 1980s New York City trivia? Follow along with the Bowery Boys on Twitter (@boweryboys) during live broadcasts of FX’s Pose as we ‘tweet along’ with the show, delivering fascinating bits of historical knowledge (no plot spoilers) about some of the scenes being presented. The first episode airs Sunday, June 3 (9pm EST).