FX takes delight in telling us that “Pose” features the largest-ever cast of transgender actors in starring roles in TV history. And the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors.
If that’s all the series, which premieres Sunday, had going for it, it wouldn’t be enough. But that’s just the beginning for the latest show from co-creator/executive producer/writer/director Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story,” “9-1-1”).
“Pose,” set within the “ball culture” in 1980s New York, is compelling and highly relatable, even to those who are straight and living in, say, Salt Lake City. That’s the genius of the series — it tells the story of minority gay and trans characters in 1987, but in a way that everyone can relate to.
Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point?
“Pose” revolves around an underground community in which different “houses” competed for acclaim and trophies as they strutted and posed at the balls.
“Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else,” explains trans woman Blanca (MJ Rodriguez).
The series is filled with transgender characters, but it’s far less about them transitioning than it is about them. Janet Mock, a trans activist who is a writer/producer on the project, said she is “most interested … by the fact that we see trans characters beyond the struggle with their bodies.”
“For me, the greatest takeaway would be just to see these characters in their fullness beyond just their trans-ness. I think that there is that history-making piece of this show.”
The characters are allowed to be people first, whereas in most media portrayals — and in real life — the focus is on the fact that they’re transgender.
“That happens a lot to me,” said Misty Snow, the 2016 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Utah. “There was a lot more attention on me as transgender than the issues I was trying to talk about.”
And that, she believes, is because “a lot of people don’t know trans people. I’ve been told by a lot of people, ‘I didn’t know anything about this until I saw your story.’
“There haven’t been a lot of roles for transgender people in the media. And a lot of times when there are, they’re very minor roles. Very stereotyped roles.”
But in “Pose,” they’re front and center. They’re “sitting with one another and having problematic politics,” Mock said, “having problematic relationships, exploring race, class, gender and sexuality in a way that is accessible, so that we can bring our audience along with us.”
Just as shows like “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” introduced many Americans to gay characters, “Pose” will introduce them to trans characters.
“I think it’s about time TV shows this is just who they are,” Snow said. “Being trans is just a fact. It’s like being tall. It’s like being short. Me, I don’t think on a day-day-basis, ‘I’m trans.’ I’m just me.”
But “Pose” is by no means a public-service project. It’s a dance musical, with big production numbers. It’s a dramatic, funny, heart-wrenching and unexpectedly engrossing narrative that reveals an over-the-top world without going over the top. It’s 2018, so there’s nothing surprising about the fact that there are gay and trans people in the world — although that was considerably less understood in 1987, when the eight-episode narrative begins.
What is shocking is seeing 17-year-old Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) attacked and beaten by his father, rejected by his mother, thrown out of his home and forced to try to survive on the streets of New York City, all because he’s gay.
“That happened to me. That was my coming-out experience with my father,” Murphy said.
Damon is rescued by Bianca, who has just formed her own house and recruits Damon because of his dancing talent. (Yes, it feels a bit like “Fame.” Or maybe “Flashdance.”)
Bianca just found out she’s HIV positive and wants to accomplish something. Her House Evangelista is the immediate rival of House Abundance, which she just left, putting her in direct conflict with her former mentor, Elektra (Dominique Jackson).
At the same time, transgender Angel (Indya Moore) has started an unlikely romance of sorts with one of her pay-for-sex customers, Stan (Evan Peters), despite the fact that he has a wife (Kate Mara) and children. Stan has just landed a job with the Trump organization and reports to an avaricious, greed-is-good, coke-snorting boss (James Van Der Beek).
It’s less complicated than it seems. And eye-opening without being preachy.
Transgender people are “normal human beings,” Snow said. “We have jobs. We go to the store. We have dreams and ambitions and ideas. We’re like any other person. And I think it’s good for people to realize that.”
And it’s good for transgender people to see people like them portrayed on TV.
“When I was in middle school and high school and transitioning, I never had access to seeing myself in such a full way,” Mock said. “In a way that is raw and problematic and gossipy and cackling, but then also deeply heartfelt and saddening and heartbreaking. So I’m so excited to give that to folks.”
”Pose” premieres Sunday on FX — 7 and 8:37 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 10 and 11:37 p.m. on Comcast.