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'Pose' review: Despite breakthrough casting, Ryan Murphy's latest drama is formulaic

Indya Moore as Angel, Ryan Jamaal Swain as

Indya Moore as Angel, Ryan Jamaal Swain as Damon and Mj Rodriguez as Blanca on FX's "Pose."   Photo Credit: FX/JoJo Whilden

THE SERIES "Pose"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at  9 p.m. on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In this Ryan Murphy series about the '80s "Ball Culture" — part of the LGBT subculture in New York, where people who belonged to "houses" competed for prizes at various balls of fashion and dance — Blanca Rodriguez (transgender actress Mj Rodriguez) has decided she wants to launch her own house. But first, the hard part: She has to break with Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the "mother" — or leader — of the most successful house of them all. Elektra's not happy, less so when Blanca starts to go after some of her stars, like Angel (Indya Moore) and attracts promising newcomers of her own, like Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain). Meanwhile, in a world apart, Stan Bowes (Evan Peters) gets a job at Trump Tower working for the loathsome Matt Bromley (James Van Der Beek). And then Stan meets Angel.

MY SAY There's a line of dialogue deep in next week's episode that lands squarely on what "Pose" wants to be, or — more exactly — the injustice it wants to redress. Here's the setup: Blanca is trying to recruit someone from Elektra's house to her own, and for some reason decides that "the best gay bar in the Village two years running" is the perfect venue for her hard sell.  

 At least until the bartender, oozing attitude and snark, saunters over to say: "I've got 10 guys over here asking me if it's drag night."

 An offended Blanca says: "I'm sorry but we're not in drag. We're women."

Anticipating how all this is going to go down — which is not well — the would-be recruit from House Elektra then explains to Blanca that "everybody needs someone to make them feel superior. That line ends with us. This [expletive] runs downhill, past the women, the blacks, the Latins, gays, until it reaches the bottom and lands on our kind."

 "Our kind," of course, are transgender women, circa 1987, who can't get served at a bar, who also can't get jobs, who can't get apartments and who can't get justice. They have zero representation in pop culture, or gay culture or any culture save the one they make for themselves. Circa 2018, there remain vestiges of this: RuPaul recently said that trans women would "probably not" be allowed to appear on "RuPaul's Drag Race" because "once you start changing your body...it changes the whole concept of what we're doing."

 And so, it's worth pointing out here that "Pose" — despite the flamboyance and especially despite all those boas — is absolutely not a fictional version of "Drag Race." It's not even about drag.

This isn't a fine point, but one that Murphy, in his swan song for FX (he's joining Netflix after this) clearly wants to underscore. With a few rare and obvious exceptions ("Transparent"), television has ignored the trans community. "Pose," therefore, is the defiant exception: Virtually the entire cast is composed of LGBT actors, and apparently not an inconsiderable number of people behind the camera too. Two years ago, Murphy launched his "Half" initiative to hire more female directors and to bring more people of color and those from the LGBT community into TV. "Pose" essentially represents that good work.

Nevertheless, good intentions don't always lead to good TV, and a couple episodes in, that appears to be the case with "Pose." This certainly isn't bad TV — Murphy isn't about to leave his longtime home with a turkey — but it's often bland TV, and oddly enough, stock TV. We've all seen a series like this. Murphy and Brad Falchuk (also an executive producer here) essentially perfected the formula with "Glee." Predictably, the show comes alive in the "ballrooms," which swirl with color and life. Also (less predictably), it comes to a crawl everywhere else. Van Der Beek's Bromley is a caricature of a corporate goon -- so outsized, and silly, you can't begin to take him seriously (and maybe you aren't supposed to). Peters -- Quicksilver of the "X-Men" franchise -- seems out of place here too. There's something sinister about this well-scrubbed suburban dad who discovers his soulmate in Angel. Or maybe that's years of "American Horror Story" channeled through the character.

 "Pose" has eight episodes to get the formula right. Maybe it will, maybe not. Otherwise, diversity and inclusion should at least remain the bona fide accomplishments.

BOTTOM LINE A diverse cast — and a transgender one — is the highlight of a series that's otherwise rooted in formula.

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