Could we have more TV series set in the 1980s, please? My music collection has never got out of the 1980s (except sometimes into the early 1990s), and it’s never going to! This is set in 1987-88, and is centred on the ball(room) culture of African-American and Latino LGBTQ people in New York. It’s been hugely popular in the US, and premiered here in the UK last night. The music’s brilliant and there’s quite a soap opera feel to it as well, as well as shades of ’80s music/dance films like Fame and Flashdance; but it’s also got a serious message, with some scenes of violence, and many of the actors having spoken out about their experiences of facing prejudice even, or indeed especially, from their own families. The producer’s giving all his profits from the series to LGBTQ charities. On a different note, it also features Trump Tower and the people who work there.
Whilst most of the characters are fictional, some of them are real people – notably Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, who was very involved in developing “vogueing” and worked closely with Madonna on Vogue and the Blonde Ambition tour. The surname Xtravaganza came from the House of Xtravaganza, one of the “houses” associated with the ball culture scene, which provided alternative families for people who’d had issues with their own families. This series revolves around the (fictional) House of Evangelista – named in honour of Linda Evangelista – and House of Abundance.
It got off to a pretty hard-hitting start. Blanca, a transgender woman, was diagnosed with HIV. She decided to leave the House of Abundance and set up the House of Evangelista: she was the house mother, looking after young people who were alone. Then Damon, a 17-year-old dancer from Pennsylvania, was kicked out by his parents after telling them that he was gay. Those were very emotive scenes, with his dad hitting him and his mum coming out with a lot of Bible-basher comments. We next saw him sleeping on a park bench in New York. He tried to raise some money by dancing, and Blanca saw him and took him in, and he walked for the House of Evangelista at the balls.
I have to admit that I hadn’t realised that “walk” meant walk as catwalk poses, rather than actual dancing: the competitions at the balls involved people dressing for certain themes, and then doing catwalk poses and being judged on those. Hence “Strike a pose” in the Madonna song. “I know a place where you can get away. It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for.” The lyrics to that song are incredible: I’d never really thought about it much before! And a lot of the costumes were very 1980s – really glamorous and OTT.
However, it wasn’t just about having fun. Blanca told Damon about how her family had disowned her for being trans, and there was a lot of talk about how some of the ball contest themes involved seeing who could best pass as, say, a businessperson. There were some superb lines, about “the world of acceptability”, and how they felt that they didn’t “have access to the American Dream”, because of being both gay/trans and black/Latino.
There’s been a bit of a row this year over the decision that the rainbow flags for Manchester Pride should feature black and brown stripes. It’s been done at some events in the US, but not previously in the UK. Some people feel that it’s inappropriate because it suggests that the rainbow flag does not represent non-white people, whilst others feel that it highlights the fact that many non-white LGBTQ people face a double whammy of prejudice. This series is certainly highlighting that fact. And it’s got the biggest transgender cast of any TV series in history.
Then a different aspect of New York life was brought in – Stan, the aspiringYuppie who’d just got a job at Trump Tower. There’s a scene in Back to the Future in which someone in 1955 asks Marty McFly who’s president of the United States in 1985, and is both bemused and amused to be told that it’s Ronald Reagan, whom he thinks of as a film star. Imagine if someone had told you in 1987 that the president of the United States in 2017 would be Donald Trump. Who’s going to be president of the United States in 2049? It might be best not to think about that! A comment was also made about the fact that Donald Trump was so rich that he probably had a solid gold toilet, but Donald Trump’s toilet isn’t something that I really want to think about either!
Stan had a wife and kids (even though he looked about 12 – I’m clearly getting old), and he was living right in the middle of the “world of acceptability” – but he picked up Angel, a prostitute whom he didn’t realise was pre-op transgender until she actually stripped off. They then got involved, and there was a sense that everyone was pretending and everything was a bit fake.
And then it turned pure ’80s Fame/Flashdance. Damon had missed the cut-off date for sending his application form in to the dance academy where he was hoping to get a place. Blanca pleaded with the powers that were to give him a special audition. They agreed, and, of course, they loved him, and offered him a place on the spot. So that was quite a change-up from where the episode had started. We’d gone from this very tragic tale of a young lad being rejected by his own family to a Fairytale of New York. And this programme is both – it’s joy and tragedy and so many other things. I think I was watching mainly for the ’80s music, but I really got drawn in by the storylines and the characters, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series. Highly recommended.