P-Valley takes place at a strip club deep in the Mississippi Delta and deals with the tough personalities who both run it and frequent it, but the show’s visual language is deeply feminine. Created and written by Olivier Award-winning playwright Katori Hall (based on her play, “Pussy Valley”), the eight-episode first season is also directed exclusively by women. And like Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, you can feel it.
It’s what elevates P-Valley from being just another gritty drama full of schemers and dreamers, though it does excel in that realm as well. The club around which everything revolves, The Pynk, is not just a dive, but Chucalissa’s Cirque du Soleil. The women who work its poles are bedazzled athletes, and the focus remains on them and not the men who shower them with cash; dance scenes are filmed to showcase power and beauty that is not just about effort, but art. There’s plenty of T&A, yes (this is Starz, the premium channel who always wants to remind you they know you’re paying for it), but while P-Valley is explicit, it’s not exploitative.
The regulars of The Pynk are introduced to us fully formed: Mercedes (series’ breakout Brandee Evans) is the club’s star dancer, a tour de force who is ready to retire and start her own gym for girls; Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), the colorful owner who manages to dress more outrageously than any of his bejeweled dancers, is struggling to keep the club afloat; Keyshawn, a.k.a. Mississippi (Shannon Thornton) is a beauty on the rise but with an abusive partner; and a newcomer, Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson), is running from a traumatic past and looking to find her place among this odd family.
Complicating things on a macro level is a new casino that is being planned, but which needs The Pynk’s real estate to put it on the waterfront (due to a specific Mississippi gambling law). The casino is the Big Bad of the series, but for most of the characters it’s a far-away problem compared to what they face day-to-day. Mercedes is in a constant battle with her religious but opportunistic mother, Clifford is caught in a closeted affair with an up-and-coming rapper Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), and Autumn is struggling to leave her past behind. It’s the kind of show where you can watch Mercedes climb a pole and twerk upside down on the ceiling, sliding down dangerously close to the ground but flipping off flawlessly only see her mother standing in the back, filled with judgement as she catches her breath and the crowd goes wild. The emotional impact hits on several levels.
Despite the show’s wonderful specificity of place and its clearly defined characters, the plot can be slow and repetitive, or sometimes feel disconnected. It’s easy to feel connected to P-Valley’s overall world, though, and want the best for the women (and occasional men) who are trying to live on their own terms amid the neon lights and trap music bass lines. There’s also a naturalism to this rare, true working-class show that imbues it with a sly humor, like using funeral home bricks meant to pad out arrangements for a bag full of cash, or razzing the club’s cook for making chicken wings that give the dancers’ gas. P-Valley wants you know to know this place and the people who call it home in intimate ways—and not always through sex.
In recent years, Starz has had mega hits with both Power and Outlander, and has since attempted—with Hightown, P-Valley, and Vida—to greenlight shows that act as a kind of hybrid of those themes. That is, series fronted by women that speak to female experiences, while also uplifting minority voices. P-Valley may or may not be the next Power, but it deserves to be—what it adds to the TV landscape is fresh, raw, and provocative in all of the right ways.
P-Valley premieres Sunday, July 12th on Starz.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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