'P-Valley': TV Review

Courtesy of Starz
One of the year's best.
7/12/2020

Celebrated playwright Katori Hall follows the ordinary lives — and outsized dreams — of Southern strippers in this Starz drama.

The spectacle — and safety — of bodies is seldom taken for granted in Starz's new strip club-set drama P-Valley. In the pilot, alpha dancer Mercedes (Brandee Evans) climbs a pole in front of a voracious crowd, their bills flying seemingly fathoms under her. Once her fire-engine-red stiletto boots are planted on the ceiling, Mercedes clings to the pole head-down. The patrons' screams and the DJ's rumbling hip hop soon fade away. All we hear for a few seconds are her efforts to catch her breath before she slides down in a cascade of sweat and strategically placed pleather, halting her fall just a foot or two above the stage floor. Her acrobatics are athletic exertion; they're also art.

Her colleagues are less lucky. The cuts and bruises all over Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), courtesy of an abusive boyfriend, make it occasionally too painful to even be Mercedes' backup dancer. The strip club's gender-non-conforming owner, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), who loves to play with wigs, makeup and outlandish outfits as much as her dancers do, knows too many fellow queer men and women who've been murdered in their Mississippi town to fully feel safe. The club's newest attraction, Autumn (Elarica Johnson), might be the only one who feels as comfortable as Mercedes does writhing for strangers. But her PTSD, following an unseen trauma, also traps her in cycles of panic attacks, her body processing the pain that she drinks in excess not to think about.

Created by Olivier Award-winning playwright Katori Hall (The Mountaintop, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical), P-Valley is the kind of series so variously accomplished you don't know what to praise first. (The unfortunate title is a family-friendly abbreviation of Pussy Valley, Hall's play and the adaptation source.) Like last year's Hustlers, P-Valley is largely a drama about day-to-day existence within the club: the economic ecosystem, the uneasy but real sisterhood, the untraditional and sometimes compromised motherhood and most of all the always-underappreciated labor of stripping.

But the series is also about a small town under encroachment by corporate powers, the racism and colorism that still determine too many fates and the confidence and vulnerability that come with "booty money" — all from the point of view of Black working-class women and queer men.

P-Valley begins as everything's about to fall apart for The Pynk club. Debt-laden Clifford scrambles to avoid foreclosure, while Mercedes, its hard-nosed headliner, looks forward to her imminent retirement, her much-publicized farewell show the talk of the town. She's a big enough deal that an aspiring rapper, Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), hopes to have his would-be single "blessed" by having it accompany one of her acts. But it's easy enough to see that Mercedes will soon be betrayed by her judgmental holy-roller mother (Harriett D. Foy), who faces her own struggles of being taken seriously by church patriarchs. A more effective mentor than entrepreneur, Clifford prides herself on the club's ability to "graduate" its dancers to a better life. But the cocoon of The Pynk may not prepare even someone as cynical and determined as Mercedes for the brutalities of the world outside.

Hall and her writers manage to fully humanize nearly every member of her sprawling cast of characters — which also include the club's male staff (Brandon Gilpin, Morocco Omari, Tyler Lepley) and several customers (Parker Sawyers, Dan J. Johnson) — with keen insights into how their lives at home and in town differ from but are influenced by their line of work. And that work is glorious, the dances regularly outdoing in physical marvel J.Lo's already impressive striptease in Hustlers. The costumes by Rita McGhee are fresh and appropriate for the Dirty Delta milieu.

Pilot helmer Karena Evans — the first of an all-female directing lineup for the debut season's eight hour-long episodes — sets a heavily atmospheric mood that's part naturalism, part neon-lit, trap-soundtracked noir. The cast is uniformly excellent but the central trio of Evans, Annan and Johnson especially so, making the most of often luscious dialogue that veers between playfully obscene and heartbreakingly forlorn. Try not to tear up as Keyshawn tries to convince herself that "Black girls don't bruise," or when Autumn says a final goodbye to a lover with, "I think I'm better as a memory."

There's perhaps one too many doomed romances, but, overall, P-Valley manages to unfurl its many plotlines — and particularly its mysteries — with relaxed aplomb. Most everyone is out grasping for money, but at the show's core lies a thicket of competing legacies, both received and desired. Autumn needs to believe she can outrun her past. Mercedes assumes she can provide a better future for the young girls in town than the hopeless one she was taught to accept. Clifford doesn't want to lose the one asset that's been passed down in her family for generations, but her cousin, the mayor (Isaiah Washington), shrugs that some people "need to be erased" for progress to take root — though few would agree that demolishing the town's small businesses to make room for a casino counts as "progress."

It's the story of America: Despite the abundance, somehow there's never enough land to satisfy everyone.

Cast: Brandee Evans, Nicco Annan, Shannon Thornton, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Skyler Joy, Parker Sawyers, Elarica Johnson, Harriett D. Foy, Tyler Lepley, Dan J. Johnson

Creator: Katori Hall

Showrunner: Katori Hall

Premieres Sunday, Jul. 12, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz