An original, complex, and provocative strip club drama, P-Valley isn’t just unlike anything else on TV right now – it’s better than most of it, too.
This review of P-Valley (Starz) is spoiler-free.
Starz’s P-Valley is a show quite unlike anything else you’ll see this year, but the reason it’s so compelling is that all the elements that are unusual make perfect sense when taken together. It’s a premium cable show set in a strip club, grounded in the perspectives of female sex workers, almost all of whom aren’t white, and makes a concerted effort to be explicit without being titillating, and provocative without being thoughtless and childish. Every now and again it abandons narrative storytelling altogether for a big dance number that exists in the pulsing bill-strewn neon microcosm where the drama, sex appeal, and gaudy aesthetic are all built into the scenery. It’s so seemingly anti-TV that it fits snugly into a small-screen climate that has been quietly crying out for just this kind of show.
The comparisons to Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers are unavoidable, but if that mainstream awards contender made the strip club as a setting and strippers as subjects a more tantalizing storytelling prospect than they might have been before, P-Valley suggests that failing to pay attention to this burgeoning sub-genre for so long was our mistake – one that, luckily, we’re making up for now. Adapted from Katori Hall’s 2015 play P***y Valley, renamed to get around the stuffy requirements of cable providers’ titling, and set in the fictional riverfront town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, P-Valley is an unashamedly Black and Southern-fried slant on the workplace drama given an adults-only edge thanks to a complicated regional perspective and Starz’s famously open-minded approach to sex and nudity.
Most of the show’s action revolves around The Pynk, a still-popular strip joint that survived the decline of a once-thriving sex industry under the stewardship of the flamboyant and unscrupulous Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), a nonbinary compere whose stable of talent is fronted by the enduringly popular Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and thrown into disarray by the arrival of enigmatic newcomer Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson). The personal lives of the women – Autumn, in particular, has a past she’s eager to escape from, details of which are doled out in flashback – intertwine with plans for an incoming casino to displace The Pynk and leave Uncle Clifford and her girls out of pocket and out of business. This, of course, can’t happen, or at least won’t happen without a fight.
What’s masterful about P-Valley is how it situates The Pynk as the thriving social center of Black, Southern culture – the club isn’t presented as some kind of illicit hideaway but a hub of performance art and business that has resisted the gradual shuttering of other institutions by being integral to the lives of so many locals. The Pynk isn’t just somewhere for men to unwind while leering at scantily-clad women; on the contrary, it’s the place where an aspiring MC – here embodied by J. Alphonse Nicolson as the sexually fluid Lil Murda – can break into the mainstream, where a tormented woman can find shelter and purpose, and where a hard-edged alpha like Mercedes can accumulate enough money and experience to bring her real passion of coaching a kids’ dance team to fruition. None of this is to say that the internal politics, hierarchy, and dynamics of The Pynk aren’t fractious and complicated, or that everybody – especially Mercedes’s deeply religious mother, or the abusive partner of young mother Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton) – is necessarily thrilled with what goes on there. But that sense of the club as an oasis in a dangerous desert of gentrification, shady dealings, domestic abuse, and various isms is deeply felt; there, the power dynamics of wider society are flipped with all the alacrity of the dancers. The token is a white girl, Gidget (Skyler Joy), and influence – financial, cultural, structural – is concentrated in the hands of women.
Across eight episodes, P-Valley doesn’t have the time or space to give all of its characters the same kind of focused arc as Mercedes and Autumn. But it has plenty of room to suggest that The Pynk might stay open for business on Starz for a while yet.