“P-Valley” is an eight-episode series full of grit and glitter, set deep down in the Mississippi Delta, and it knows exactly where it lives, imbued with a sense of time and place, pulsating with local music, and plunged into its characters’ messy lives. This hour-long drama tells the kaleidoscopic story of a little-strip-club-that-could, and the cast of curious personalities who come through the doors every night. Most importantly, it’s a lyrical and atmospheric series that centers on lives of a community unlike anything television has seen before.
The press notes describe “P-Valley” as “trap music meets film noir.” “P-Valley” certainly has noir qualities, with taut, no-nonsense dialogue, a woman with a mysterious past, multiple femme fatales, antiheroes, stark lighting effects, flashbacks, intricate plotting, and more, but with a southern-fried twist. An immersive layout, featuring a lengthy cast list, helps bring out its swampy reality.
Adapting her play “Pussy Valley,” creator Katori Hall depicts the complex lives of women who work in a club called The Pynk. These are richly crafted characters in what is essentially a quasi-family. It’s obvious Hall did her homework, talking to dozens of strippers over six years, to make the production as authentic as possible.
The Pynk’s quasi-family is overseen by Uncle Clifford (a charismatic Nicco Annan), the genderfluid, fashion-conscious, no-nonsense owner of the club who’s both matriarch and patriarch. Then there’s Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the club’s main attraction who wants out of the game; Autumn (Elarica Johnson), the new girl on the scene running from a shadowy past; Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton), Mercedes’ heir apparent on the pole, with an abusive husband; and Lil’ Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a hot young rapper coming into his own sexual identity. And there are others.
It’s an eclectic group of both straight and out queer Black men and women, harmoniously coexisting in the deep south, where racism, poverty, and homophobia can be intimidating obstacles. The series carves out enough time for each of their stories, as well as those of the people around them, resulting in a web of plotlines that can be tricky to follow.
Consequently, it’s not a series to be watched passively. It’s relentless in its pacing, and demands the audience’s attention because of its local specificity, especially in the language and slang, which all speak to the show’s pursuit of authenticity. Some audiences may struggle to understand the dialogue, but its rhythms take on the texture of poetry. Of course, closed captioning is always an option. “P-Valley” comes with more than its fair share of quotables and amusing exchanges that it will surely will be memed to death.
The script doesn’t skimp on the harsh realities of what goes on in the club, backstage, or up in the more risque V.I.P. rooms, and those are its most thrilling and revealing moments. When the show leaves the club, it loses some of its intrigue. Secondary plots that land with less impact include an out-of-town casino developer (Parker Sawyer) looking to buy land for his casino; and the story between Mercedes and her conniving preacher mother, Patrice (Harriett D. Foy), a devout churchgoer who will accept Mercedes’ donations to the church while condemning her work as a stripper.
These detours offer varying levels of appeal, but aren’t given enough time to fully develop, at least in the four episodes provided to critics. A payoff may await in the season’s back half. Either way, the captivating drama inside the club, capturing the lives of mostly Black working-class women on the economic fringes, is plenty enthralling.
An incredible moment in Episode 1 immediately announces the power of this show, as Mercedes takes to the stage for her headlining act. The crowd is rowdy and excited. She’s confident and ready. As she climbs the pole, the crowd rumbles. Then, all the noise gradually starts to fade, until it disappears entirely. At this point, Mercedes has made it all the way to the top, and is entirely upside down, her heels planted firmly on the ceiling, and she performs a rigorous, dangerous-looking routine. But it’s clear that she’s focused, and the entire world is dead to her. All that’s heard is her strained breathing, her feet kicking against the ceiling, and the movement of the pole. She glides back down, and the crowd noise and music rise again until she lands. Money rains onto the stage. It’s an impressive feat of artistry and athleticism that showcases the series’ underlying message.
“For too long, exotic dancers have been dismissed and shamed, while their culture has been appropriated by the mainstream,” Hall said in a statement to press. “This project moves past the blue lights and haze of the main stage, where dancers take to the air like super-sheroes, to the locker room and beyond, where these women — inspired by the dozens of dancers I’ve interviewed — live their lives unapologetically.”
And how do you produce a series about strippers that’s free of objectification and exploitation? Gather an all-woman team, which is exactly what Hall did, as the series features only women directors. The result is a show about strippers with a noticeably female gaze. Nudity is frequent, but mostly brief. There are few, if any, lingering shots of naked body parts. These women are subjects, not objects. The perspective is all theirs, not the spectators’.
Ultimately, the series knows exactly what it wants to be: a sexy, fast-paced drama that sets out to de-stigmatize the world of stripping and shatter misconceptions. It succeeds. “P-Valley” is an engrossing ride into the Mississippi swamp, and like nothing audiences have ever seen on television. Welcome to the Dirty South.
“P-Valley” premieres on Sunday, July 12 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.