Starz has been on a roll lately giving its viewers shows that are about little-explored subcultures and unheard from perspectives. From the LGBTQ and Latinx characters on Vida to the exploration of Provincetown’s locals in Hightown, the network hasn’t been shy about shifting the focus to people and places not seen much on TV. P-Valley certainly fits in that category, taking place mostly in a strip club in the Mississippi Delta region. Read on for more.
P-VALLEY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: We see a flooded street, with various debris in it: A doll, a sneaker, the top of a car. There’s also a suitcase, which a woman who has blood on her face grabs and looks through. She not only finds nice clothes, but a wallet. Is the face on the license hers?
The Gist: The woman (Elarica Johnson) takes the bag and escapes the situation she’s in, taking trains and buses from Texas to the Mississippi Delta valley, alternately known as “The Dirty Delta” and “Pussy Valley”. She gets off the bus during a smoke break and just walks into the marsh with the suitcase.
When she finds herself at the strip club Pynk, she doesn’t have enough money for the entry fee ($30 for women, $20 for men, though the sign uses different terms). She signs up for “Amateur Night,” with the prize being $50 and a meal. She’s the only one in the dressing room wearing Yves Saint Laurent and her own eyelashes. Pynk’s owner, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) tells her she has to buy “floss” (a thong). When she kicks butt and wins the prize, she’s bold enough to ask Uncle Clifford if she can get a job dancing there.
Pynk is the busiest place in its depressed small Delta town. It’s always packed, and Uncle Clifford makes sure a few stacks of singles make their way into the local sheriff’s pocket on the regular. The dancers there are a family, and as competitive as they get, they stick up for each other. Mercedes (Brandee Evans) is the most popular dancer at Pynk. She has a featured show on Sunday nights, though she lets Clifford know that she’s doing her “last dance” during her next show. Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton) just had a baby, which she brings to the club (Clifford watches the infant). She has problems at home, getting beaten around by the baby’s father. Gidget (Skyler Joy) is there as a friend to everyone. Big L (Morocco Omari) is there to make sure the customers don’t touch the women without consent.
So when the new woman, who calls herself Autumn Night, lands a spot there, essentially taking Mercedes’ place, there’s a ton of suspicion. They don’t really care that they don’t know much about her; they just want to make sure that she’s going to go along, to get along. Uncle Clifford has Mercedes teach Autumn the ropes; they try to score big with a local rapper named Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) and his crew, but Lil Murda just wants to get his songs played by the DJ. When Mercedes cites “artistic integrity,” and refuses to trade booty for songs she deems to be crappy, he turns to Uncle Clifford, seducing him into getting his songs played.
When one of Lil Murda’s crew gets too handsy with Autumn and then gets angry, it triggers flashbacks to the reason why she escaped Texas to begin with. We see scenes of her being grabbed and beaten by a man. When she runs outside, she finds a nice-seeming guy named Andre Watkins (Parker Sawyers) outside taking pictures. He claims it’s for someone interested in buying the building, but it feels like he’s there to track down Autumn for someone.
Clifford tries to figure out where to get money from, as he might lose the club if he doesn’t pay who he owes (and he can’t pass bad checks anymore at the check cashing place). Meanwhile, Mercedes has to recon with her church-leader mother Patrice Woodbine (Harriett D. Foy), who Jesus-shames her out of half her tips for the night. And it’s not the first time that’s happened.
Our Take: P-Valley was created by Katori Hall, based on her play Pussy Valley. And, while she doesn’t have a ton of TV experience, it feels like she still managed to keep her voice and vision for the show intact. Which is a good thing, because we can’t think of a show with a more unique point of view on TV right now.
Yes, the show is about strippers in a small-town club in Mississippi. But there is nothing about these women that screams desperation; they’re there working to make better lives for themselves, even if they never get out of the Delta region. They rally together and act like a family, watching out for each other and protecting each other. For instance, when Big L sees Miss Mississippi’s injuries, looks up from his lunch pail (really!) and offers to “take care” of who did that. She appreciates the offer, but doesn’t want to go there.
In many of Starz’s shows, the story is told from the prospective of the outsider who’s coming into this mini-society, and Autumn fits that role here. While she may not always be the focus of the story, Hall will likely always center the show back to her perspective as she learns the ropes, and which people are high rollers and which people are pretenders, all the while having to dodge the people who are after her. Johnson does a fine job of a woman who is trying to play the role of the insider, even though she can’t help but act like an outsider, like when she corrects one of Lil’ Murda’s crew when he calls sparkling wine “Champagne.”
But the stars of the show are Evans and Annan. Uncle Clifford dons his wigs and fingernails and desperately wants to keep his club in business, and also acts as a father figure to the dancers. And Evans’ Mercedes is not only strong as hell, but her difficulties with her God-fearing mother make her character even more fascinating. Even though she claims she’s danced her last dance at Pynk, we know she’ll be around for the entire first season, so we’re looking forward to what we see from her next.
Sex and Skin: The show takes place in a strip club, so yeah, there’s going to be a lot of skin. No sex, though.
Parting Shot: As the sun comes up and the dancers leave for the day, Andre takes pictures of Autumn from his car as she smokes near the back door.
Sleeper Star: J. Alphonse Nicholson did a great job in Self Made, and he does equally well here as Lil’ Murda, a completely different role. We’ll see how the confident but not particularly skilled rapper weasels his way into the society surrounding Pynk.
Most Pilot-y Line: The pole dancing is spectacular, and beautifully shot. But it’s more than obvious that the most daring moves are done by stunt doubles. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it does take the viewer out of those scenes a bit.
Our Call: STREAM IT. P-Valley is a series that has a lot to say from a perspective that hasn’t gotten much of a voice on prestige TV to this point. As the ensemble meshes, it’ll be interesting to see how this alternative family operates.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.
The post Stream It Or Skip It: ‘P-Valley’ On Starz, A Drama About The Lives Of Strippers In The “Dirty Delta” appeared first on Decider.