October 28, 2020

Review: ‘P-Valley’ Has All the Right Moves

In the first episode of “P-Valley,” Mercedes (Brandee Evans), a dancer at the Pynk, a strip club somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, takes the stage for her headlining act. She struts, she swings, she grinds, she climbs the pole. The audience roars. Then it disappears.

Or at least it seems to. The music drops off, and the crowd noise does too. As she climbs — up and up, until she’s inverted, heels planted on the ceiling — you hear her panting breath, the squeak of the pole, the blood rushing in her head. She is alone, aloft, ascendant.

Then she glides down, the music rises and the dollars rain. It’s a commanding sequence. Like all the women at the Pynk, Mercedes works hard to earn those singles. But in this moment, the crowd works for her.

“P-Valley,” beginning its eight-episode first season Sunday on Starz, is a lot of show, a noir melodrama about struggle and secrets, family strife and business machinations. But above all, it’s a confident and lyrical story with an intimate understanding of the sort of characters who are too often used as decoration in the Bada Bings of antihero drama. Here these women, most of them Black, get to be subjects, not objects. And they demand notice.

The playwright and showrunner Katori Hall adapted “P-Valley” from her 2015 play “Pussy Valley.” For the TV version, she hired only female directors (the music-video director Karena Evans sets the visual style in the pilot), and their perspective is clear, not least in the dance scenes.

The camera’s point of view is the dancers’, not the customers’. It puts you on the stage, looking over their shoulders, taking in the faces of the watching clientele. When it does view the dancers from the crowd, it’s not leering but admiring, as if appreciating a fellow artist’s technique. It sees them as whole, not as parts. It captures exertion and musculature, vertiginously following the women like astronauts in zero gravity.

The series opens in the floodwaters of Houston, where a young woman (Elarica Johnson) finds a wallet, takes the driver’s license and catches a bus, disembarking during a convenience-store rest stop. She finds herself at an amateur-night “booty battle” at the Pynk, talks her way into a regular gig and takes the stage name Autumn Night.

Autumn — whom we meet as a victim of tragedy but who emerges as something more complex and ambitious — is our entree to the Pynk’s quasi-family, overseen by Uncle Clifford (a charismatic Nicco Annan), the gender-fluid proprietor with a sharp tongue and stunning fashion sense. (One Clifford ensemble incorporates a red parasol, denim cutoffs and a bustle.)

Mercedes, who coaches a girls’ dance team and aspires to open her own gym, sizes up Autumn as an upstart trading on her looks. (“She ain’t do nothing but lay up there looking light.”) The other regulars include Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton), a young mother in an abusive relationship, and the one white dancer, suitably named Gidget (Skyler Joy), for whom stripping is a family tradition. The cast is uniformly outstanding.

ImageBrandee Evans, left, and Elarica Johnson star as dancers with complex back stories and ambitions.
Credit…Jessica Miglio/Starz

The Pynk’s setting (“right off exit 2-9 in the Dirty Delta,” in the fictional town of Chucalissa) gives “P-Valley” a mythic, allegorical feel. This may reflect the story’s roots in theater, like the nimble, lewd dialogue does. Critiquing lyrics for an up-and-coming rapper, Lil’ Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), Mercedes asks him, “You rapping in cursive?” After another Mercedes one-liner, he compliments her: “I like your consonance. I like your assonance too.”

Outside the club, “P-Valley” fleshes out its corner of the South: strip malls, payday loan centers, a cracked-asphalt parking lot where a Black man in a cowboy hat rides a horse. This is a series that knows where it lives, infused with a sense of place, throbbing with trap music and immersed in its characters’ language and ways of life.

Sex and flash may get audiences to pay the cover charge into “P-Valley,” but at heart it’s really about work. Specifically, it’s about working-class women at the frayed edges of a service economy, with no net to catch them if they lose their grip on the pole. Stripping, it shows, is skilled labor, not just physically but emotionally, from handling aggressive clients in the private champagne room to sizing up which customers are likely to tip and which are a waste of time.

“P-Valley” didn’t need a pandemic and economic collapse to feel relevant. But a series about women literally using their bodies to survive undeniably hits harder arriving in the middle of a crisis that’s killing and impoverishing already marginalized people.

The plot machinations get shakier the farther “P-Valley” gets from the club. It layers on a scheme by a casino developer to buy up land in the area and sink the Pynk. In the four episodes screened for critics, the story line veers toward daytime-drama machinations. (A church-politics subplot involving Mercedes’ exploitative, holy-roller mother, played by Harriett D. Foy, is intriguing but gets less screen time.)

Maybe this larger arc will pan out, or maybe it’s the sort of story that new series load themselves up with for fear that character drama alone isn’t enough to hold an audience. “P-Valley” shouldn’t worry about that. The show understands the dreams and challenges of its captivating characters the way an exotic dancer knows the physics of her own body. And when it takes the stage and gets in the zone, it positively flies.