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‘P-Valley’ Puts Its Own Spin on a Burgeoning Subgenre

How has it taken this long to do ‘The Sopranos,’ only told from the perspective of the Bada Bing?

Starz/Ringer illustration

Why hasn’t there been a premium cable series set in a strip club? Under all the loose bills and neon lights, the club is just a workplace, the most timeless setting for a TV series there is (and for good reason; the ensemble and conflict come preassembled). To this standard setup, the strip club adds sex appeal and shock value—precisely the calling cards of the modern non-network drama. Why not do The Sopranos, but with the Bada Bing in the center, not the background?

The ungenerous answer is that a show about a strip club would have to ground itself in the perspective of female, often nonwhite sex workers, which is not something our culture has generally been wont to do. The more charitable answer acknowledges that overcoming this bias takes time and consideration, lest the show in question perpetuate a two-dimensional view of stripping instead of correcting for it. And that’s not even accounting for the production value required to stage show-stopping dance numbers for the screen.

Such challenges explain why it took five years for Katori Hall’s 2015 play Pussy Valley to become the new Starz show P-Valley, which loses a few letters in translation but gains a new platform. (The abbreviation is to get around cable providers who wouldn’t list the series’ full title, though the pretense is about as thin as some of the performers’ stage outfits.) The delay is understandable, but the final product proves worth the wait. P-Valley shows the strip club is as seamless a fit for the small screen as its mix of spectacle and substance would suggest. And after a few years in development, P-Valley may have landed at just the right time.

Last year, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers—itself adapted from a New York magazine article by journalist Jessica Pressler—proved a story about stripping could support an awards contender, and after that, a Super Bowl halftime show. But Hustlers’ success doesn’t make P-Valley seem like an afterthought; much like the shared time-loop premise of Palm Springs and Russian Doll, the overlap only underscores the flexibility and durability of the concept. Hustlers, too, was itself evidence of a much broader shift in culture. Hustlers bit player Cardi B is a former stripper whose background played a role in her rise to stratospheric stardom; pole dancing has become a popular pastime among amateur fitness enthusiasts. Sundance hit Zola is drawn from a viral Twitter thread about strippers in Florida. At some point in whatever wave of feminism we’re on, stripping went mainstream.

Regardless, P-Valley puts its own spin on a still-nascent subgenre. The show’s action revolves around The Pynk, a former juke joint and the last outlet standing in what was once a thriving regional sex industry, hence the anatomical nickname that gives the show its name. The club is technically owned by the flamboyant Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), but its true alpha is Mercedes (Brandee Evans), a dancer whose work is so key to her identity that she doesn’t use a pseudonym. Despite her avuncular title, Cliff is more like a mother hen, decked out in wigs and acrylics that often outshine those of her employees.

The Pynk is located in the fictional Chucalissa, Mississippi, a riverfront town in the far north of the state, just across the border from Hall’s native Memphis. P-Valley adds stacks (pun somewhat intended) of plot to expand Hall’s play into an eight-episode season: an incoming casino threatens to displace The Pynk, while a mysterious newcomer who goes by Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson)—“all poetic and shit,” coworkers and customers observe—arrives on the scene, clearly with a past she’d rather leave behind. But for all its forward motion, P-Valley works best when it roots itself in place: both The Pynk itself, with its delicate ecosystem of dancers and bartenders and bouncers and clientele, and the region it reflects.

That’s because The Pynk isn’t a generic strip club. It’s a Black, Southern strip club—a meaningful distinction from, say, the Vegas strip clubs of Showgirls, or a vegan strip club in a counterculture hub like Portland. Stripping as a whole may have hit the big time, but thanks to institutions like Magic City in Atlanta and associated acts like Migos and Future, the phenomenon has also taken on regional slants. (Fittingly, the closest we’ve gotten to a strip club show before P-Valley is arguably Atlanta, because any study of the city’s rap scene would be incomplete without a club or several.) P-Valley features its own rap subplot, with an aspiring MC named Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) whose single—an original song commissioned for production—breaks out through the club. But it also makes The Pynk the hub of a much broader social scene. In a town of boarded-up businesses, The Pynk is one of the few gathering places left standing, with patrons as likely to be female divorcées as male bachelors. “Being from the South, I frequented strip clubs all the time,” Hall told the L.A. Times. “You celebrate bachelorette and bachelor parties there. I’ve even been to a baby shower at a strip club!”

Still, P-Valley never takes its eyes off the main event: the dancing, and the women who’ve mastered it. Midway through the pilot, Mercedes’s mother compares stripping to prostitution. “No, Mama,” she spits back. “It art. I transport motherfuckers.” The line doubles as P-Valley’s thesis statement. Many a dilettante has tried their hand at pole only to be faced with the limits of their own upper arm strength. Stripping is art, but it’s also a sport—which is why every actor on P-Valley needed multiple stunt doubles. A former dancer and high school English teacher, Evans is a revelation. Onstage, she’s magnetic; off it, she’s forceful and hard-edge, a demanding mentor to a teenage dance team as well as her colleagues. In its mix of physicality and emotional resolve, the performance recalls Regina King’s in Watchmen, with a much heavier twang.

Like Hustlers, P-Valley suffers from a central asymmetry. Evans commands our attention, but she’s positioned as a colead with Johnson, who’s neither as believable as a dancer nor as compelling in her everyday struggles. (Flashbacks meant to inspire curiosity end up feeling intrusive.) But like J.Lo, Evans is more than capable of carrying the show herself, and discovery of a freshly minted actress adds to the thrill. She also heads up a cast whose depth reveals itself in time: Shannon Thornton as Keyshawn, an ambitious young mother in an abusive marriage; Skyler Joy as Gidget, The Pynk’s token white girl; Loretta Devine pops up as Cliff’s grandmother. There isn’t quite enough room to give everyone a full arc, but that might be to the show’s benefit; by season’s end, I was already craving another season to spend more time on minor characters left by the wayside.

The balancing act on P-Valley isn’t just physical, though at one point Evans does use a horizontal body as a platform for twerking in midair. The tone is serious, addressing issues from domestic violence to gentrification to colorism. But there’s also a note of escapism in how The Pynk comes off as an oasis, overseen by a doting mentor in lieu of a predatory boss. P-Valley shows how strip clubs can be a place where traditional power dynamics are flipped in one last casual stunt: Women are celebrated for their sexuality, not punished; strippers hold the power, both financial and structural. As dark as it can get, P-Valley is careful never to burst this bubble. All strip clubs sell a fantasy—P-Valley’s just has a different audience.