Though strippers are some of hip-hop’s most discerning tastemakers, it’s rare to see music videos, TV shows, or films treat them as anything but ornamental—scantily clad symbols of men’s power and wealth. The breakout star of the new drama P-Valley is a welcome intervention. Mercedes (played by Brandee Evans) is the dazzling headliner at the Mississippi strip club at the center of the Starz series, but she’s also an adept music critic unafraid to challenge the club’s patrons.“My booty can’t bump to this,” she tells a young rapper after he plays her his music. “Ain’t got no tremolo.”
P-Valley is concerned, first and foremost, with the many sides of the women whose work—whose artistry—keeps its fictional strip club, The Pynk, running. They’re all entertaining, but they’re also intelligent, vulnerable, and sometimes just a little bit fed up with letting men think they run things. The series, which airs its Season 1 finale tomorrow and has been renewed for a second season, is based on the play Pussy Valley, by the Memphis-born writer Katori Hall. The show’s minimally censored name functions as a knowing wink toward the viewer: P-Valley understands that audiences are intrigued by the same kinds of seductive performances that draw patrons to The Pynk, and it delivers on that promise. But where other productions might center on male protagonists who bandy about business schemes while dancers adorn their laps or perform acrobatics overhead, P-Valley grounds its stories in the strippers’ lives.
Hall, who serves as the showrunner and staffed her directing team exclusively with women, trains the lens of the southern gothic on a group that rarely gets such aesthetic treatment: Black women strippers in the “Dirty Delta.” P-Valley is lush, resplendent, and sometimes haunting. All of the women’s strife occurs against the backdrop of sweeping southern vistas or kaleidoscopic lighting, often with eerily bouncing beats soundtracking their dances. Some sequences, such as those in which dancers meet their regulars away from the hectic atmosphere of the club’s main stages, are almost dreamlike. Episode 2, for example, opens inside the “Paradise Room,” where neon-blue lighting and a cloud-shaped bed lend contrast to the dominatrix scene unfolding. Against an ethereal background, the characters carry out fantasies rooted in real-world dangers.
P-Valley is an anomaly in many respects, the rare production that focuses on a strip club without turning its employees into cautionary tales or unilaterally empowered femme fatales. In subject matter, it invites obvious comparisons to the 2019 hit film Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. But the series benefits from the spaciousness of television as a format: P-Valley combines the weightiness of a premium-cable show with the fun and soapiness you might expect from a BET marathon. We’ve come a long way from The Players Club. P-Valley’s characters live rich, full lives shaped by the region they inhabit. Mercedes in particular is almost impossibly enthralling. She’s a titan onstage, but some of the show’s most revelatory moments are those in which she coaches a teen girls’ dance squad. The teens both idolize Mercedes and wield her job against her, a stark example of the tightrope that she and the other strippers walk no matter how hard they work or how “respectable” they are in other arenas.
But perhaps the most captivating character at The Pynk is Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan, who also played the role in the stage production). Sharp-tongued but kindhearted, Uncle Clifford is a gender-nonconforming entrepreneur whose stunning ensembles rival the women’s stage costumes. It’s partly through Uncle Clifford that the show unravels two of its most interesting subplots: the burgeoning career of the hypermasculine rapper whom Mercedes once dissed, and the potential arrival of a troubling new business in town. These story lines tease out music-industry biases, the omnipresence and danger of homophobia, and the lingering effects of the transatlantic slave trade and the southern plantation economy.
Thankfully, P-Valley isn’t preoccupied with conveying the toll that these forces, or any particular social ill, take on its characters. The show doesn’t just splice its luxurious scenes at The Pynk with shots of hardship in the Delta. But the series does follow its characters outside the club, tracing complicated familial dynamics and dubious romantic relationships. In the first moments of the pilot, a young woman wades aimlessly through the wreckage of a flood, her face bruised and bloodied. Flashbacks of a painful incident wash over her. When she grabs an abandoned suitcase that floats past her, she discovers a lifeline inside: designer clothes and a wallet with an ID that she starts using as her own. It’s not until later in the episode that this woman (Elarica Johnson) adopts the stage name Autumn Night at The Pynk, but her rebirth begins here—in the aftermath of a distinctly southern disaster.
Not every woman who works at The Pynk has such a cataclysmic journey, but P-Valley emphasizes the bond the women share in part by revealing who (and what) has failed them before they got there. “This is a workplace drama,” Hall told The Guardian recently. “It’s about the family that you choose versus your blood family.” For Mercedes, the personal rift is with her mother, a religious zealot who both condemns her daughter’s work and extorts her for money to throw at various church endeavors. Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), who’s known as Miss Mississippi onstage, sometimes turns to the other women for help covering the bruises inflicted by her abusive boyfriend, who is also the father of her two young children. There’s no shortage of conflict in The Pynk’s back room, but the women still support one another in honing their craft and in building a life outside of it. On what is meant to be Mercedes’s last night at the club, the whole crew presents the dancer with a crystal-encrusted outfit to wear onstage. The send-off is bittersweet, ostentatious but poignant in a way that captures the best of P-Valley.
Most often, P-Valley reserves the spotlight for escapist pleasures: the art of the dancing itself, the music made exclusively for the series, and a clear (but seldom sleazy) appreciation for Black women’s bodies. The camerawork underscores the sheer athleticism required of strippers—how difficult it is to climb a pole at all, much less balance atop two other women while up there. P-Valley also zooms out to capture its more rural scenes with a reverence for the land itself. In this, it recalls the warm, affecting pastoral imagery of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective. More mundane settings—strip malls, payday loan centers, parking-lot car washes—crackle with a realism that feels familiar and lived-in. Fantasy is reserved for showtime at The Pynk.