‘P-Valley’ Review: Starz’s Brilliant & Unapologetic Sex Work Drama Is One of Summer’s Best

     July 12, 2020

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What do you get when you have a Black women-centered drama that takes you inside the lives of sex workers vying for their slice of the American dream, with the Mississippi Delta as the backdrop, and a couple of mysteries yet to be unlocked? You get Starz’s Pussy Valley, aka P-Valley. Unlike any story that’s ever been told, P-Valley is not just about sex work and all of its challenges but it is also a story that addresses domestic violence, misogyny, homophobia, colorism, classism, racism, and the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships, all within the scope of the Black community. Playwright and showrunner Katori Hall (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical), allow these Black characters to develop in the many ways we deserve to see onscreen. Directed by an all-women team, with a perfectly crafted cast, P-Valley is the unexpected summer show you didn’t know you needed.

Brick by brick and scene by scene, the layers of the show peel back to reveal that the women of P-Valley are not only ambitious, thoughtful, resourceful, overachieving, joyful, and messy, but also at times misguided, exhausted, and even insecure. Their flaws are not just released due to the stress of the men they encounter, but also the families who continue dangerous cycles of disrespect and harm towards them.

Unashamed, gritty, and mysterious, P-Valley is a delicate tapestry which follows Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson), who is a bit of an enigma. Autumn suffers from bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to an abusive relationship and an elusive past. She finds herself in the fictional Chucalissa, Mississippi — deep in the Delta and after a hurricane, of sorts — looking for a fresh start and an escape with no questions asked. She finds out about a local competition at The Pynk, Chucalissa’s infamous strip club and the one place where she can make money fast, and immediately wins over the crowd. Managed by Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), a carefree queer man living confidently in all of his glory and his truth, Autumn makes quite a few friends and quite a few enemies, after securing a post-win regular dance spot in the club.

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Image via Starz

While Uncle Clifford seemingly takes Autumn on as a new dancer to lend a helping hand, in reality he’s struggling financially to keep the lights on and needs as much revenue as possible to get out from under a mound of debt. His top performer is Mercedes (Brandee Evans), who uses this job to save money for a different purpose. The “Queen B” and shining star at The Pynk, Mercedes has the ability to talk Uncle Clifford into almost anything. But more importantly, she knows her power and keeps a firm eye on her goals, knowing when it’s time to move on.

Mercedes’ true passion lies in mentoring and encouraging the young girls of Chucalissa. She coaches them to be the best in competitive dance and helps them discover ways to use it as a gateway to further their dreams and make it out of the city. Mercedes is also an aspiring business owner, who works hard so that those girls know that the sky is the limit and they have every opportunity in life.

And yet no matter how many steps forward Mercedes takes towards her dreams, she is still met at almost every turn with opposition from her overly religious and often manipulative mother, Sister Patrice (Harriett D. Foy). Sister Patrice uses her delusional belief in what she believes in God’s word and utter disappointment in Mercedes to cajole her daughter into giving over her hard-earned fruits of pole labor to the church —and all in the name of Jesus, of course. Mercedes, wrought with a tinge of guilt for her occupation and a natural need to be accepted and respected by her mother, allows this hypocritical behavior until she reaches the end of her rope. Due to the very complex nature of this particular relationship, it makes it almost impossible for Mercedes to trust anyone other than her gut (which is rarely wrong), so her immediate reaction and subsequent behavior towards Autumn seem to not only reflect this intuition, but also underlying insecurities about her final days and top reign at The Pynk.

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Image via Starz

While Autumn tries desperately to keep any and all secrets from the gossip mill at The Pynk, she uncharacteristically befriends Andre Watkins (Parker Sawyers), a righteous young businessman in too deep with the mayor and caught in a big business/government scandal of his own. For two people who have designed their lives a certain way to keep up appearances and minimize outside gaze, they are far too open with one other too quickly.

There are, of course, a multitude of other characters with their own secrets and lies to tell, from Diamond (Tyler Lepley,) a former soldier with some deep-rooted trauma of his own, to Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), a beautiful young mother whose belittling and vicious boyfriend breaks her self-confidence and often plays into her embarrassment about being a sex worker. There’s also Gidget (Skyler Joy), the only white sex worker at The Pynk, and Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), an aspiring rapper who struggles with openly embracing his sexuality. Finally, there’s Corbin (Dan J. Johnson), the child of an affair who struggles with colorism, acceptance, and is finding a way to turn his family’s personal shame into financial gain through an expanded business deal in Chucalissa.

The relentlessness of Hall’s vision shines through, allowing a rare look and perspective into sex work and the working class, devoid of white approval. With every episode unafraid to shatter presumptions, we get an even rarer look at how these types of characters are shot. It’s a technical triumph in which the power of these women breaks through so brilliantly on camera, allowing them to dominate in their visual control over the narrative. Not only are the directing work and acting performances pure gold, but the writing allows you to feel both empathic and frustrated with the characters, while also completely drawn into every web, waiting for the final pull of the thread.

P-Valley unpacks quite a lot, thematically and beyond, in the four episodes I screened. For starters, there are multiple examples on how Black generational trauma plays a hand in limiting Black generational wealth; how religion is often weaponized to prey on the vulnerable and swindling them out of their most beloved wants and/or needs; how undiagnosed and untreated PTSD can manifest differently in Black men vs. Black women; and how, no matter how well-intentioned in their approach to rearing, our parents’ mistakes in our lives often inform our own. P-Valley also makes a point to highlight why sex workers deserve healthcare benefits, and even how corruption exists within even the smallest of government systems.

I cannot wait for P-Valley to continue to dispel any preconceived notions of Black women in this business and to see how the women of P-Valley continue to do more than just survive, but live full of their piece of the American pie.

Grade: A

P-Valley premieres Sunday, July 12 at 8/7c on Starz.

Kay-B is a journalist, host, critic, writer, and podcaster covering all things TV & film from reviews & world premieres to comic conventions & film festivals! When she’s not interviewing some of her favorite artists, she enjoys world travel, great food, and delightful books. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her re-watching her personal favorites: “The Good Wife,” “Living Single,” and “Friday Night Lights.”

Television