So many female strippers on TV share one quality: dead eyes. While they twist and shake their bodies, often in the background, their faces remain waxen, as if their jobs have sucked their souls out of them. “P-Valley,” a compelling new drama set in a Mississippi Delta strip club called Pynk, fills in those blank faces with a group of actual human beings who are also pole dancers. Each woman is laden with a complex backstory that emerges across the season, as they do their wildly demanding athletic work, dollar bills raining down on them like confetti in the neon glow.
The show, which premieres on Starz on Sunday at 9 p.m., is Katori Hall’s adaptation of her own play (whose title includes more letters), and it is filled with powerfully good material, from the intensely lived-in performances to the internecine clashes that sometimes erupt into violence. Going in, though, you need to be prepared for a heightened, densely dramatic kind of atmosphere. “P-Valley” behaves like theater a lot, with big acting that will project to the back of your TV room and a Southern Gothic script whose dialogue has a clear poetic bent. I didn’t mind it, but I needed to adjust to the staginess, which you don’t generally find on TV. For this reason, I’m glad the series will air weekly, with time in between for the viewer to breathe.
The dancers at the Pynk, most of whom are Black, include a seven-year vet named Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and a newcomer named Autumn (Elarica Johnson), who suffers PTSD flashes and is clearly on the run from something ugly. Mercedes is preparing to leave the business and use all the money she has saved for her next chapter (the details of which I won’t spoil here). But her fraught relationship with her religious but far from saintly mother, Patrice (Harriett D. Foy), complicates her dream. She and Autumn dislike each other instantly; Autumn arrives with an above-it-all attitude that Mercedes, thick-skinned and smart, sees right through. Most of the women get along well, though, and at moments, “P-Valley” made me think of “Pose” and its family-like houses (not to mention the winning performance scenes).
The Pynk, located in the city of Chucalissa, is owned and run by Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), a gender-nonconforming boss who is tough-loving and shrewd. She commands respect from all of the straight men who come to the club, and she knows a few of their secrets, too. She begins a quiet affair with a local rapper named Lil’ Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who desperately wants to hear his music played at the Pynk. As the lives of the strippers unfold in the four episodes made available for review (all of them directed by women), Uncle Clifford begins to face a financial crisis that could put all of their careers in jeopardy. When a stranger named Andre (Parker Sawyers) comes to town taking photographs, news of plans to open a casino-resort in the financially desperate city — and on top of the Pynk — begins to circulate. In case the show’s religious themes aren’t clear enough, the new Bible Belt attraction is going to be called the Promised Land.
The plot lines don’t always intersect effortlessly, but the acting is consistently stunning. Evans makes Mercedes into a fully developed character instantly, with body language that screams queen-bee confidence. She chose her work, and she owns it proudly — even as she mentors Black girls onto a straighter path. She embodies the show’s toggling take on stripping as both empowerment and exploitation. Annan’s Uncle Clifford is riveting — funny, frightening, and movingly protective of her dancers, at times with the help of the club’s Iraq War veteran bouncer. And the erotic dancing — much of it done with body doubles — is remarkable, for all the physical prowess on display, and for the intimate cinematography that puts you right there beside these fully dimensional women.
Starring: Brandee Evans, Nicco Annan, Elarica Johnson, Shannon Thornton, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Parker Sawyers, Morocco Omari, Skyler Joy
On: Starz. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.