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One Good Thing: Starz series P-Valley has one of the best TV pilots in recent memory

The other seven episodes of this drama about the people who work at a strip club in Mississippi are pretty great too.

A dancer prepares for a pole dance in the Starz series P-Valley.
P-Valley’s stories about a strip club in the Mississippi Delta are quietly radical.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There’s something magical about a TV show that takes you to a specific place. For as much as we might have loved the characters on shows like Cheers or Lost or Schitt’s Creek, all of those series had a strong sense of their setting. It was tempting to imagine that if you made a wrong turn somewhere, you might cross over into the fictional and suddenly end up in a bar where everybody knows your name, or on a mysterious island, or living in a weird little crap town.

But shows with a strong sense of place often unfold over lots and lots of episodes and many seasons. It can take quite a while for viewers to fall into the rhythm of the fictional locale and to understand how it functions. So what’s remarkable about Starz’s P-Valley is the way its eight-episode first season makes its primary setting feel like a living and vibrant place that anyone could visit if they were in Mississippi and so inclined.

Truth be told, the Pynk — a strip club in the Mississippi Delta — feels like a living and vibrant place after just one episode. Series creator Katori Hall, whose play Pussy Valley serves as the inspiration for P-Valley, takes us inside the club, where we meet the dancers, the proprietor, and the customers. The result is one of the best TV pilots in recent memory.

The episode evokes the films of Robert Altman (the director of Nashville and Gosford Park, among many others), who loved to take his camera into a space and observe how the people who worked there behaved. But it also unmistakably has the point of view of a Black woman, who wants to interrogate all of the power imbalances and inequalities among the people in and around the Pynk. It’s a terrific piece of television, and it’s notable for the way it sets a standard for how P-Valley treats sexuality: The characters on the series are allowed to be incredibly sexy, without the series ever feeling exploitative. The characters are well developed as people, and their sexualities are an important part of their lives.

P-Valley centers on three of the Pynk’s dancers and the club’s owner. The show’s main character is Mercedes (Brandee Evans), who in the first episode is about to retire from dancing and preparing for her final show in one month’s time. The Pynk is a place she knows well, and she offers a window into both the club and the larger world of the (fictional) city of Chucalissa, Mississippi. Her perspective is contrasted with that of Autumn (Elarica Johnson), a brand new dancer at the Pynk who is outrunning a mysterious past, and Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), a veteran dancer whose relationship with her boyfriend is physically abusive. Mercedes’s relative experience and freedom make the other dancers great foils for her, and the show digs into these relationships beautifully.

Perhaps the show’s best character, however, is Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), who may be also one of the best characters on TV — period. A nonbinary trans feminine person who uses she/her pronouns, has a full beard, and prefers traditionally femme clothing, Uncle Clifford offers one of the medium’s most unique portrayals of transness. P-Valley even gives her a surprisingly sweet romance with an up-and-coming rapper.

Hall and Annan have discussed the ways in which Clifford represents a figure known to some Black communities in the South: someone who perches somewhere in the middle of the gender binary and forces everybody to deal with her on her own terms. But this approach to transness reflects P-Valley’s overall approach to both its characters and its place. Sex workers, trans people, and Black women are rarely (if ever) among the most powerful and privileged in our society. By simply giving them a voice and three-dimensional characterization and by making the places where they work and live feel as real as they do, P-Valley does something quietly radical.

The series quickly settles in with a first season that contains more plot than the pilot might suggest, much of it involving a real-estate developer who wants to buy the Pynk and tear it down to make room for a casino. The story is well handled, but it only works because we care about the Pynk as a place and the people who work there as people. By the time the finale works its way up to a legitimately thrilling scene set at an auction, of all places, there’s remarkable growth for a show largely confined to a single business in a single town.

Not everything in season one works. The secrets of Autumn’s past often feel a little perfunctory, as though the show’s creative team felt like P-Valley needed a mystery but didn’t want to thoroughly commit to it. (The show seems to lose interest in her past as soon as it shifts focus to other characters, which isn’t great.) And Keyshawn’s story arc isn’t quite as interesting as what happens with the other three main characters.

But P-Valley made me feel like I was in some other place all the same. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m so glad I’ll have another chance to visit the show’s world. It already feels like somewhere I’d like to hang out in for years to come.

P-Valley is available on Starz’s streaming app. You can also purchase it digitally from all major digital video platforms. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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