I got tired of TV-drama strip-club scenes a long time ago. The genre-defining strip-club TV-show scenes are those from The Sopranos, during which Tony & Co. hang out in the Bada Bing and talk serious man business while naked or mostly naked ladies swing around in the background. There are similar scenes in The Wire, especially in the story line belonging to Shardene, the dancer who overhears all kinds of stuff in Orlando’s strip club and eventually agrees to wear a wire. There are strip-club scenes in True Detective and in the more recent The Outsider too, and they tend to fit into the same mold. Men talk business. Strippers dance in the background. Occasionally one dancer becomes important to the story, but rarely more than one, and never for very long.
It’s become such a tired trope that any lurid excitement we’re supposed to get from the strip-club setting barely even registers now. Even if you set aside the exhausting, obnoxious familiarity of how sexist it all is, the scenes themselves have been visually and narratively boring: [Camera pans from pole dancer to men huddled in a VIP booth] “So … you ever hear about some bad deals going on in this town?”
When I started watching Starz’s P-Valley — Katori Hall’s drama about an exotic-dance club in Mississippi, which wrapped its first season this past weekend — the thing I liked from the very beginning was how much it felt like a response to all those earlier TV-drama strip-club scenes. P-Valley’s story pulls from a world that’s not all that far from the stomping grounds of shows like The Wire or True Detective: It’s about money and crime, bureaucratic corruption, land, gentrification, and who gets to take up space in the world. There’s sex, too, of course, and love and secrets. But in P-Valley, the dancers — especially Hailey (Elarica Johnson), Mercedes (Brandee Evans), and Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton) — are the main characters along with their genderqueer boss, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan). It’s not a show about the cops or the gangsters.
P-Valley reminds me of the grand tradition of response fiction, books like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which retells the story of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Rochester’s wife, Bertha, or Wicked’s answer to The Wizard of Oz, or my current favorite, the animated Harley Quinn series. P-Valley isn’t a response to any one work, and it’s not the first time a stripper has been the main character rather than part of the background. It’s different from Striptease, though, or Magic Mike or even Hustlers. In those movies, the strippers get to be main characters because they’re in extraordinary circumstances, and P-Valley has no space for that. It’s too interested in the everyday reality of the Pynk, too focused on the specifics of needing to find child care while you’re dancing or how to manage your regulars. P-Valley isn’t a response to any one story; it’s a rebuttal to the assumption that strippers have to do something other than stripping if they want to be the main characters.
Still, P-Valley does deal directly with the idea that stripping is valuable because eventually it helps you do something other than stripping. Mercedes spends most of the season insisting that she’s leaving the Pynk. She’s finally saved up enough money so she can start a gym, and the dangling drama of Mercedes’s Last Dance becomes a returning plot point in the first season. But she’s not leaving because she loathes it, or because she’s bad at it — Mercedes is very, very good at what she does, and she’s proud of her skills. She’s leaving because, as we learn toward the end of the season, she wants to spend more time with her daughter. For Keyshawn, being an exotic dancer is more safe and more loving than her abusive home life. Hailey, who gives herself the stage name Autumn Night, spends the entire season as a dancer and stripper because it’s the one job she can do while she sorts out her life. There’s a moment in the season finale when it seems like she’s going to run away forever, but in P-Valley, success doesn’t look like leaving your exotic-dance-club job as fast as possible. Success looks like sticking around, because the Pynk is still more stable than whatever else you’re running toward. The series knows that exotic dancing is something from which many of its characters want to escape, but that, even more, dancing often is the escape.
Thinking of P-Valley as defiant response fiction explains why it feels so valuable and so fresh — of course these women have fascinating, rich, complicated lives, of course they can be the center of a TV series, not just slick background bodies. The more I watched of its first season, though, the more I started to realize that thinking about it as a response or rebuttal, as a show that’s linked to and answering all the other TV depictions of exotic dancing, is only engaging with a small part of what makes P-Valley so compelling.
When you frame something as a response first and foremost, it’s hard to let it stand on its own. It’s hard to divorce it from the thing it’s responding to, and P-Valley deserves to have its own space. Its characters, especially Mercedes and Uncle Clifford (and Clifford’s closeted lover, Lil Murda), are memorable, charismatic, complicated people, flawed and also incredibly endearing. The carefully wrought world of the Pynk makes P-Valley as much of a workplace drama as anything else, full of camaraderie and messy workplace politics.
Most impressively, P-Valley is so great at walking the line of its tricky, exploitative, celebratory, impressive, painful, sexualized subject matter. Its dance cinematography somehow encompasses the full range of those contradictions. Sometimes the dance scenes are glorious, jaw-dropping feats of choreography and physical skill; sometimes they’re shot almost entirely from the dancer’s perspective so that the experience of the dance is a dizzying, exhausting blur of bright lights and swinging vertigo. In one of my favorite dance sequences, early in the show, the music for Mercedes’s big dance cuts out entirely. All we’re left with are the sounds of breathing, the slap and squeak of her skin as she hoists herself unbelievably high and then lets herself drop halfway down the pole without falling. Before I saw the show, I had a hard time imagining what an appreciative but nonexploitative TV series about pole dancing could even look like.
There are a few small things that really sold it for me. One was that musicless sequence with Mercedes, and, in particular, a shot from a camera placed high up on the pole so that viewers can see what Mercedes would be seeing from her vantage point near the ceiling. There’s also the way the last few episodes of P-Valley find the parallels between what Mercedes does on the pole and what her mother does at the pulpit — not in a way that necessarily denigrates either of them, but as a cool, straightforward assessment. They both create frenzies, and they both make people want to empty their pockets. Neither act is inherently more worthy than the other. And finally, a shot near the end, an image of Hailey looking at her own reflection in a customer’s eyes while she gives him a lap dance, a perfect image of Hailey watching him while he watches her. It’s a beautifully clear and considered view of the world, and by the end of its first season, P-Valley’s world no longer feels like a pointed response to all the empty strip-club scenes that came before. It feels like a question mark hanging in the air. Why did it take so long for these women to be the main characters?