P-Valley stars Nicco Annan, Shannon Thornton, Brandee Evans and J. Alphonse Nicholson

Roger Erickson
Fill 1
Fill 1
May 15, 2023

P-Valley Is More Than Meets the Eye

"We're not just the stripper show," says P-Valley creator Katori Hall. Now entering its third season, the Starz series continues to explore issues of race, sexuality and equity in a singular, provocative concoction. "We are a show about humanity."

When P-Valley debuted in July of 2020, it broke a few rules. 

When season two hit the airwaves two years later, it broke the rest.

Focusing on poor, Black exotic dancers in a run-down MIssissippi strip club, the Starz series stunned audiences with in-your-face sexuality, sometimes-unintelligible Southern Black vernacular and a cast of characters clad in skin-baring costumes. Nobody had seen anything like it.

Rejected by every network that Pulitzer- and Olivier Award-winning playwright Katori Hall pitched, P-Valley — an adaptation of Hall's 2015 play Pussy Valley — went on to upset TV's natural order, scooping up 10.7 million multiplatform viewers per episode. But if season one set out to shake the table, season two seemed determined to blow the whole house down.

Set in the darkest days of the pandemic, season two's ten episodes again dared to be different, this time by dramatizing a horrific period that most shows, let alone TV viewers, were determined to forget. "I decided to embrace the pandemic to reflect how it truly felt," says Hall, P-Valley's creator, showrunner and executive producer. "Everyone felt scattered to the nether corners of the world. Just by writing the times, I was able to go beyond reflection and possibly offer up healing."

Watch our Under the Cover video with the cast of P-Valley

Her bold choice paid off. P-Valley again made countless best-of-the-year lists. Viewership grew by more than 19 percent over season one and the series drove record subscription growth. Yet for Hall, the true barometer of success is what happened offscreen — intense debates and even backlash over season two's most provocative storylines. One involved the depiction of "hoodoo," an African-American spiritual folk practice rooted in African mysticism, which had some accusing P-Valley of promoting devil worship and witchcraft. Others were so bothered by intense queer sex scenes between Uncle Clifford — a nonbinary badass who presides over The Pynk in outrageous wigs and a beard (as portrayed by Nicco Annan) — and her closeted lover, Lil' Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson), that they made "#CancelPValley" trend on Twitter.

Naturally, Hall is thrilled P-Valley has been a critical and commercial hit. Yet she's even prouder that her show is doing exactly what she wanted it to do: influencing culture. By revealing parts of Black life that even some Black people would rather keep hidden and giving people on the margins a seat at the table, Hall is intentionally using P-Valley to make a lasting impact. "I always say that this is a show that is not purely entertainment, it's edutainment," Hall says. "In season two, we proved that we're not just the stripper show. We are a show about humanity." History has a habit of forgetting Black stories. That forgetfulness is why, for example, many Americans had never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 until they saw it depicted in the Emmy-winning shows Watchmen (2019) and Lovecraft Country (2020). More recently, during the pandemic, there were higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death among Black Americans.

Hall saw opportunities: to ruminate on America's other prevailing pandemic, racism; to raise the stakes for the already cash-strapped people in P-Valley's fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi; and to chronicle how Black people really fared through Covid, before those memories turn to dust.

Setting the second season in the most challenging days of the pandemic also gave P-Valley — already a hypnotic blend of the sacred and the profane, plus myths, fables, sex and spirituality — room to ruminate on life and death through its quartet of leads: Mercedes (Brandee Evans), Uncle Clifford, Lil' Murda and Keyshawn, aka Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton).

"It allowed me to delve into other topics that people wouldn't necessarily think are connected to the pandemic, yet we know inextricably are; i.e., mental health," Hall says.

The season starts with an eye-popping opening scene: a drivethrough strip club. Already on the brink of closure when we last saw The Pynk, Uncle Clifford's house of hedonism was, like every club during the pandemic, forbidden from hosting customers indoors. Her solution? Convert a car wash into a temporary temple of titillation, allowing customers to get their cars cleaned while their minds stayed filthy.

A feat of imagination, choreography, editing and direction, the intro was a seven-minute spectacle packed with P-Valley's signature flourishes: sensual pink and blue hues, throbbing hip-hop, bouncing breasts and butts and a jaw-dropping dance by The Pynk's main attraction, Mercedes, who gyrates atop a plastic horse and then suspends herself upside down as fireworks shoot out of her shoes. The intro also hammered home the main messages of the show: sex work is real work, and Black people have always used ingenuity and creativity to thrive in difficult circumstances.

To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.

This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 05.

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