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A Deeper, Multi-Dimensional Understanding of the World of – and Hard Work Involved with – Strip Clubs
July 12, 2020  | By David Hinckley

One of Paul Simon's many perfect lines in "The Boxer" had his narrator "seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go / Looking for the places only they would know."

More than 50 years later, Starz has been revisiting those places. Just as we reach the finale of Hightown, we're segueing right into P-Valley, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

P-Valley is set largely in The Pynk, a blue-collar Mississippi strip club populated by workers, clients, and management whose lives run the gamut from mild angst to deep, deep desperation.

They also have a whole range of stories that explain how they got to The Pynk, which serves a social purpose but is not the kind of place anybody grows up dreaming they will someday work in.

We're introduced to the Pynk through Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson, top), who has blown into town from somewhere with a grim story that we first start to learn only from flashes of her nightmares.

She needs a job that pays cash money fast, and since this town seems to consist of little except boarded-up storefronts that probably thrived in the 1940s, the Pynk stands as pretty much her only option.

She seems to have the ability to shake her posterior, which is all the resume that the owner, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), seems to require.

Several of her professional colleagues at first are a bit less enthusiastic about the rookie. That includes Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the Pynk's star attraction for the past seven years. Mercedes has just given notice, but, spoiler alert, Mercedes will not be leaving any of our lives soon.

That's good because, like Uncle Clifford, she's a far more complex and interesting character than our first encounter might suggest.

It turns out Mercedes hasn't been pole-dancing (and maybe doing some other stuff on the side for premium clients) just because she has a poor self-image – or any other reason that is often used to explain why characters work at strip clubs.

She's been applying her earnings to a higher cause, it seems, and that leads us to her mother Patrice (Harriett D. Foy), a rather judgmental woman with less to be judgmental about than she thinks.

By the end of the first episode – there are eight – we have seen that despite their current station in life, the P-Valley characters aren't defined by what other people might think about what they do for a living.

Uncle Clifford knows how to navigate life in a town that may not fully embrace his lifestyle or business.

Autumn Night reveals her story slowly, and the shell into which she has retreated may open up a crack or two when she meets a guy who appears to be rational, polite, and civil. That would be Andre (Parker Sawyers), a photographer.

P-Valley is writer Katori Hall's TV adaptation of her successful stage play. For the stage version, incidentally, the full title was spelled out.

On Starz as on the stage, this is adult stuff, set in a world full of tension, bad behavior, and, at times, outright menace. It's not always comfortable, and it's not the kind of escapism some viewers may prefer in these surreal times.

But Hall, like August Wilson, has written characters we recognize, facing life decisions that, on some level, we all face. These folks just have more challenges that describe life for far too many people who are forgotten all too often.

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