Pole position

By Craig Mathieson
Eschewing clichés and reflecting inclusiveness on both sides of the camera, ‘P-Valley’ tops this month’s streaming highlights

Still from P-Valley

The setting for P-Valley, an earthy and complicated new drama streaming on Stan, is the fictional town of Chucalissa, which is situated on both the Mississippi Delta and the faultlines of Black life in America. You are introduced to The Pynk, a strip club that is the show’s fulcrum, not via the women performing on stage but rather the women prioritising in the dressing room. This is the gig economy for working-class Black women, where they bag up the cash literally thrown at them. For these contractors, their tenuous source of income is also a vehicle for defiant self-expression, and even a way of elevating their status. The show is an antidote to the strip-club clichés often used as a voyeuristic backdrop on television – it’s the Bada Bing! from The Sopranos but through the looking glass.

Created by the Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall, and based on her 2015 play Pussy Valley, the series has a heady mix of elements: fierce melodrama, film-noir machinations, and a soundtrack of trap music all percolate through the plotting. The character outlines are familiar – Mercedes (Brandee Evans) is the reigning diva preparing to retire rich, while “Autumn Night” (Elarica Johnson) is the anonymous newcomer who steps off a FEMA evacuation bus with no identity and a great deal of trauma – but the initial episodes recast them in ways that combine theatrical excess and detailed reportage. The dancers at The Pynk give furious performances both on and off the stage.

Apart from a few remnants of white authority – a corrupt sheriff, entitled heirs who still have cotton growing in their fields – the film is immersed in Black southern life; whether describing hair (“Peruvian bundle”) or skin tone (“high yellow”), the argot is anthropological. With a cross-section of community members represented, the show’s sense of place is immersive. Though the club’s clientele is largely heterosexual, it’s a business with an underlying queer sensibility, thanks in part to the cavalier Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), a gender-fluid proprietor caught between fabulousness and fatalism. The inclusiveness is also reflected behind the camera, with Hall hiring female directors so that the show’s depiction of a sexualised workplace and its considerable nudity function as illuminating and not indulgent.

The milieu is as extravagant as it is everyday – you can listen to the heightened dialogue, or follow the money that circulates through the club and back into the town, including to the church, where the star vocalist is Mercedes’ mother, the demanding Patricia (Harriett D. Foy). Pulpy storylines accumulate, including developers looking to annex The Pynk, but often the further these plots are from the venue, the more stretched they become. The show’s best moments, however, are startlingly fresh. Having established an “all eyes on me” authority, Mercedes’ first performance sees her climbing to the top of the pole centrestage, at which point the music and cheering cuts out, and all you can hear is the harsh exertion of her breathing. In P-Valley, every cost is accounted for.

Streaming successes: The latest from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, Why Women Kill (SBS On Demand) is a tripartite black comedy about three women from different eras – early 1960s, mid 1980s and now – trying to overcome the limitations placed on them in the same Pasadena mansion. Skilful and outrageous, it’s critique by camp. This Country (Stan) is the best British mockumentary since The Office, a deadpan farce about rural village life told through the hilarious mishaps of cousins and confidantes played by the show’s sibling creators, Charlie and Daisy May Cooper.

Streaming misses: Replacing Californian cheeriness with Catholic mysticism, Warrior Nun (Netflix) is a Spanish-set take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pursuing a young woman reborn as a soldier against supernatural evil. The athletic fight scenes are persuasive, but the Church being cast as a crusading force for good is quite the stretch.

Notable movies: With Charlize Theron as an immortal soldier, graphic novel adaptation The Old Guard (Netflix) is that rare superhero movie where invulnerability has an existential weight. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood capably choreographs action scenes, but they’re nimbly matched to a contemplative tone where permanence is a terrible burden. Natalie Erika James’s Australian horror film Relic (Stan) has all the tropes of a modern haunted-house tale, but finds resonance through focusing on three generations of women – played by Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote – whose ultimate foe is the cruel degradation of dementia. Technically accomplished but historically suspect, Greyhound (Apple TV+) stars Tom Hanks (who also wrote the screenplay) as a destroyer captain in World War Two, fighting off U-boats in the North Atlantic. It has serious dad energy – at one point, Hanks’s noble officer sends for his slippers so he can keep standing defiantly at his post.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


Still from P-Valley

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