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'P-Valley': Superb workplace drama about pole dancers

Shannon Thornton plays a woman trapped in an

Shannon Thornton plays a woman trapped in an abusive relationship in "P-Valley" premiering Sunday on Starz. Credit: Starz Entertainment LLC/Jessica Miglio

SERIES "P-Valley"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres 9 p.m. Sunday on Starz

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Chucalissa is a hard-bitten town on the Mississippi delta where the biggest (or at least liveliest) business is Pynk, the strip club run by Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) and still struggling to get by. His dancers — they are of the pole variety — include veteran Mercedes (Brandee Evans) who wants out; Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton), a young mother in an abusive relationship; and newcomer Autumn Night (British actress Elarica Johnson). Autumn (not her real name) was a Katrina victim, with her past life wiped out, but she's determined to rebuild it. Andre Watkins (Parker Sawyers) might be of some help. She sees him outside Pynk one night taking pictures, later learns his boss, one Mayor Tydell Ruffin (Isaiah Washington), has plans for the club.

This eight-partner was created and written by playwright Katori Hall ("The Mountaintop," "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical").

MY SAY "P-Valley'' is adapted from a stage play by Hall and a helluva good one if Sunday's opener is any indication. A whole universe is built out over these 60 minutes, full of people with complicated lives, hard luck back stories and precarious futures. They work the poles until the sun breaks over Chucalissa City — not exactly a "city" but the sinkhole they sink into by day. By night, it's back to Pynk and the do-it-all-over-again grind, along with the wolf stares, sweaty gropes and crumpled dollar bills tossed in the air or stuffed into G-strings. (A lot of bills, by the way. The pay's not bad.)

Any viewer coming to "P-Valley" expecting a little bit of that ol' pay-cable hoochie-hoo may be disappointed. As workplace dramas go — sex being the nature of this particular workplace — "P-Valley" is certainly raunchy but about as titillating as a bus ride through Chucalissa. 

Hall's script, meanwhile, is pretty much a master class in character exposition. Not a line is wasted, no word superfluous. They define characters and, soon enough, those characters become flesh and blood — real women in a perilous job where one slip from 15 feet up could mean paralysis. Hall brings you right up into their faces, sometimes right up the pole with them where you can feel the vertigo, smell the fear …

You get the idea. Sunday's opener is terrific, but what about the rest of the series? Starz offered the first four episodes for review but the next three don't quite match the pilot's promise. Universe-building may be the easy part here — it's the TV series that's so hard. Lots of vivid lives are introduced Sunday, a whole crowd of them, yet the show struggles to integrate them all back into the running narrative. What works so well in the first episode (the sprawling universe) almost becomes a liability by the fourth.

Almost, but hardly a fatal flaw and hopefully insignificant over the long run. Hall is still doing something extraordinary here. Better yet, something original.    

BOTTOM LINE Thrilling newcomer, viewer discretion very much advised.

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