私t only takes about a minute into the second season of P-Valley, ミシシッピデルタを舞台にした、スターズの絶賛され、犯罪的に見過ごされているストリップクラブのドラマ, to know that the show is on our cursed real world timeline.
ザ・ first season, which premiered in summer 2020, ended with a blowout fight at the Pynk, the workplace/community hub/tour de force performance venue in fictional Chucalissa, ミシシッピ, in the pre-Covid present. This month’s second season premiere, written by the series’ creator, Pulitzer winner Katori Hall, opens in the cacophony of a family birthday party at a drab apartment complex. The father says he’s going to the 7/11, grabs the car keys, exits into a parking lot. The camera zooms in on a mask hanging from his car’s rearview mirror; a voice on the radio pleads: “We’re not asking you to shoot them like you shoot us. We askin’ you not to shoot us like you don’t shoot them!” before he cuts the sound.
It’s an ominous start, both because of the narrative suspense (where is he really going in the dead of night?) and because television has generally struggled to translate the fluid, disparate experience of the pandemic and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests without sacrificing flow, believability, or both. As with everything, Covid-19 threw a wrench in the television timeline and its suspension of disbelief. Shows set roughly in the present were faced with a tricky question: how do you handle a mass disruptive event? Most TV shows produced since 2020 have either ignored the pandemic completely (Hacks, Girl5Eva, Reservation Dogs, Ted Lasso, 建物内の殺人者のみ, Succession), awkwardly tossed an obligatory mention and then settled into a post-pandemic fantasy (Insecure, ゴシップ・ガール, 君は, 9つの完璧な見知らぬ人), or exhausted viewers with a hollow reflection of the exhausting reality they know all too well (インクルード mess that is The Morning Show season 2, Law & ケビン・ラッドが盗まれた世代に謝罪した後、ファースト・ネーションの子供たちを家族から連れ去ることについて, Grey’s Anatomy).
P-Valley’s second season has achieved what I thought was close to impossible: making storylines about and within the pandemic fun and interesting to watch, by applying the iconography and familiarity of the 2020 timeline – one hyper-documented and dissected online – to a range of emotions from grief to joy to petty. Take the mask, that now universal symbol of pandemic restrictions, 不快感, 恐れ. It hangs from the rearview mirror of the man’s car as he drives to the Pynk, the strip club now converted into a drive-thru show, where it transforms into costume. Uncle Clifford (Nico Annan), the gender-fluid, wildly charismatic owner of the Pynk, plays ringmaster behind a bedazzled plastic shield. The jewels of a dancer’s mask catch the fluorescent light as she performs a backbend. The sequence is everything that made the first season a joy to watch: athletic prowess, thick beats, thicker tension, a mix of sensuality and professionalism and braggadocio. The mask is (手短に) hot, restraint made lustful.
It’s also a safety measure in an economically strapped, predominantly black town struggling under the first and, in the south, only wave of pandemic lockdowns. P-Valley does not shy from the numerous tolls of Covid. Several businesses have closed in Chucalissa. The Pynk has burned through cash after months of shutdown and is struggling to pay dancers for the grand “re-re-reopening” as restrictions relax in the summer of 2020. Several characters have been laid off, and another now works as a mask enforcer at a dollar store. The mayor of Chucalissa, who like most of the characters on P-Valley is black, dies of the virus which disproportionately killed people of color in the US. Veteran dancer Mercedes (Brandee Evans), who in the first season finally achieved her dream of owning a dance gym for young girls only to end up back in the Pynk, finds out on a Zoom call that none of her girls can afford to resume lessons. Pandemic lockdowns forced rising star Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton) deeper into isolation – physical, psychological, social – with her abusive boyfriend. The as-yet-unaired fourth episode, a standout, focuses specifically on the protests following the killing of George Floyd through characters’ emotional responses – fury, 恐れ, Zaghari-RatcliffeとAnooshehAshooriは数日で無料になる可能性があります, ignorance, detachment, tenderness – in separate but inextricable situations.
But for all the tragedy, P-Valley mostly handles the pandemic with playful, winking unseriousness. Its characters are so finely developed, with so much to say, that Covid becomes a tool of their own agendas and personas. Mercedes’s high-rolling mother, pastor Patrice Woodbine, turns food pantry drop-offs – she has her own glittering masks – into the launchpad for a possible political career. Multiple characters invoke social distancing and safety ordinances as a power play rather than a genuine health concern. One character rubs hand sanitizer on his face as a kind of half-joke (“I haven’t gotten it yet,” he says.)
There’s a refreshing sense of honesty in all of this: no one has a consistent handling of the pandemic, and it changes all the time. Some characters wear masks, some don’t, others do and then take the masks off around people. Masks are worn below their nose, dangled from the ear, pulled up and down with illegible consistency; some of the dialogue has the familiar muffle of a voice behind cloth. In P-Valley as in life, emotion is the guiding logic here, not a mandate.
Which is not to say that this season of P-Valley doesn’t have its clunky threads or moments when it’s bitten off more than it can chew. There are times that I miss the first season, with its out-of-time noir, unshakable sense of place and jaw-dropping displays of athleticism (still here in the second season – I’m wide-eyed every time P-Valley reorients during a dance to the performer’s breathing, the smack of her skin on chrome, her whirling perspective). Sometimes I’m nostalgic for the full immersion of the first season, the same way I’m also nostalgic for the time before Covid, before knowing what a pandemic could do. I’ve hoped, with evidence, that most shows would avoid the pandemic, spare us the stress. Not P-Valley. Ambitious, gritty, grounded, a celebration of human bodies, it’s been able to move through the mess of 2020, ほとんどの場合, with grace.