‘Down in the Valley’ Review: Hit-or-Miss ‘P-Valley’ Docuseries Spinoff 5

I like the strategy behind Starz’s Down in the Valley.

At a moment when shows are increasingly going two or even three years between seasons, a reasonably cost-effective way to maintain brand awareness is to send a beloved cast member on the road with a camera crew seeking the real version of the fictionalized series.

Down in the Valley

The Bottom Line

Tells some worthwhile stories, but often lacks focus.

Airdate: Friday, July 5, at 9 p.m. (Starz)
Host: Nicco Annan
Showrunner: Shoshana Guy

Struggling to get that next We Are Lady Parts season to the screen? Why not get Anjana Vasan to spotlight the lives of real 20-something Muslim women, including one or two aspiring musicians, in London? Post-production delays on House of the Dragon? Who wouldn’t watch Emma D’Arcy learning the truth about inbred contemporary royalty while looking for the perfect Negroni!

As is evident with Down in the Valley, a six-episode docuseries “inspired by P-Valley,” it’s a formula that could use some refinement.

In maybe half of its half-hour episodes, Down in the Valley is an effective complementary text to Katori Hall‘s examination of sex work, faith and economic adversity in the Deep South — a chance to dig deeper into unexplored cultural facets and to expose how spectacularly Hall has captured the varied voices of the region.

In the other half, it’s an unfocused commercial for a too-long-absent series, full of shoehorned references and awkward attempts to graft fictionalized narratives onto the lives of real people.

The primary thing that Down in the Valley has going for it is host and general impresario Nicco Annan, who probably should have a pair of Emmy nominations for his work as Uncle Clifford on P-Valley. Even if you haven’t watched P-Valley — and, if that’s the case, stop reading this review and go watch the pungent delight that is P-Valley — you’ll still know about Annan’s work as Uncle Clifford from the repeated references to Uncle Clifford in Down in the Valley. Annan is constantly quoting/paraphrasing Uncle Clifford and referencing storylines from P-Valley in a way that starts off endearing (“See, he loves his character!”) and eventually becomes a minor irritant or drinking game.

To be clear, Annan has been connected to Uncle Clifford since the origins of Hall’s original play, Pussy Valley (they’re both EPs on the docuseries, too), and there’s little doubt that the line between actor and character has well and truly blurred over 15+ years. Still, he’s a generally affable host and tour guide on his own, without the implied “Watch P-Valley on Starz” undertone. He has boundless enthusiasm and empathy, a true gift for turning everything into a double entendre and a healthy willingness to make himself look silly if the opportunity presents itself.

On the surface, they aren’t all that similar, but Annan has a lot of the same qualities that make Padma Lakshmi such a good host. I wouldn’t want to speculate on what percentage of the show’s budget went to Annan’s wardrobe and his rental convertibles, but it’s probably high, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The convertibles allow Annan to zip around the Mississippi Delta — and Dallas, which pretty well obliterates the regional specificity — looking in on real people whose lives mirror the storylines from P-Valley.

The first episode, set at the Memphis strip club Diamonds of Memphis, features the most obvious overlaps and the least storytelling clarity. In 27 minutes, we get very superficial glimpses into the lives of several dancers, accompanied by an annoying artificial-seeming audition process for the reopening club. Along the way, Annan quotes from his character and offers original homespun wisdom like “Black women are so beautiful, y’all. And there’s access to power in transformation.” Directed by Haimy Assefa and shot with a beautiful, neon-drenched seediness that parallels the look of the scripted series, it has the feeling of a proof-of-concept that should have been scrapped (or expanded to do the stories justice) after Starz saw the potential in the overall format.

Too often, Down in the Valley attempts to tell three or four stories per too-short episode, or to make flimsy thematic links between tangentially related stories. “From the Juke to the Junt,” for example, gives the initial impression that it’s going to offer a snapshot of the entire Memphis music scene in a half-hour, only to become two half-portraits of a pair of artists on the P-Valley soundtrack. “Hoodoo Woman” tries to explain the religious practice of hoodoo, but gets railroaded by a Memphis dancer who pretty much announces her desire to be a character on P-Valley or else to be an actor on P-Valley.

Actually, maybe Down in the Valley just doesn’t do well in Memphis?

I really enjoyed “Saints & Sinners,” about the proprietor of a Baton Rouge sex shop who has taken it upon herself to single-handedly combat her city’s flawed sex education system for reasons both professional and personal. Sharonda, a nudist and enthusiastic attendee of a strip-mall church emphasizing second chances, and Bryan, a barber shop owner by day and male dancer by night, are characters who don’t directly correlate to anybody on P-Valley but would get along great with all the characters from P-Valley.

“Out in the Mud” was another favorite episode, and its main figure, Dallas-area rapper Marley Santana, is so completely a real-life equivalent to J. Alphonse Nicholson’s Lil Murda character that everybody keeps repeating just that. Could the episode have worked slightly better if the production team had trusted us to make that connection — a rapper trying to keep his sexuality on the down-low before finding his personal truth — ourselves? Yes. Is he still a fascinating person with a story worth telling? Yes.

My favorite Down in the Valley episode — the only one that caused me to go, “Actually yes, I would love a Katori Hall-scripted version of this” — was the finale, “Ten Toes Down,” which uses a small-town Mississippi family to illustrate the challenges of Black property ownership in an entrenched pocket of the South. It’s a funny and inspiring story that brings in line-dancing, off-road ATV driving and local political power in a way that doesn’t lose anything when Annan attempts to connect it to Uncle Clifford.

In its best moments, Down in the Valley shows that a documentary series with Nicco Annan traversing the Mississippi Delta could be a good thing, especially if he left his Uncle Clifford hat — yes, he has a literal Uncle Clifford hat — behind. In its worst, it just made me wish I were watching a third season of P-Valley instead.

Now bring on a mycology-themed documentary series featuring Bella Ramsey learning which mushrooms are edible and which are poisonous until season two of The Last of Us.

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