Welcome to Chippendales starts at a frantic run. Robert Siegel, who also created Pam & Tommy, adapts the book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders as an eight-part limited series. Kumail Nanjiani stars as Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an Indian-American immigrant who aspires to the high life—he idolizes Hugh Hefner and is obsessed with expensive luxury goods like Rolex watches and, yes, Chippendale furniture. The first episode of Chippendales plows through about four years in 45 minutes, rendering Steve’s rise from gas station manager to owner of the hottest club in Los Angeles in what seems like six weeks. At first, it doesn’t seem like this rushed intro into the world of Chippendales, the first all-male striptease revue aimed exclusively at women—men were not allowed to see the “floor show”—is too terrible a sin. After all, we’re not here because of how Chippendales started, we’re here because of how it ended (murder). But over time, this hasty entrance becomes a bigger and bigger problem, ultimately undercutting the entire series.
Nanjiani plays against type as the awkward, borderline reptilian Steve. He is stiff and overly formal, with a subtle predatory acquisitiveness that becomes more menacing as Steve achieves more and more. It’s never enough for Steve, we quickly learn. He, to quote the Queen song, wants it all. He’s a perfect protagonist for the 1980s—greedy, corrupt, stop-at-nothing ambitious. But Chippendales offers a more human side to Steve, too. He’s also a lonely immigrant, estranged from his family in India. He’s a big nerd. He craves stability and safety, money is just the way he’s determined to gain these things. But Chippendales can’t decide where to focus, on humanizing Steve so that we better understand the terrible choices he comes to make, or outright villainizing him as a Gordon Gecko-type gone mad. Nanjiani’s performance is careful and solid, but the series around him veers between impulses without ever deciding if we’re witnessing a tragedy or a Machiavellian farce.
But the breakdown goes beyond the split intent around Steve. The first episodes of the series introduce interesting setups that never go anywhere. Just after pouring his life savings into a busted old discotheque in LA, Steve meets Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham). True crime aficionados know this is a tragic tale unto itself, and yes, Chippendales goes there. Not in a graphic way—the approach to the crimes central to the story is of the “recreate crime scene photos” school, not graphic dramatizations—but we see how angry Paul already is, how resentful he is of Dorothy’s rising star. Peltz Beckham doesn’t make a huge impression as Dorothy, but she does capture Dorothy’s sweetness, while Paul is a walking red flag. Dan Stevens is brilliant, an increasingly out of control huckster that you KNOW is going to do something awful the moment he walks on screen.
Paul finagles a job promoting Steve’s club, but every attempt to make the place, then called Destiny II, a success fails. Until one night, while clubbing with Paul and Dorothy, Steve sees Dorothy genuinely enjoying a male striptease at a gay club. This is the lightning bulb moment, and Chippendales, the all-male exotic dance revue, is born. Dorothy also contributes the idea of the Chippendales men donning shirt collars and cuffs, inspired by the Playboy bunnies. She is then promptly murdered by Paul, and all the rich setup of introducing Dorothy Stratten to this story vanishes.
For instance: Steve is not as emotionally volatile as Paul, at least on the outside, but Nanjiani infuses him with a similar anger to the way Stevens plays Paul. It feels deliberate, like a choice the two made to connect their characters and how they view the things they want. For Paul, it's all Dorothy's time and attention. For Steve, it is all the time and attention. As Steve worsens over time, he echoes more and more of Paul’s possessiveness, his defensiveness, his sensitivity to being undermined. But once Paul has exited the drama, any remaining connection is down to Nanjiani’s performance, not anything the show is doing narratively to continue the throughline of how toxicity expresses in different men.
Similarly, when Steve falls for nerdy accountant Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), is it because he senses a kindred spirit? Or is it because she resembles the mall version of Dorothy’s unobtainable blonde beauty? Early on, it feels like we’re supposed to be making connections between Paul and Steve, but once Paul and Dorothy are gone from the narrative, the threads fray until there is nothing left, which is too bad, because once that is gone, there is no narrative backbone to support the story. For a show about a strip club, Chippendales has nothing to say about sex in the early 1980s, sandwiched between the end of the free love era and the rising AIDS crisis. Nor does the show offer any thoughts on Chippendales arriving at the precise moment that women are experiencing mass social liberation thanks to the Pill and no-fault divorce. Dorothy at least mentions women experiencing a sexual revolution as proof the Chippendales concept can work, but the show doesn’t bother to examine any part of this.
Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if Chippendales examined ANYTHING. But it doesn’t, this show isn’t about anything. It’s a recitation of facts, a series of events. The performances are great—Murray Bartlett, fresh off his Emmy win for The White Lotus, is very good as choreographer Nick De Noia—the show looks expensive as hell, but the direction is boring (Matt Shakman, falling down on the job), and the series has nothing to say about sex, culture, sex culture, the 1980s, women’s sexual independence, women’s horniness period, or literally any one of a dozen things this story could be about. Drama arises primarily from the rivalry between Steve and Nick De Noia, who choreographs Chippendales’ dance routines. This is where keeping up the connection with Paul Snider could have provided some shape to the story, as the business becomes like Dorothy, the thing Steve cannot stand to share, and will do incredible violence over.
Also, coming off the rather bizarre portrayal of Mohamed Al-Fayed in The Crown season five, Chippendales offers another example of portraying a brown-skinned immigrant internalizing racism without having anything of interest to say about that. Steve is happy to exploit a popular Black dancer, Otis (Quentin Plair), but later is sued for all kinds of discrimination. Chippendales offers no thoughts on Otis’s exoticization and exploitation as the lone dancer of color in the early revue show, especially as the women stuffing cash in his G-string are predominately white.
There is a power structure here, one Steve is aware of and uses to his own benefit, but one which the show utterly fails to interrogate. Steve says “you made this system” to a white American man later in the series, but at no point does Chippendales meaningfully engage with what it means for a brown-skinned man to try to turn a white supremacist system to his favor, nor how that larger social context clashes with Steve’s own moral bankruptcy and greed.
Every opportunity to be about something, anything, is missed, which strands these very fine performances—Juliette Lewis is another stand-out—in a desert of meaning. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: so much of television now is about looking good, not being good. There is a great story here that could be about any combination of things: greed or sex or jealousy or ambition or the poisonous American dream, just to name a few. But Chippendales is about nothing. It has the perspective of a Wikipedia entry. Welcome to Chippendales looks great, the acting is great, but it is ultimately just a very fancy dramatic reenactment of a couple famous murders.
Welcome to Chippendales premieres November 22 on Hulu. New episodes drop every Tuesday.
Attached - Kumail at Kimmel the other day in LA.