Long before the days of Magic Mike or any of the many real-life erotic male revues, there was Chippendales. Though there’s been a few documentaries and at least one podcast that’s combed through the sordid history of the famous exotic dance empire, Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales is the first dramatized telling (adapted from the true-crime book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders) of the rise and fall of entrepreneur Somen “Steve” Banerjee. It’s a series that attempts to capitalize on all of the favorite trappings of prestige TV drama (the glittering 80s period setting is television catnip) while combining the irresistible blend of sex and betrayal found within true crime. Ambitions fall short, however, resulting in a work that’s serviceable but never inspiring.
Kumail Nanjiani stars as the aforementioned Steve, a hardworking gas station attendant with fantasies of obtaining ‘The American Dream.’ As a semi-recent immigrant from Bombay (now Mumbai), India, his regular subjection to indignities is only outmatched by his thirst for American cultural relevance, and what began as a modest desire for success is transformed into ambitions reaching up to the extravagant heights of his hero, Hugh Hefner. After a period of trial and error, Steve eventually succeeds in a big way with his concept of a strip club aimed at women clientele. Sadly—or perhaps not, depending on the amount of sympathy you’re able to wrangle for the self-serious Steve—the money that soon follows turns him into the worst version of himself, capable of quiet viciousness when his cringe-inducing pettiness doesn’t achieve the desired results. Soon the man we knew at the beginning, one discerning enough to identify a fake Rolex while wearing an off-the-rack suit, becomes a brash member of the nouveau riche who demands his mortified tailor comically shorten his sleeves to show off the very real Rolex that now sits on his wrist.
It’s this ridiculous pride that is responsible for his downfall, resulting in a series of bonehead maneuvers born not of stupidity, but of pure ego. His ever-increasing carelessness is directly proportional to the ire he feels against the club’s choreographer, Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett). As Steve, Nanjiani translates his many moments of frustration and rage with either a growling petulance or outright yelling. I wish he was allowed just a little bit more of the dynamism other characters are afforded. Bartlett especially threatens to snatch the show out from under everyone else. But it’s Annaleigh Ashford as Irene Banarjee who had me riveted, portraying a well-meaning accountant whose principles grow hazy thanks to money’s allure. Although Steve doesn’t have much of a winning personality, Ashford makes their romance utterly convincing. The other breakout star is Quentin Plair who plays a Chippendales dancer named Otis, a star employee whose efforts are stifled by Steve’s latent racism.
The supporting cast is the best argument for watching (Andrew Rannells and Juliette Lewis also play pivotal roles), though the time taken up by Steve mitigates the enjoyment, much like how his employees have a rollicking good time whenever he’s absent. So focused is the series on Steve’s deepening corruption that it allows too many other stories to fall by the wayside. I was eager for the writers to delve into the ugly aspects of male exotic dancing, the regular occurrence of sexual assault by female patrons in particular, but aside from a scene in which Otis conveys his discomfort with being groped and a gross “Kiss and Tip” club schtick, the dancers are merely set dressing (limiting Plair’s presence is easily the series’ biggest transgression). A romance triangle between Nick, Denise (Lewis), and Bradford (Rannells) is also briefly addressed but the emotions are held at bay, forcing viewers to be content with montages of falling cash and frenzied lovemaking. Welcome to Chippendales would love to be seen as Prestige TV, but the inability to dwell on the lives of anyone else but Steve means there’s little to no emotional resonance when the tragic events finally do take place (Lewis makes a heroic attempt, however).
The desire to be a sordid true crime story doesn’t bear out considering we only see the results of said crimes—the first incident, in episode one, works to great effect, far less so with the rest. Steve’s violent schemes are deeply intertwined with his development but we never see them executed, and the lack of details pays short shrift to the genre. With neither the true crime nor the prestige TV angle working to their full potential, the result is a so-so blend boosted thanks mostly to its copious style, much like the watered down vodka served under the dazzling disco lights of the ill-fated club.
The finale of Welcome to Chippendales airs on Hulu this coming Tuesday, January 3rd.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t frustrated over the lack of Quentin Plair on this series, she can be found on Twitter here.