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The new Hulu series “Welcome to Chippendales” may take place well before the age of smartphones and apps, but it has much in common with recent digital-era downfall narratives like “WeCrashed,” “Superpumped: The Battle for Uber,” and “The Dropout.” In the case of “Chippendales,” the mastermind corrupted by money and the mirage of success is Somen “Steve” Bannerjee. Bannerjee created the Chippendales empire of men’s exotic dancing, constantly fighting with the people who were a part of its growth. Vividly illustrated by a strong ensemble cast and a firm sense of ’80s nostalgia, the show provides a gripping overview of the drama behind the business, sometimes at the cost of painting an incomplete portrait of the man who developed it.
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Robert Siegel cleverly plots “Welcome to Chippendales” as a series of eureka moments that gradually initiate the club’s beginnings. At first, there’s only Somen Bannerjee (Kumail Nanjiani, in one of his best performances yet), who changes his name to Steve and uses the money he saved from owning a gas station to open a Backgammon club called “Destiny II.” Before that business tanks, he meets glad-hander and smooth-talker Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) who claims to know Hugh Hefner (not exactly) but is indeed dating a Playboy playmate, Dorothy Stratton (Nicola Peltz Beckham). They help Somen see the light about entertainment for the so-to-speak “female gaze,” with the inception of Chippendales not too far behind.
The stripping empire isn’t born overnight but rather through a set of critical hires by Bannerjee. First, choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett) directs the hunky men originally picked out of outdoor gyms. Then costume designer Denise (Julianne Lewis), the inventor of the breakaway pants, allowed those men to expose their G-strings with just one tug. Originally just one club in West Hollywood, the only male revue in the area, Chippendale’s worked with the loyalty and tension of a family business. Additional characters who randomly pop in and out of the story articulate how deep that bond goes, like Ray (Robin de Jesus), who starts to do dirty work out of his groveling need to please Bannerjee. And then there’s Otis (Quentin Plair), who wants to learn from Bannerjee about how to make money, but soon realizes how much the business is tokenizing him as its only Black stripper.
As a new frontier for entertainment, the Chippendales enterprise soon became a jackpot, and much of the show’s drama comes from the squabbling egos involved in a battle to take credit for its runaway success. “Welcome to Chippendales” documents the company’s growth in a series of power moves, of eager hands being extended only for the other person to calculate how long they will wait to acknowledge it in return. And with everyone gaming for success, there are many power clashes, especially between Somen and Nick. The pair become chained to each other by the brand, but only one of them gets the spotlight. When Nick opens a New York City version, he gets all of the media attention, further enraging Somen. Somen’s resentment ultimately blinds him from his main goal of running a legitimate, respectable business and leads to shocking chapters and legal episodes that reflect his deep-seated insecurities.
Nanjiani brilliantly conveys Bannerjee’s confident, upright posture throughout the series. But he conveys Bannerjee’s posturing, too, like how Bannerjee tailors all of his shirt sleeves to show off his Rolex. It’s a compelling performance by Nanjiani, who plays Bannerjee as a man earnest for success, carefully studying what a certain breed of American wants, but who also suffers from the corrosive need to succeed at any cost. Unfortunately, “Chippendales” often plays too many things on Bannerjee’s opaque surface. When things go south in the series, as in real life, the drama too often depends on the audience to fall back on the staid themes that ego and material success corrupt even the sharpest minds. Nanjiani plays the role with a striking amount of empathy, with Bannerjee desperate to prove himself to his competitors and his mother. However, the show fails his performance by not providing nuance to its darker moments.
Somen finds love in Irene, a woman who attends a show but isn’t all that interested in its spectacle. Instead, she helps break down how much money Bannerjee could save by changing little practical things, like the ice distribution in drinks, which quietly blows his mind and puts a rare grin across his face. Annaleigh Ashford is excellent as Irene, before she too is later treated with shorthand storytelling that rushes her gradual corruption. Still, Ashford has great delivery to the couple;’s meet-cute line, “I’m an accountant,” which makes way for other bits of humanizing sweetness that linger in this darkly endearing tale of relationships both romantic and transactional.
“Welcome to Chippendales” is a series with charisma to spare—not to mention full-length, sweaty dance sequences that make the recreated club really come alive with the camera flying through the jazzed-up crowd—but it has a habit of underwhelming its individual arcs. Too many characters, like Irene, get short shrift here, like Lewis’ Denise and Andrew Rannell‘s investor. Still, the show offers a glitzy, gaudy history lesson about a business that had to do a lot more evolving than one might initially guess. A large part of the series’ undeniable watchability comes from understanding how Chippendales came to be so powerful, despite being so close (and so often) to tearing itself apart. Even if some of the show’s bigger moments fall back on the unsurprising credo that corruption always wins (or, rather, that dignity always loses), there’s plenty to gawk at here. And isn’t that entertainment enough? [B]