The scene in “Welcome to Chippendales” in which we get the clearest sense of the male striptease troupe’s appeal comes around the midway point of the series. Kumail Nanjiani, playing the group’s founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee, is sitting and watching the action unfold around him. Self-satisfaction plays out over Steve’s face as he declares “I’m sitting in a Chippendale chair”; the dancers take their act’s name from the Rococo furniture designer. He’s wearing a very nice suit, and a server drops a bottle of Champagne into his ice bucket; for Steve, having created Chippendales is all about access to an exclusive, finely polished lifestyle.
Except… that’s not all Chippendales was, or all that it stands for in the public imagination. And this eight-episode series tends to leave something on the table by treating the most titillating aspects of the exotic-dance phenomenon as background noise amid the story of Steve’s rise to power and his quest to hold onto it. It’s not that Steve Banerjee isn’t a compelling figure, nor that Nanjiani plays the part poorly, but he’s interesting in one particular way, and Nanjiani plays the role totally straight. The fact of Chippendales providing liberation and joy to women, as opposed to remuneration for one man, seems at times lost.
This series, from executive producers including Robert Siegel and Jenni Konner, exists in the “Pam & Tommy” vein; it moves in a more or less straight line through the events of a half-remembered bit of pop-cultural arcana. Here, we begin with Somen Banerjee’s attempting to find his way toward success in Los Angeles nightlife. A meeting with nightclub promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) and his wife Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham) inspires him to push harder, in part because he eventually concludes that Snider is a fraud; the man wears a fake Rolex, a dead giveaway to a man like Steve, who prizes solid Chippendale craftsmanship in all things. Later, as Annaleigh Ashford’s Irene, Steve’s wife, coaches him through affirmations and mantras, he declares, “I wear a Rolex!,” a materialistic point of pride. Irene has coached him toward big-time success; early on, she rattles off a list of the ways the club is missing opportunities to squeeze money out of customers — they ought to pour weaker drinks, with more ice.
Which is to say that Chippendale-chair authenticity mattered only off and on; the adoption of the “Steve” moniker suggests the show’s perspective that Banerjee was running from something, although his family ties are told in a manner redolent of disappointed-parent cliché. It can be hard to know what about the Chippendales club is so scandalous to Banerjee’s family; the dancing is shot in a workmanlike manner lacking much charge or seduction. It’s a surprising choice in a post-”Magic Mike” world. The dances, here, exist to give us evidence that Chippendales was pleasing crowds, not to seduce or enthrall us really at all. It’s a problem for the show; when, say, Juliette Lewis’ character, eventually a creative partner to the choreographer (Murray Bartlett), first becomes enamored of the dancers as a fan. To us watching the same verveless numbers, it’s not consistently clear what it is she’s seeing.
There’s an interesting crime story entangled in the story of Chippendales. It’s one that I won’t spoil, as it’s at the center of this series, but it concerns the greed and acquisitiveness of Steve, his inability to coexist with competitors. But the problem is that the show has that true-crime plot as a backbone, but no pulse or libido. A show called “Welcome to Chippendales” shouldn’t forgo opportunities to dazzle or charm us; instead, just like the drinks Irene serves, this tale feels watered-down.
“Welcome to Chippendales” will launch with its first two episodes on Tuesday, November 22, on Hulu, with new episodes to follow weekly.