Continuing to capitalize on '80s nostalgia by optioning TV shows based on real-life people and events, Hulu's Welcome to Chippendales is part-true crime, part-biopic, part-men doing cheesy dance routines while stripping, and 100% pure guilty pleasure. The limited series tells the over-the-top, so-crazy-it-just might-be-true story of Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an Indian immigrant who becomes the founder of the world’s greatest male-stripping empire, Chippendales. Kumail Nanjiani is perfectly cast as Banerjee, and it's safe to say this role is like nothing we've ever seen him in before. Although he usually inhabits more comical characters, here Nanjiani plays an entrepreneur who will stop at nothing to see his dreams come true. At times, Nanjiani's Banerjee comes off as naive, impulsive, and a man who cherishes his wife, Irene (Annaleigh Ashford). Other times, he's desperate, ruthless, and homicidal.
Welcome to Chippendales starts off strong, with Steve Banerjee, going at first by his given name Somen, working at a gas station and experiencing the kind of racism and disregard you'd expect to be directed at an immigrant in the late 1970s. He's saved his money and decided he's going to open a private, upscale club in Los Angeles — to play backgammon. Somewhat predictably, his club, Destiny 2, doesn't exactly do overwhelming business. However, when nightclub promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) and Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham) happen upon Banerjee's club, they decide to partner with him to help turn things around.
This leads to varying degrees of success, with Banerjee trying everything from mud wrestling to a disco, and still, crickets are chirping inside his club. After another down night, Paul and Dorothy take him to a gay bar. There, Banerjee sees scantily clad men dancing and straight women (like Dorothy) yelling, “Take it off!” and his million-dollar idea is born: high-class male strippers, exclusively for women. Finally, with the help of Emmy-winning choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett), Chippendales is born.
Soon, Nick starts to take over and has some ideas that Paul doesn't necessarily agree with. Paul's also incredibly jealous of any man looking at Dorothy, even though Dorothy plays a huge role in Chippendales' eventual success. (It's revealed that it was Dorothy's idea for the dancers to wear a tuxedo collar and cuffs, which would become the Chippendales' signature look.) Banerjee's initial arrangement with his potential business partners ends in unexpected tragedy; of course, this is no surprise if you know the couple's real-life history, but if you don't, it's a shocking note with which to open the season. In the aftermath, Banerjee moves on rather quickly — which could be attributed to his stoic nature, but it plays out in a slightly disappointing way. Perhaps that's only foreshadowing later events in the series, where arson and murder become just part of helping a business to survive, but still, it's a bit strange that more time isn't spent on the two people who were some of the most prominent characters in the premiere.
Episode 2, “Four Geniuses,” however, is where things really get going. Both Irene and Denise (Juliette Lewis) are introduced, and they, along with Banerjee and Nick, combine to make the four geniuses referred to in the episode's title. Banerjee is the mastermind, Nick is the choreographer who gives the dance/strip routines their class, Irene is a whiz at accounting, and Denise is the costume designer responsible for the Chippendales' other signature piece of clothing (or lack thereof): the breakaway pants. Ashford makes for an adorable bookworm, while Lewis is perfect as a coke-snorting, good-time girl. The pair brings some much-needed femininity to what could be an overwhelming testosterone fest. They couldn't be more opposite, but they're both the voices of reason for Banerjee and Nick, as the two men often butt heads over the smallest detail — from the strip routines to the outfits the men wear and everything in between. (And, yes, in case you're wondering, there are plenty of buns, G-strings, six-pack abs, and scandalous dancing in Welcome to Chippendales. It is, after all, the story of a male stripping empire, and you get to see a lot of the dancers — in more ways than one.)
Speaking of the Chippendales dancers, Otis (Quentin Plair) is another standout in this series as the club's first Black dancer. As such, given the early-80s setting, Otis experiences plenty of racism and prejudice, and finds himself being left out of the business side and the Chippendales calendar, even though he's clearly the most popular dancer in the club, but he doesn't get much support from Banerjee. Even though he's also a person of color, Banerjee often dismisses Otis' ideas and sees him as a thing, or a chance for profit, rather than an actual man. Plair plays the part seamlessly, making Otis a character to really root for, and is a joy to watch whenever he's on-screen.
The empire that Banerjee, Nick, Irene, and Denise built sees a meteoric rise to success, and just as quickly, a plummeting descent. As a result, the series is at times exhilarating and fun; at other times, dark and depressing. When things are good for Steve Banerjee, they're really good, and when things start to go downhill, it's painful to watch. It's easy to cheer Banerjee on while simultaneously wishing that he'd just freaking tell the truth for once, but those aspects are all part of what makes Nanjiani's performance so great. Banerjee is portrayed not merely as a caricature of someone who rose to fame and fell to disgrace but as a man who made fantastic business decisions and just as many startlingly bad ones. Bartlett's Nick, too, is a bastard at times but ultimately someone who just wants love. Even if the titular club seems cartoonishly campy from the outside looking in, and one could easily forget that these are real people, Welcome to Chippendales helps to remind us that they're only human in the end.
Welcome to Chippendales premieres November 22 on Hulu.
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