There comes a point in most biopics where there’s a Pause. It could be a lightbulb moment. It could be a casual arch of the eyebrows as someone’s noticing something strange. It could be a passing comment that sinks in for everyone else apart from whoever said it. Regardless, whatever comes right after that Pause is what’s going to change this person’s life. The Pause becomes part of the reason for this film or show existing. We are all watching someone else live out this story again because of what happened after that Pause.
“Welcome to Chippendales” has a bunch of these in the opening episodes. They’re the mile markers through the winding, early-’80s history of Chippendales, the world-famous male strip show. They pepper the life of Steve Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani) on his eight-episode journey from aspiring club owner to the CEO of an international entertainment empire. Steve arrives in Los Angeles with a dream of sophistication and glamour and, through some chance encounters with fellow social climbers and creative collaborators, his fledgling backgammon club transforms into a destination LA hotspot.
It’s when “Welcome to Chippendales” gets past those Pauses, its “can you believe this??” setup and the team’s rise to fame, that the real interesting part of the series begins. It doesn’t take long to lay out everyone’s anxieties. Steve feels adrift as an immigrant and a de facto family outcast. He yearns for the spotlight but doesn’t quite have the telegenic charm to take full advantage of it. Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett) arrives with an Emmy-sized chip on his shoulder and notions of adding some real prestige to his CV. Drawn into this inner circle by other motives, Denise (Juliette Lewis) pours her heart into the design of the show in all its forms. And Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), who quickly becomes much more than the Chippendales money manager, takes pride in her life as well as the business that helps make it happen.
So Chippendales becoming a cultural force isn’t exactly surprising, and the way its ascension preys on its character’s insecurities isn’t either. It’s when the show gets past the point when Steve and the company get past their scrappy upstart phase that the show moves outside expectations. Rather than a constant parade of kismet putting Chippendales in a spot to succeed, “Welcome to Chippendales” gets more engaging in the back half of the season when things become less about survival than control.
“Welcome to Chippendales” in its proactive phase — when its characters are more driven than standing by as a future Wikipedia page is being unveiled in real time — gives more space for Bartlett, who has another standout role here playing someone often trapped by their own perfectionism. There are few actors who can pull off scheming and sincerity without shifting a facial muscle. Along the way, Nick’s ambition becomes an effective counterpoint for Steve’s tentativeness and self-loathing. Watching the two men’s strengths and weaknesses play out on parallel tracks, and the way all of it draws in Irene and Denise, is what gives “Welcome to Chippendales” its sturdiest stretches, regardless of how many dance sequences are sprinkled in along the way.
Those dance sequences themselves absorb the energy of the story around them. In the early stages, these routines are shot like assembled documentary footage, more designed for the viewers at home than fully tapping in to the energy of the women packed around a giant stage somewhere on Overland Avenue. Locked into creating that early whirlwind feeling of a sensation taking off, it’s not until later when Chippendales spreads out (both in Nick’s choreography and in alternate venues) that “Welcome to Chippendales” can more fully bask in what drew audiences to it in the first place.
Anyone familiar with last year’s Gimlet show “Welcome to Your Fantasy” or the handful of other behind-the-scenes tellings of Banerjee’s life knows that “Welcome to Chippendales” is destined for a different kind of ending. (Steve has a line in Episode 4 so glaringly a sign of things to come that calling it “foreshadowing” seems woefully inadequate.) Rather than fixate on that other element, this show puts more effort into a different kind of tragedy, showing Steve as a man never truly comfortable with his position. Even when Steve has the Name-Brand Scarface lifestyle, you can sense he secretly always wished for, Nanjiani does such an effective job of adding a dash of disappointment and insecurity to every bit of good news that Steve gets.
Before too long, he’s living in a palatial estate with a loving family and a thriving business. As with so many other “dark side of the American Dream” stories, “Welcome to Chippendales” strikes gold when does something with its excess. The tragedy of “Welcome to Chippendales” is watching someone like Steve largely become a victim of his own pride. In the moments he looks to settle grievances or get some sense of revenge, that’s when disaster looms.
That’s also where Ashford emerges as another crucial anchor for the series. For a show built on a foundation of freewheeling whimsy and real danger, Irene is the one character who best captures both sides of that divide. (Look no further than her early scene at the Chippendales bar when someone offers her coke for the first time.) “Welcome to Chippendales” is a little too rigid to really let Irene have any kind of identity outside the business, but Ashford does so much to keep her from being a helpless bystander.
Regardless of how close this show sticks to historical facts, there are still some ideas that get lost along the way. There’s the emergence in the show’s first episode of scuzzy promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) and his wife Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham), whose means-to-an-end treatment here would be bad enough even if they didn’t exit the story in a way that makes that feel ten times as egregious. Through Otis (Quentin Plair), the lone Black dancer in the first ragtag Chippendales cast, the show takes glancing looks at ideas of consent, diversity, and employee rights. His is another case of the show not having enough time for its most compelling ideas, but those ideas aren’t completely absent.
Instead, those individuals flit through “Welcome to Chippendales” in a way that feels appropriate to how the show establishes Banerjee as a person. He’s painted as someone who sees the fellow players in this saga as subordinates, and in a way, “Welcome to Chippendales” sacrifices a lot to show Steve slipping into tragedy. The business becomes the star around which everything here revolves, for better and worse. The show is a thorough overview, but whenever inspiration strikes, it’s usually only for the people on screen.
“Welcome to Chippendales” premieres November 22 on Hulu with two episodes. Additional episodes will be available every Tuesday through the rest of the year.