It may end with a murder, but everyone in Welcome to Chippendales seems to be having the time of their lives. Much like Pam & Tommy, which was also created by Robert Siegel, the Hulu series takes inspiration from its salacious subject matter and raucous time period, blending the titillation of the titular male strip show with the grim consequences of Somen “Steve” Banerjee’s relentless pursuit of wealth. The result is a true-crime adaptation with remarkable verve, spurred on by delightfully frenzied performances from Kumail Nanjiani and Murray Bartlett.
Inspired by the book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders, Welcome to Chippendales ventures into the dark underbelly of the iconic male revue by charting Steve’s (Nanjiani) descent into criminality. As with so many stories like these, Steve’s begins with a dream: Determined to project an air of sophistication, he papers the walls of his rundown apartment with photos of Hugh Hefner, ads for Rolex watches, and articles about the “backgammon mania” sweeping the nation. He soon opens a backgammon club of his own with the goal of fostering an “elegant, exclusive atmosphere,” the same kind of environment from which he, an Indian immigrant in Los Angeles, is so often denied entry.
After the venture fails to attract customers, a visit to a gay bar with club promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) and Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham) inspires Steve to create a male strip show aimed at a female audience, the first of its kind in the United States. (Snider and Stratten’s own tragic tale represents an interesting footnote to this origin story). The ad hoc production catches the eye of Emmy-winning producer Nick De Noia (Bartlett), whom Steve hires to develop a real, choreographed routine. Steve believes Nick’s industry experience will elevate the profile of the club — and by extension, its owner — and he’s correct: Under Nick’s guidance, Chippendales becomes a sensation, with women flocking to the club from around Los Angeles to participate in the troupe’s signature “Tip and Kiss” routine and other erotic offerings.
Throughout the first two episodes, Steve is presented as an earnest striver, but Nanjiani brings an edge to the character, as if there’s something sinister trapped inside him, waiting to be let loose. The limited series marks his career-best performance as he pushes the tension between the man Steve aspires to be and the man he really is. As someone driven by slights real and imagined, his demeanor can change on a dime — in his first interaction with Nick, he’s both smug and visibly star-struck — and the actor deftly handles these shifts. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for Steve’s eventual heel turn.
If Nanjiani offers a portrait of a man on the brink, carefully tip-toeing around his inner demons, then Bartlett imbues Nick with wild energy. His swagger is unmistakable: As he tells Steve in their first meeting, he hasn’t just won an Emmy. He’s won two. Bartlett spends the bulk of the series chewing the scenery as he constantly reinvents the Chippendales show, implementing new acts (like the Frankenstein-inspired “The Perfect Man” sequence) and expanding the company’s footprint to include a New York club and a touring company. But by the mid-1980s, his zeal, fueled by increasing amounts of cocaine, becomes his undoing.
Though they would never admit it, Nick and Steve are both driven by their insecurities, which Bartlett and Nanjiani latch onto in different, but equally volatile ways. For Nick, that means reasserting his creative dominance and rubbing Steve’s face in his success; for Steve, that means going to any lengths necessary to ensure the world sees him, not Nick, as “Mr. Chippendales.” As their conflict escalates, they become more frenetic, and the pace of the show smartly follows suit: The second half of the season is a live wire of backstabbing, deceit, vice, and shirtless dancing, set to ’80s hits like Depeche Mode’s “Shake the Disease” and ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”
Nanjiani and Bartlett aren’t the only Chippendales stars leaving it all on the proverbial dance floor: Juliette Lewis also delivers an electric performance as Denise, a costume designer who becomes Nick’s closest friend and collaborator. Lewis operates mostly in a sidekick role, but she makes the most of her screen time, delivering a pointed one-liner or dress-down whenever needed (often literally: Denise comes up with the idea to incorporate breakaway pants into each routine). As Irene, Steve’s accountant-turned-wife, Annaleigh Ashford is the first to recognize Steve’s moral failings, and her sensitive work raises questions about our responsibility to keep our loved ones on an honorable path. Andrew Rannells also brings his usual theatricality to the role of Nick’s wealthy New York backer, while Quentin Plair’s Otis offers a window into the experience of Black dancers at Chippendales, which was hit with multiple racial discrimination lawsuits in the 1980s.
It’s no spoiler to say that Nick and Steve’s dispute reached a head in 1987, when the founder orchestrated the murder of his longtime choreographer (in 1993, he pleaded guilty to attempted arson, racketeering, and murder for hire). Still, it’s a credit to Siegel, Nanjiani, and Bartlett that the show never feels weighed down by this horrific crime. For so many women in the 1980s, Chippendales was a source of joy and liberation; to ignore this altogether and focus just on the revue’s darker side would only be telling half the story. In this way, Welcome to Chippendales’ vibrant energy is more than just a creative choice: It’s a necessity, and one that Siegel embraces, shirt cuffs and all.
Welcome to Chippendales premieres November 22 on Hulu with two episodes.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.