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There is perhaps no universe in which a true story that combines murder, money and scantily clad men is not going to be at least a little bit interesting, so Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales has that going for it.
Also in its favor is an apparently generous budget to recreate the tale’s cocaine-fueled 1980s setting, through lavish sets, carefully curated costumes and an all-bangers soundtrack (ABBA, Queen, Kiss). Then there’s the undeniably talented cast — led by Kumail Nanjiani — each of whom get the opportunity to show off what they can do with a meaningful gaze, a twitch of the cheek, a trace of hysteria in an otherwise measured voice.
What Welcome to Chippendales lacks, however, is a grander vision to hang all these blessings on. Over eight 45ish minute installments, the miniseries never quite works its way to a distinctive tone or style or perspective, and never finds all that much to say about what it’s showing us beyond some vague clichés about greed, pride and the immigrant experience. It’s a sordid tale, all right, but not one that’s rendered here with any real weight.
A certain emptiness presents itself from the start. In fairness, the premiere, written by creator Robert Siegel and directed by Matt Shakman (WandaVision), has a lot of ground to cover. Our lead opens the hour as a humble Indian American gas station manager named Somen and ends it as Steve, a nightclub owner who’s hit it big thanks to his then-novel idea of putting on all-male strip shows for an all-female audience. Simultaneously, it needs to plant the seeds for the acrimonious partnership between Steve and his choreographer Nick De Noia (Bartlett), the bloody end of which is why we’re all here. (The series is based on K. Scot Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca’s book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders.)
But Welcome to Chippendales reaches for the most predictable shortcuts of biopic writing to get it done. Steve’s name change comes after he happens to pick up a novelty license plate reading “Steve” after being heckled by two racist gas station customers. Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (guest star Nicola Peltz), whose husband Paul Snider (guest star Dan Stevens) has become Steve’s club promoter, establishes the mores of the era with a perfunctory list of sexual revolution-themed terms: “Erica Jong, Deep Throat, the Pill.” In the second episode, Steve meets shy accountant Irene (Annaleigh Ashford); he’s married her by the third, before we’ve had a chance to understand what’s drawn them together beyond a shared knack for business and a mutual passion for Coca-Cola.
Welcome to Chippendales does improve in the back half as the pacing settles down a little, the drama ramps up a lot, and the actors are consequently given meatier material to chew on. Nanjiani and Bartlett bring different flavors of resentment to their characters’ explosive hostility, and Ashford gives perhaps the very best performance of all as Irene, swallowing her emotions until her lines come out too perfectly calm to sound very calm at all. Yet their best efforts cannot cover for the sense that Welcome to Chippendales has little idea about who any of these people truly are. When Chippendales handyman Ray (Robin de Jesús, making the best of a mostly thankless part) drops to his knees to literally kiss the ring, his devotion to Steve is clear. Why he’s so devoted, the series never bothers to explain.
All the pieces for a fine drama would seem to be here. The deteriorating relationships between the characters are charted in legible degrees. Each major development is carefully foreshadowed, and each individual chapter moves fast enough to keep our interest from wandering. But the entire series feels constructed from the outside in. Steve’s arc follows a neat rise-fall structure, but is his interior journey that of a good man who went bad, or of an already bad man who went badder à la Walter White? Is Steve’s rift with his family back in India the cause or result of his poisonous greed? Welcome to Chippendales does not furnish answers.
If Welcome to Chippendales offers few insights about Steve, it has even less interest in the people around him, who exist primarily to react to Steve or to react to each other reacting to Steve. Flawed though it may have been, Pam & Tommy, Siegel’s other recent ripped-from-old-headlines miniseries, benefited from a flashy style, a sense of humor and a self-righteous purpose. By contrast, Welcome to Chippendales takes little pleasure in the excesses of its setting — even the stripteases are not shot to look especially sexy — and betrays little curiosity about the larger cultural, political or historical landscape it’s set in. It does recognize the ugly contrast between Steve’s racist condescension toward Black people, including star dancer Otis (Quentin Plair), and his own bitter grievances over America’s poor treatment of brown immigrants like himself — but has nothing more trenchant to say than that racism is bad.
Throughout the series, Steve clings to an obsession with the trappings of status, and zero appreciation for art or craftsmanship as anything other than a means to acquire and display even more status. He’s a man who’ll get a bespoke suit made, only to demand that the tailor cut his sleeves ridiculously short to show off his Rolex watch. The disappointment of Welcome to Chippendales is that it shares a bit of that mindset with its own protagonist. It has the production values, top-notch cast and juicy true-crime source material of classic Emmy bait; the finale even ends on one of those ostentatious long takes that have become practically de rigeur for prestige shows. But there’s a difference between buying the right stuff, and knowing what to do with it. Welcome to Chippendales, sadly, doesn’t know what to do with it.
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