When you hear the name “Chippendales,” most people conjure up images of beefy, shirtless men wearing white cuffs and collars dancing in synchronicity to “It’s Raining Men.” Founded in 1979, the company still pumps out a yearly calendar, has tours worldwide, and has a long-running show at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas—which recently featured a limited engagement with Vinny from Jersey Shore. Ooh, la la!
While most people are familiar with the Chippendales brand, many don’t know much about its dark history. So despite its longevity, when I first started watching episodes of Welcome to Chippendales, which was created by Robert Siegel (Pam and Tommy), I went in with minimal expectations.
After all, how interesting could the story of a bunch of oiled up dudes dancing around in g-strings possibly be? Then I viewed the premiere, got hooked, and binged all eight episodes of the limited series over two days. Welcome to Chippendales is surprisingly humorous, fits squarely in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction genre, and is a flat-out addictive drama. Amazingly, the sordid story of Chippendales and its humble beginnings starts with a 5,000-year-old tabletop game.
When we first meet company founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee, portrayed brilliantly by Kumail Nanjiani, it’s 1979 and he’s an immigrant from India living in Los Angeles. He’s pinching every penny while working at a gas station, hoping to fulfill his dream of opening a backgammon club. Celebrity obsessed, particularly with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who was a big fan of the game, Steve figures he’s filling a void in the market. Oops.
The backgammon club fails, which leads to Steve trying to turn his recently purchased venue into a disco, while occasionally hosting mud wrestling and food eating contests. Losing money, he ends up recruiting nightclub promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens), who’s dating Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham). But once again, Steve miscalculates. Snider is a name dropper who brags about hanging out with Hef and Gil Gerard (The Buck Rogers star is mentioned several times), but is really an insecure nobody.
This early version of Steve, the one who is defeated again and again but refuses to be denied, is the one viewers will fall in love with. Detail-oriented and with an impeccable work ethic, he’ll do whatever it takes to succeed. Steve is the epitome of the American immigrant success story, and if you have no idea what’s to come, you are certain to be Team Steve. Nanjiani plays him as robotic and calculating but also with a subtle humor that allows the character’s naïveté to occasionally be exploited for laughs. This allows the audience to celebrate when Steve ends up turning the game in his favor and makes him likable.
Although intelligent, in so many ways Steve is frequently out of his depth. He’s learning about the business world through trial and error, and is still working out the differences between Indian and American cultures. He took an enormous risk coming to the United States to make his own mark, but Steve is clever, observant, and a risk taker: all desirable traits for a businessman. Despite this, he’s often more lucky than adept. Steve’s business ventures turn around due to several happy accidents he incorrectly attributes to his business acumen.
A beautiful and equally detail-oriented accountant named Irene (Annaleigh Ashford) catches Steve’s eye during a show, and points out several ways he could be saving money. He lucks out again when Emmy-winning choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett) checks out a show and comments on how amateurish Chippendales looks. Instead of being insulted, Steve offers him a job. Nick then hires the troop’s most popular dancer, Otis (Quentin Plair), and a clever and creative costume designer named Denise (Juliette Lewis). With the right pieces finally in place, Chippendales takes off, and Steve and his company are riding high.
Although business is booming, Steve and Nick are in a tug-of-war for creative control and their dynamic becomes the heart of the series. What makes this so fascinating is that despite having the same goal, the two characters couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. They even move differently. Nick is loud, charismatic, fun-loving, and walks with confidence and style. Meanwhile Steve is fiscally conservative, meticulous, proud to a fault, and has the dexterity of a vending machine. The two are constantly at odds throughout the season, and their delicate dance, much like a pair of Chippendale dancers circling each other, eventually leads to a devastating climax.
Even though he has everything he could ever ask for, Steve’s world begins to slowly collapse as he makes one costly mistake after another. The more successful Chippendales becomes, the tighter Steve’s grip on the company, which leads to disastrous results. Despite his wife’s best efforts to rein him in, the drive and determination that led Steve to be so successful proves to be his undoing because he’s never satisfied.
Eventually the combination of years of slights, his penchant for always believing he’s right, and growing financial stress cause Steve to make sad and tragic choices. I won’t spoil how the series concludes, but it’s a bizarre and harrowing ending that makes what you’ll see onscreen almost incomprehensible until you realize this limited series is based on a true story. The entire season is enthralling, but the last few episodes in particular will have you glued to your couch as Steve’s story comes to a satisfying yet unexpected conclusion.
Loaded with first-rate performances and a killer soundtrack, Welcome to Chippendales is addictive, fun, and yet again proves that truth truly is stranger than fiction.
The first two episodes of Welcome to Chippendales premiere Tuesday, November 22nd on Hulu. New episodes stream weekly through January 3rd.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not practicing his dance moves, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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