Kumail Nanjiani in Welcome to Chippendales.
This is the true crime story of Steve Banerjee. Banerjee started the first and biggest male strip club, Chippendales, only for it all to go aflame. He was eventually arrested as an accessory to murder.
The Chippendales have become a pop culture phenomenon. The all-male stripping troupe, immortalised by Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live and then resulted in content like Magic Mike, seems so commonplace now that it’s weird to think it was an anomaly when it first started. This new miniseries by Robert Siegel (Pam & Tommy) explores the seedy origins of the Chippendales and the murder, scandal and dreams surrounding the club.
Welcome to Chippendales tells the story of Somen ‘Steve’ Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani), an immigrant who goes from being a gas station manager to owning his own club. The club itself has many iterations, from starting as a backgammon club to, after he meets and becomes business partners with Paul Snider (Dan Stevens in a short but memorable role), it turns into a mud-wrestling club and eventually a male strip club. After the exit of Snider and his Playboy Playmate wife Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz), Emmy-winning choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett) joins the team to teach the dancers the well-thought-out choreography that they are known for today. The team is later joined by accountant Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), who later becomes Steve’s wife, and Denise (Juliette Lewis), who is a fan-turned-costume designer. However, egotism, politics and some dodgy business practices burn the operation to the ground.
The figure of Steve cuts large over the series. It is his story, and he is the one that opens and closes the series. It is one of those stories that feels so wild that it must be true. However, even though it is based on a true story, there is just not enough to fully connect us with Steve. Nanjiani does a great job in a very straight role, but the attempts to explain away Banerjee’s racism and questionable business practices do not endear the audience to him.
So while I felt interested in the story, I was just not behind the protagonist; there was just enough to make us at least root for the protagonist at some point. When he deals with a death in his family and he has to return to India for the first time, we see some emotion as even though he has gained so much success, he is still a failure to his family because he left. However, that is almost immediately shut down when he returns to Chippendales and starts snapping at everyone. There was not enough charm in the performance to show the audience why so many people wanted to work with Steve, why Irene fell in love with him, and why his business lasted almost a decade other than the novelty of stripping men. His smart business acumen behind products and marketing might have been the cause, but there had to be something more to Banerjee to make it stick.
Murray Bartlett is once again sensational as Nick De Noia. The talented Emmy-winning actor is a chameleon as he seamlessly slips into this role. This role required the character to have a lot more flair and allowed Bartlett to shine. Every time he was onscreen, I was drawn to him. But that doesn’t mean that the character was always dramatic and flamboyant; he had moments where he was dealing with his sexuality or his own purpose when we see the emotional resonance shine through Bartlett’s performance. Nick was a very complicated character, sometimes, I was frustrated by his actions, and other times I felt incredibly sorry for him. This speaks to the nuance in Bartlett’s performance.
Annaleigh Ashford and Juliette Lewis gave equally strong performances. Both women were fictional and slightly based on real people. Not much is known about Irene Banerjee, so we can assume that the writers embellished her character. But Ashford gave the character a lot of heart and eventually served as Steve’s conscience. Lewis played a similarly flighty role that we’ve seen her play in other projects but added a lot to Denise’s complicated relationship with Nick.
While the performances were good, the writing at times faltered. The series was definitely telling the facts, but I think that, at times, it rested too much on the fact that the audience would be shocked and did not spend enough trying to build up suspense as to what was coming. After a while, it became a bit of a bleak watch, as you knew things would get worse. And especially because the show does not wrap up the storylines for the characters except for Steve and Nick, it felt like it needed something more. I also felt that topics such as racism, homophobia and addiction with regards to how the club worked could have been investigated more as that could have had a handle on why the relationship between Steve and Nick soured.
Welcome to Chippendales has the glamour of 1980s Los Angeles mixed with the drama of a true crime series. However, despite excellent performances by the main cast, the writing sometimes felt lacking and without nuance. It is still an extremely interesting story that will compel fans of the genre.
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Murray Bartlett, Annaleigh Ashford, Juliette Lewis
Our rating: 2.5/5 Stars
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: