Before there was Magic Mike and its lucrative live show, there was Chippendales. The franchise still exists to this day, but the male burlesque has long been a pop cultural punch line; it’s more likely you first saw the signature uniform—bow ties over bare chests—on SNL than onstage. This aura obscures the genuine subversion of the Chippendales concept, which got slightly more respect when attached to an auteur like Steven Soderbergh. (A strip club where women objectify men? Better to laugh it off than think too hard about their wants and needs!) It’s also overshadowed the sordid story behind the striptease: the 1987 murder of Nick De Noia, Chippendales’ choreographer and chief creative force, at the behest of founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee.
The current climate is more favorable to a nuanced retelling. In general, true crime is in vogue, as are revisionist histories that look back on tabloid scandals of the late 20th century with an eye toward previously ignored points of view. And Chippendales in specific is back in the zeitgeist: Last year, the podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy paired a female-forward take on the Chippendales phenomenon with the context to its bloody climax. (Disclosure: Welcome to Your Fantasy was coproduced by Gimlet Media, which shares a parent company with The Ringer.)
The Hulu show Welcome to Chippendales aims to ride these tandem waves. Despite the similar name, the eight-episode series isn’t based on the podcast; adapted from the 2014 book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders, it was ordered to series last spring, shortly before Welcome to Your Fantasy’s premiere. (Creator Robert Siegel first approached star and executive producer Kumail Nanjiani about playing Banerjee five years ago after Nanjiani’s breakout in The Big Sick.) Instead, the two projects are products of a shared zeitgeist, though Welcome to Chippendales—originally announced as Immigrant—may have tweaked its title to benefit from the recent buzz, a marketing move the business-savvy Banerjee would respect. Siegel’s most recent work, February’s Pam & Tommy, tried to channel the same trends by pairing a sensational hook and a sensitive attitude toward its subjects. That show ultimately fell short, as does Welcome to Chippendales.
Welcome to Chippendales boasts a strong supporting cast. A middle-parted Murray Bartlett plays De Noia, a role that pairs well with his recent turn on Physical as Vinnie Green, a thinly veiled version of Richard Simmons. (Both Nick and Vinnie are closeted queer men in the 1980s with a knack for profiting off the human form.) As Nick’s deputy Denise—loosely based on Candace Mayeron, the unofficial star of Welcome to Your Fantasy—Juliette Lewis has an ideal outlet for her over-the-top energy. Along with Banerjee’s wife, Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), Denise is a needed dose of female perspective in a story about men, and one man in particular, who make money off women’s desire.
As strong as the ensemble of Welcome to Chippendales may be, its star is indisputably Steve Banerjee. An Indian immigrant who internalized the ugliest aspects of the American dream, there’s plenty to unpack in Banerjee’s rise and fall, which Welcome to Chippendales makes the main thrust of its narrative arc. Banerjee was a victim of racism who inflicted racism on others, inviting a class-action suit against Chippendales for systematically excluding Black customers, and a canny businessman whose inability to share credit would sabotage his own success. He’s a compelling, tragic figure—apart from the small matter of murder in cold blood.
But he isn’t the only player in the Chippendales saga who deserves such scrutiny, and by focusing so intently on Banerjee, Welcome to Chippendales crowds out some of its strongest material. The show sometimes gestures at making De Noia its co-lead, the better to show the breakdown in trust between two men from marginalized groups who resented how much they needed each other to succeed. De Noia deserves the spotlight as much as Banerjee, if not more: an Emmy-winning director of children’s TV once married to actress Jennifer O’Neill, he found a way to merge his private sexuality and public work only to meet an untimely end. Except Welcome to Chippendales begins and ends with Banerjee; De Noia gets neither the screen time nor the sympathy-generating flashbacks of his partner, even though his vision formed the foundation of their business.
The dancers, too, get short shrift. Only one, Otis (Quentin Plair), is a character of consequence. Modeled after Hodari Sababu, the club’s sole Black performer turned South L.A. tour guide, Otis admires Steve’s entrepreneurship, but falls victim to his boss’s anti-Black bias. (Steve shuts Otis out of the calendar and the national exposure that comes with it, claiming that he isn’t racist—America is.) Both Otis’s own story and the overall experience of the Chippendales troupe are worth examining, but Otis exits the building well before Welcome to Chippendales has wrapped its run. The other dancers are largely anonymous background players who rip off their pants and have sex in locker rooms. Maybe this portrayal is meant to mirror their interactions with the clientele, but once Otis leaves, it deprives the show of an avenue to explore Chippendales’ bizarro spin on masculinity.
That inversion is what makes the Chippendales saga worth our time. True crime is everywhere; big business driven primarily by women’s pleasure is still rare, in part due to the stigma attached to Chippendales even before De Noia died. If Welcome to Chippendales won’t delve into that theme through the dancers, it could do so through their audience. But Denise and Irene are secondary players to begin with, afforded even less space than De Noia. Despite being the club’s core audience, their views of Chippendales’ appeal amount to anodyne observations like, “Women like sex, too.”
One character who does get outsized attention is Paul Snider (Dan Stevens), an early Chippendales promoter who would later kill himself and his wife, actress and Playboy model Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz), in a grisly murder-suicide. As depicted in Bob Fosse’s Star 80, the Snider-Stratten story is incredibly dark, an anti-Cinderella story of sex, envy, and abuse. As depicted in Welcome to Chippendales, Snider is a dorky buffoon, his menace mostly downplayed so the show can use his ultimate fate for shock value. The foreshadowing is not just intentional, but obvious. (It’s also not the only example; during an early dispute with De Noia, Banerjee seethes: “I could kill him!”) Less deliberate is how the twist encapsulates another aspect of the show: the tone, which veers from goofy to grim just as quickly as Snider.
Nanjiani is a comedian by training, and he brings much of that background to his portrayal of Banerjee. (Steve’s pitch for the calendar: “Women love to know what date it is!”) But his performance never coheres into either a study of sociopathy, à la Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes, or a retroactive redemption. That’s not for lack of trying by the script: an epilogue strains to frame Banerjee’s jailhouse suicide just before his sentencing as a heroic self-sacrifice, allowing Irene to retain control of the business. It’s not a convincing case. In keeping with its setting, Welcome to Chippendales strips out some of the richest strains of its story. What’s left isn’t enough to work on its own.