REVIEW SERIES – Welcome to the Chippendales has all the elements of a great black comedy – charismatic actors, unusual characters, unusual setting. But the Disney Plus series is actually a true-crime docudrama based on the book The Chippendales Murders, written by K. Scott Macdonald and Patrick Montes De Oca. The real-life story of 1980s Los Angeles nightlife is a kind of entertainment mafia story, centered on the legendary all-female male sex show and its Indian leader.
For those who didn’t live through that era, or haven’t seen one of the two recent documentary series (Discovery+’s Curse of the Chippendales and A&E’s Secrets of the Chippendales Murders), r the acclaimed podcast about the all-male strip club that pioneered the women’s strip club, the story begins with the character of Somen Banerjee. When we first meet her, Somen, an Indian immigrant played by Kumail Nanjiani as an ambitious but quietly tortured soul, is working at the cash register in a convenience store at a Southern California gas station where racist customers steal beer and make fun of her name. He refuses an offer to be promoted to manager of a chain of gas stations. It turns out that, with a remarkable 90% of his meagre income set aside, Somen has accumulated enough savings to buy his own business, a backgammon club in West L.A. He’s christening it Destiny II, which sounds funny to today’s video gamers – a reference to the fact that there’s already a successful Destiny I somewhere, but there isn’t – and he’s also giving himself a new name: Steve.
At first, the bar is mostly empty. When the seemingly well-connected promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) walks in one night with his Playboy Playmate wife Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz), the cash-strapped Steve promises her a 25% share of the business in exchange for celebrity visits. Paul is soon revealed to be a fraud – and tragically worse. But before they can part bitterly, Steve, Paul and Dorothy get involved in a gay club where male go-go dancers strip, giving Steve the idea for what becomes the Chippendales. Dorothy suggests that the bare-chested men should be dressed in collars and handcuffs like the bunnies wear at the Playboy Club.
The core creative team at the Chippendales is assembled, as Dorothy and Paul are quickly ‘out of the picture’, new staff members arrive to add their own creative ideas to Steve’s concept. Nick De Noia (The White Lotus breakout star Murray Bartlett, unrecognisable without his Australian accent and facial hair), a choreographer and filmmaker who is fond of talking about his two Emmy awards, worms his way into the women-only club and leaves with a job inventing comedy dance numbers for the Chippendales. A shrewd young accountant, Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), captures Steve’s profiteering heart by teaching him how to save on alcohol by spiking drinks with ice. Finally, there’s Denise (Juliette Lewis), a sassy, persistent club regular who spends weeks trying to persuade Nick to pick her up. It turns out she’s something of a fashion designer; the ripped trousers the guys briefly wear on stage are her perverse genius.
More tragicomedy than comedy
If the Chippendales were a comedy, it would be easy to squeeze many seasons of hilarity out of this mismatched central foursome and their sexy, and by today’s standards, horribly cretinous enterprise and workplace. The episodes are interspersed with wonderfully weird performances dreamed up by Nick, from naked bellboys stripping in a swanky hotel to a Rocky Horror-esque rock opera in which a mad scientist teams up with Frankenstein to create the perfect male specimen. While Steve and Irene embark on a traditional path of couplehood and marriage, the wild, eccentric creative duo of Nick and Denise also tangle – but it soon becomes clear that bisexual Nick is more into men.
The casting of the main characters is first-rate and they play their roles superbly; it’s hard to imagine, for example, anyone other than Lewis bringing such chaotic chaos to Denise’s slightly depraved attractiveness, or anyone other than Nanjian capturing Steve’s explosive mix of uncompromising determination, family guilt, inferiority complex and outsider-ness.
A true crime story
But the true-crime elements – from desperate characters to violent outbursts – are present in the story from the start. By the middle of the eight-episode season, tensions rise to dangerous levels between the arrogant, bumbling Nick and his insecure boss, whose temper is unleashed by the humiliation. And the series becomes darker and sadder than many might have expected given the subject matter, or after the scene in the first episode where Irene, with white powder on her nose, shouts “I love cocaine!” when Denise persuades her to try the drug on a wild night out.
The series’ directors, Jenni Konner and Robert Siegel – who have previously worked with such distinguished directors as Late Night’s Nisha Ganatra, WandaVision’s Matt Shakman and Gwyneth Horder-Payton (Pose), as well as writers such as playwright Rajiv Joseph – are now working on the series, Annie Julia Wyman (The Chair), Jacqui Rivera (The Get Down) and Mehar Sethi (BoJack Horseman) – smooth the transition by maintaining the fast pace and whirlwind rhythm of events, and by conveying the mood of the times with great flair. In contrast to Siegel’s other Disney Plus true crime docudrama 2022, Pam & Tommy, he achieves all this without insulting or condescending to his characters. The supporting cast is also great, with Stevens, Robin de Jesús and Quentin Plair as a black dancer who is disappointed in Steve when he expects them to take up the gauntlet against racism together.
The musical interludes are also first-rate, and rather than recycling the new wave hits picked up by many other 80s series, the disco, “Footloose” and musical interludes by British glam-pop groups such as T. Rex and Sweet seem faithful to the club’s guest roster. The series of kaleidoscopic set list effects at the beginning of each part of the series is an artistic creation in itself.
The series could have gone deeper
Chippendales is a six-part miniseries, which severely limits how far it has gone in the history of the club, the show and its operators. For example, the individual, dramatic story of Paul Snider and his Playmate wife Dorothy Stratten would have deserved many more plot threads, but perhaps we didn’t get to know Steve himself well enough. Also, the miniseries could have been ‘slowed down’ a bit, or expanded over several seasons to spend more time getting to know the dancers as individuals or delved deeper into the viewers’ lives as women as the sexually liberated, feminist ’70s give way to the repressive ’80s. It could have contextualized Steve’s materialism and obsession with success in an era dominated by the boundless optimism of the American economy and capitalism in general. Of course, a more historically engaged show might have made more thoughtful connections between Nick’s homosexuality and the stark contrast between Steve’s homophobic policies, which banned men from attending Chippendales performances, and the onset of the AIDS crisis of the era.
Instead of truly achieving its potential greatness, Chippendales settles for being merely good. The real story is of course a great attraction, as the series gives us an insight into the gritty, bloody history behind the male-driven male sex show that still exists today. If it’s not the best true crime series (Disney Plus’s other series in this genre, Under the Stars and Stripes, for example, was much better), it’s worth a watch for the interesting period and unique story. It may not be a period masterpiece, but Welcome to the Chippendales is certainly entertaining.