Leave it to A&E to tell sensational true stories about sex and greed with its “Secrets of” series, which premiered earlier this year and below “Secrets of Playboy” and “Mysteries of the Chippendales Murders.” Both are tales of debauchery, sex as a proven business model, and the criminal men at the top who reap all the financial benefits.
While the horrifying realities at the Playboy Club are ripe for dramatization ripped from the headlines, it’s the Chippendales saga that has seduced Hulu.
With “Welcome to Chippendales,” the platform invites audiences back to the ’80s and through the doors of the legendary male strip club of Somen Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani), an Indian immigrant who came to the US seeking success and wealth gain.
After his rise to the top, deep-rooted insecurities and extreme anger drive Somen, who changed his name to the American-assimilated “Steve,” to have choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett) killed — and hit several other rival clubs on the whole world. When Steve is finally caught and sent to prison, he dies by suicide while awaiting sentencing.
That’s the well-documented who, what, and how of this sordid tale that sounds unimaginable even 35 years later.
Taking a journalistic approach, the A&E docuseries details every segment of the case, including Steve’s origins, his (sometimes racist) treatment of his dancers, and his toxic working relationship with his increasingly famous colleague Nick.
Spread over four hour-long episodes, the documentary includes interviews with surviving family members of Steve and Nick and a thorough investigation into the crimes.
Welcome to Chippendales, which premieres Tuesday on Hulu, takes a different approach, likely because it’s an eight-part dramatization portrayed by actors. His commitment to tell a good story before anything else is evident right from the first episode.
That’s not to say it’s bad or untrue. It actually follows the real events quite closely.
But the series inspired by K. Scot Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca’s 2014 book “Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders also takes huge leaps to ground some of the characters’ actions with human, recognizable motivations that at times seem contrived. Because all these years later, it’s probably still hard to tell what really led to chaos.
This is profoundly evident in Steve’s narration, vastly expanded from the story told in the A&E documentaries. Showrunners Jenni Konner and Robert Siegel take audiences deeper into his turbulent history, featuring scenes with the grieving mother he leaves behind in India, only to learn that his pursuit of greater success is viewed as an insult to his family.
Steve is painfully uncool, a trait that makes him a social outcast – except for his criminal partnership with Robin de Jesus’ Ray Colon (who is oddly portrayed as an outspoken toady in this series). It also means he can’t be the face of his own company, which makes him even more insecure.
And it makes way for Nick, a very obvious if talented opportunist, who immediately takes advantage of Steve’s shortcomings and in turn meets his wrath.
“Welcome to Chippendales” also tries to emphasize the role of racism in Steve’s story, sometimes unsatisfactorily. The series follows how Steve faced intense prejudice as a brown immigrant in America, including a scene in which he and his wife Irene (Annaleigh Ashford) are denied a table at a fancy restaurant.
This was clearly having a more damaging effect on his psyche than he might admit.
But the series doesn’t offer the same razor-sharp portrayal of Steve maintaining similar racism towards his only black dancer, Otis (Quentin Plair), the club’s most popular stripper, and ensuring the all-white dancers become one pure white patronage.
It is presented as fact only; one that Plair’s character just isn’t prominent enough to fully confront.
Audiences could discern the hypocrisy and self-loathing that define Steve’s character, but the show doesn’t seem particularly keen to deal with it directly. He reinforced the same white supremacy he sought to undermine only through his presence as a business owner in the ultra-white sex industry of the ’80s, largely dominated by figures like Hugh Hefner.
None of the facts in this sentence are sufficiently examined.
It is the latest example of unsatisfactory representation of race in a project involving Nanjiani. The previous example was 2017’s The Big Sick, a solid romantic comedy starring the actor and co-written with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. This movie subtly preserves whiteness and dampens the experiences of people of color, the Nanjiani has since acknowledged.
Another pink elephant in “Welcome to Chippendales” is that it is a story partly trying to understand the role of racism, but Nanjiani is Pakistani American, not Indian American like Steve. It’s certainly telling that the actor is also executive producer on the series, capturing both Steve’s humanity and his dysfunction.
But that doesn’t make the truth any less embarrassing.
A similarly strange cultural shift takes place in Nick’s friend, portrayed here as a white American by Andrew Rannells. In reality, Nick’s friend was an immigrant whose relationship to him was hidden from those who knew Nick best.
Still, it’s nice that “Welcome to Chippendales” explores their relationship, in part because it gives us a glimpse of who Nick was, beyond the smug, widely affable character he’s often claimed to be. Bartlett, most recently known for his Emmy-winning role in The White Lotus, gives him as much heart as he does cunning and drive.
While it’s certainly the bane of Steve’s existence, it’s Nick’s allure that helps bring the Chippendales club to life on the series, along with its glorious ’80s nightclub production design and costumes by Richard Bloom and Peggy, respectively A Schnitzer.
It’s Bartlett’s portrayal of Nick as the ultimate showman that guides us through the club and its players. These include Nick’s friend and costume designer Denise (Juliette Lewis), an intriguing role who’s been toned down a bit from the documentaries, and Irene, who becomes the club’s struggling accountant.
“Welcome to Chippendales” deserves some credit for juggling topics that many other shows that detail the sex industry fail to address, but some things remain to be desired that linger long after the final episode. Still, it’s a show bolstered by a dedicated cast that tells an otherwise compelling story that predates America itself: sex + money = power.
Now wait for the next platform or network to get their chance to say it.