Of course, it would be a much better world if it were a love of backgammon that drove humanity, but alas we appear doomed to the eternal pursuit of baser things. This was the lesson quickly learned by Somen Banerjee, a gas station attendant who emigrated from Mumbai to the US in the 1970s, keen to pursue the American dream. After five years of saving, he ploughed his funds into a backgammon club but it failed to take off. His next venture was a nightclub that seemed to be following the same trajectory until Somen – now Steve – had an epiphany in a gay nightclub and … well, the dramatisation of his story is entitled Welcome to Chippendales (Disney+), and it rather sums it up.
Out with the board games and in with the male strippers! Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy Playmate girlfriend of his flashy nightclub manager Paul Snider (Dan Stevens, very good in a brief role) explains why it will work – “Erica Jong, Deep Throat, the Pill!” – before, I hope, returning to Hef’s mansion to take her rightful place as Exposition Playmate of the Month.
The Chippendales become a force to be reckoned with after Banerjee decides that Snider’s talents and the motley crew of male dancers he has assembled simply won’t do and brings in Emmy-award winning choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett, still running hot after his star turn in The White Lotus). He classes up the joint and adds some discipline, razzmatazz and stripping showstoppers to proceedings. In resentment and fury at his sidelining, Snider kills Stratten and then himself – the first collateral damage in Banerjee’s quest to succeed, but not the last.
De Noia comes on board full-time, and Banerjee finds love with a woman who is not just devoted to him but is a trained accountant and can tend to his bottom line as well. Juliette Lewis is added to the mix as the costume designer Denise, who invents the breakaway pants that become – along with the bartenders’ white cuffs and collars – the Chippendales’ signature feature.
It unravels, of course, as these things always do. De Noia’s creative visions collide with Banerjee’s business focus. Resentments grow, Banerjee’s demons surface as his family in India do not approve of what they see as the eldest son’s ill-gotten gains, and soon we are hurtling towards disaster and the end of various short and not terribly happy lives.
There is a lot of potential here for an interrogation of sex-swapped stripping – in a patriarchal society, for example, can you exploit men in the same way as you can women? When most of the men feed off the attention of the women in the audience (and are frequently seen enjoying more of it backstage), instead of being stalked by the fear of it turning violent at any moment, is the job fundamentally different? Star Chippendale Otis (Quentin Plair) is uncomfortable with being kissed and touched by patrons and is told it’s part of the job – but is also accommodated in his wish to take more responsibility and be taught business basics by Banerjee. It’s hard to imagine the same trajectory being followed by a bunny in the Playboy mansion. Then again, Otis is omitted from the Chippendales’ first calendar because Banerjee thinks a picture of a naked black man will deter customers. Is racism more acceptable because it comes from a business decision by a man who, as he notes himself, is a victim of it every day?
Much is hinted at but never followed through. Welcome to Chippendales remains as superficial as the shiny tan on a dancer’s body. Only Bartlett brings any real heft to proceedings, capturing the deep loneliness of his life as a semi-closeted gay man who can’t even get his “acceptable” gifts fully recognised by his notional boss and who eventually plays the ultimate price when he finally finds love and the confidence to step out on his own.
The sleaze, glamour and general air of excess that hung about the 80s is nicely captured, and all eight episodes can be easily binged. But you do long for some depth, some nuance, and perhaps an actor less fundamentally gentle than Kumail Nanjiani, who might have captured more convincingly the darkness lurking in Banerjee’s soul.