‘Welcome to Chippendales’: A colorful Hulu series portrays the dance troupe’s deadly origins

Masterful Kumail Nanjiani plays against type as the strip club’s real-life founder, insecure and jealous of the Chippendales choreographer.

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Somen “Steve” Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani) dreams of creating something classy in “Welcome to Chippendales.”

HULU

With “Pam & Tommy,” “Dopesick,” “Candy,” “The Act,” “The Dropout” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” et al., Hulu is on a roll with biographical limited series telling fictionalized versions of well-known events and scandals. The run continues with the colorful and shiny but increasingly dark and twisted “Welcome to Chippendales,” which tells the blood-spattered behind-the-scenes story of the legendary all-male dance troupe that was formed in the late 1970s, flourished in the 1980s and 1990s and enjoys continued success in venues around the world

Showrunners Robert Siegel ( “Pam & Tommy”) and Jenni Konner (“Girls”) have created an addictively compelling, if at times borderline cheesy, slice of period-piece Americana (cue the songs such as “Superfreak” and “Sharp Dressed Man”), featuring strong work by Kumail Nanjiani as Chippendales founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee and an outstanding supporting cast led by Murray Bartlett, Juliette Lewis and Annaleigh Ashford.

“Welcome to Chippendales” features any number of imagined conversations and scenarios. But the major events depicted here really did transpire, which makes the ride all the more compelling and crazy. On multiple occasions when Nanjiani’s Banerjee is faced with a major decision, you want to scream at him to do the right thing — and, nearly every time, he makes things worse.

‘Welcome to Chippendales’

Untitled

An eight-episode series premiering with two episodes Tuesday on Hulu.

Nanjiani (“The Big Sick,” “Eternals”) plays against type and delivers the most complex and impressive performance of his career as Steve, an Indian immigrant who in the 1970s operates a Mobil gas station in the Los Angeles area. He’s been saving a huge percentage of his income while living in a cramped apartment where the walls are plastered with ads and magazine articles touting the fast life, from BMW cars to Kent cigarettes to Arrow shirts to photos of his idol, Hugh Hefner, to articles with titles such as “How to Throw the Perfect Party.”

Steve opens a backgammon club: “an establishment where people [can] gather together to play in a sophisticated setting. Velvet couches, cigar bar … an elegant, exclusive atmosphere.” This is the first of many indications Steve’s vision is about as elegant and upscale as a stack of old Playboy magazines gathering mold in the garage.

The backgammon club is a bust and is in danger of closing when in walks one Paul Snider (Dan Stevens), a small-time hustler with a fake Rolex and a big mouth, and Snider’s girlfriend, Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham), the recently crowned Playboy Playmate of the Year. Steve is easily impressed by Snider and falls for his obnoxious shtick, and the two men partner up, trying (and failing) with such gimmicks as disco dancing, mud wrestling and an oyster-eating contest before an outing to a gay club provides Steve with his Lightbulb Moment: “A strip club for women. There are a million strip clubs for men in Los Angeles yet not a single one for women.”

At first, Chippendales is a decidedly downscale enterprise, featuring a small troupe of enthusiastic but not particularly talented men stripping to the sounds of “Macho Man” in a setting that resembles a half-finished suburban basement, with the crude Snider acting as the MC. (By the end of the first episode, the story of Dorothy Stratten and Paul Snider has come to its horrifying conclusion, with Snider murdering Stratten before killing himself.)

Steve wants something classier, bigger, something that will make a splash — and he finds a promising partner in one Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett, fresh off his supporting actor Emmy for “The White Lotus”), a TV choreographer with a fading career but a genuine knack for creating slick, well-executed dance routines. Nick brings Juliette Lewis’ Denise aboard to help with marketing, while the bottom line continues to grow in large part due to the business acumen of Annaleigh Ashford’s Irene, who handles the accounting and eventually becomes Steve’s wife.

Choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett, left, with Quentin Plair as a dancer) becomes the public face of Chippendales.

Choreographer Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett, left, with Quentin Plair as a dancer) becomes the public face of Chippendales.

Hulu

Still, even as the Chippendales empire explodes and expands, we see signs of Steve’s deeply troubled personality in the racism he exhibits towards Blacks, his deep-rooted insecurities, and his seething jealousy toward Nick, who becomes known as “Mister Chippendales” as he makes the rounds on the TV talk show circuit. (The re-enactments of Nick’s talk show appearances, with actors impersonating Phil Donahue, Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael and Gene Shalit of the “Today” show, are so bad they’re kinda great.)

Nanjiani does a masterful job of capturing a man who is never comfortable inside his own skin and resents that he’s had to work twice as hard as everyone else but isn’t getting enough credit. Steve sips his Coca-Cola and rages against everything and everyone, while Nick and Denise and Nick’s wealthy new boyfriend (Andrew Rannells) snort coke and live it up and ride the wave.

Steve becomes so consumed with rage and jealousy that he orders separate hits on Nick and on a group of dancers with a rival troupe. In April of 1987, Nick De Noia was shot and killed in his Manhattan office; seven years later, just hours before Steve Banerjee was to be sentenced for murder for hire, he was found dead in his cell, having hanged himself.

All the light and fun and debauchery of “Welcome to Chippendales” fades into black, as Steve Banerjee’s American Dream turns into a nightmare of his own making.

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