On the day I went to see the “Thunder Down Under” — an all-male revue in which buff Aussies strip from blue jeans to less — a dozen sets of toned, tanned abs beckoned a bachelorette onstage. She wore a penis necklace with matching glasses, which did not look trashy in her bridal glow, which was, come to think of it, probably just stage lights reflecting off well-oiled pecs. When asked if she’d like a dance, the bachelorette said she’d like for a Joe Manganiello look-alike to rest his junk on top of her head, like a hat. Or at least she said she wouldn’t object to that happening? I don’t remember the details. All I can say for sure is that a ladder arrived and said junk was laid where soon a white lace veil would (probably) perch. Women screamed, cameras flashed. Reader, I wish I could tell you that bachelorette was me. Instead, a stranger’s bachelorette is simply the most fun I’ve ever had in Vegas. Which is all to say, I have been very excited for the based-on-a-true-story romp that is Welcome to Chippendales, a show that could not exist until recently because until recently, we did not have ripped Kumail Nanjiani.
And ripped Kumail Nanjiani is both the series’ greatest asset and, at least at first, a bit of a distraction. We meet his character, gas-station manager Somen Banerjee, in 1979 as he inventories the mini-mart’s sandwich offerings. He’s immediately the victim of a petty theft that escalates into a racist assault when some buffoons pour stolen beer on Somen and mock his accent. (The Karachi-born Nanjiani plays an Indian immigrant to the U.S. here.) It’s really very upsetting, and yet I found I was mostly focused on how Nanjiani was wearing the hell out of his period-appropriate silver-rimmed aviators. For this I blame the show’s setting, a male strip club premised on the idea that women like to look, too.
It’s not long before we learn Somen, who gives himself the Americanized nickname “Steve” after the incident, is no ordinary station manager, but a visionary. He’s invented a loyalty-card scheme that’s sent revenue skyrocketing. He’s also saved 90 percent of the money he’s earned over the last five years by living off expired mini-mart food. He used to want to own a gas station, but his dreams have evolved over seven years in La La Land. Drunk off a heady cocktail of glossy magazines, Hugh Hefner, and the Million Dollar Man, he would now like to be the dashing purveyor of a sophisticated members-only backgammon club in west Los Angeles. Steve trades his canvas work jacket for a slim-fitting suit and wide tie. He puts all his money into converting a defunct discotheque into a low-lit red-velvet womb. We can rebuild him. We have the technology.
Alas, no one wants to play backgammon, not even at a members-only club in west L.A. Steve — a man who understands that the appearance of success begets success, but not that “Destiny II” is bad branding — has grossly overestimated the national enthusiasm for backgammon.
But Steve’s got drive and, most crucially, the humility to listen to good advice when it finds him. The rest of the pilot episode conspires to throw Steve in the path of people who can help him succeed. Like nightclub promoter Paul Snider (Dan Stevens) and his sweet-as-pie wife, Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz Beckham). Steve offers Paul a stake in the club if he can deliver big names like Jimmy Caan and Scott Baio. As it turns out, Paul’s showbiz connections are as fake as his Rolex. But he does have some hustle. Watching him stalk Gabe Kaplan outside Chasen’s in West Hollywood gives way to one of Chippendales’ early delights: its tour of 1970s L.A., from Formosa to Muscle Beach.
Destiny II sees a few more incarnations on its evolution from backgammon joint to the world-famous Chippendales: disco dancing, mud wrestling (women), competitive oyster eating (men). It’s when Dorothy and Paul take Steve to a gay bar that he looks skyward and has his “eureka” moment. He sees God in the rafters; he sees angels in the architecture. Okay, really it’s a male stripper undressing on a suspended catwalk while the ABBA banger “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” soars, but it restores Steve’s faith in his own destiny, II.
Ms. Stratten gets it. This is the sexual revolution, baby, and women have won the right to be a little pervy from time to time. (We all giggled when Steve said they’d found “a hole in the marketplace,” right?) Steve and Paul recruit beefy dancers from Venice and customers from grocery-store parking lots. On opening night, the line to get into Chippendales is around the block.
So what if the talent is a little raw and unpolished? If women care when Paul — who moonlights as emcee — instructs them to “put some newspaper on those seats because you are about to get wet,” they sure don’t head for the door. There are no big dance numbers; the strippers make out with the clientele, but immediately the genius is apparent. The path from this low-rent experiment to the impeccable production that is the “Thunder Down Under” is a straight line.
And that line runs through Nick De Noia, an Emmy-winning choreographer whom Steve persuades to help him class up the act. From the moment the exquisitely cast Murray Bartlett barrels onto the scene, you can smell the hilarious dance montage coming: “Sexy in the face, keep the eyes alive,” he tells the amateur dance troupe he inherits. To body roll, Nick instructs the guys “to feel it in your body like you’re a giant tongue” licking an imaginary wall. Women aren’t like men, Nick says sagely, increasingly a Yoda figure. Then he teaches his budding Magic Mikes how to eye customers seductively while simultaneously executing a jazzy little pivot turn.
Yes, Nick is in; Paul’s icky-horndog routine is out. Paul’s even losing his hold on Dorothy — or thinks he is — when The Last Picture Show director Peter Bogdanovich (Philip Shahbaz) offers her an audition in his newest film. Instead of sharing in Dorothy’s success, Paul cheapens the moment: “You’re going to fuck Peter Bogdanovich.” I wish this lady would! Peter Bogdanovich would be a massive upgrade from a dude who thinks screaming “It’s laundry time” sets a sexy tone at the strippy.
Alas, after storming out on him at lunch, Dorothy returns to Chippy’s and takes her place by Paul’s erratic and irritable side. At least things at the club are getting better by the night. By the end of “An Elegant, Exclusive Atmosphere,” Steve’s installed a pro emcee in bow tie and tails. At Dorothy’s inspired suggestion, the bare-chested bartenders complete the look with white collars and cuffs, a visual nod to the Playboy bunnies. And there’s a cowboy number, replete with hay bales and men humping their own ten-gallon hats.
In fact, the club is such a remarkable success so fast that it finally dawned on me in the episode’s closing moments that this cannot possibly be a series about the radiant birth of Chippendales. This show must be about its death.
I was still thinking this when Steve leaves Paul an answering-machine message that Paul will never hear. He’s dead and so is Dorothy, presumably by Paul’s hand. There’s a shotgun on the ground near where their bodies lay in the final seconds of the episode. Dorothy will not fuck Peter Bogdanovich or even just be in his movie. Welcome to Chippendales is a much darker — and maybe more substantial — show than I previously imagined. I am even beginning to fear that ripped Kumail Nanjiani will be keeping all his clothes on.