The fragile symbiosis between art and commerce is as fraught as it is long-standing. “I cannot live under pressures from patrons,” Michelangelo was quoted as saying, “let alone paint.” And yet without Pope Julius II and the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Sistine Chapel ceiling. Without early sponsorship from the Medici court, art would have perhaps been but a teenage pursuit for Michelangelo — a fruitless hobby he was forced to quit in favor of more remunerative work.
That our Nick, four centuries later, is struggling against the “pressures” of Steve’s tyrannical control does not distinguish him from artists working in more conventional mediums than erotic dancing. It’s what connects Nick to the old masters: da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, De Noia. Yes, hidden inside this silly little Hulu series about sex and greed is a ludicrous dialectic about the essential preconditions — freedom, time, unlimited prop budgets — for the creation of groundbreaking art. In fact, one of the reliable pleasures of Welcome to Chippendales so far is that each episode is ambitious to the point of hilarity.
Take this week’s opening sequence: a cutesy little collage of unanswered phone calls and hard drugs that I like to call “lines: two ways.” Steve Banerjee is in (pre-Mumbai) Bombay, calling the new Mrs. Irene Banerjee from a telephone booth. Eight thousand six hundred miles away in Los Angeles, Irene sits in the Chippendales audience, watching Otis hold a vintage rotary phone to his crotch like maybe his junk will answer. Is this a metaphor for how the advent of male strippers threatens traditional marriage? Or is this unhinged choreography just designed to make me giggle? All I know for sure is that Irene really seems to have loosened up since she first stepped into da club two years ago.
But let’s start with the sobering scene on the far end of the phone line. Steve is visiting India for his father’s funeral — the first time he’s seen his family in six years. He’s dutifully packed a suitcase of American gifts — wristwatches, Levis, a Sony Walkman, many, many bricks of Velveeta — but none of it is enough for his mother, who blames her son for her husband’s heart attack. If Steve hadn’t left home, his father would have retired from the family business by now. It’s a cruel thing to say, but intriguingly it’s fueled by rejection as much as grief. The Banerjees were a middle-class family in Bombay. Why wasn’t that enough for Steve? His parents never wanted a pallet of processed cheese; they wanted their son to think the life they gave him was life enough.
Needless to say, Steve’s mother passes on an offer to come live with him and Irene in the SoCal palace that a disgraceful dance club built. “Some people are not meant to be rich,” she warns him — a putdown so cryptic, undermining, and devastating that only a mother could dream it up.
Meanwhile, in Tinseltown, Nick is anxious at the top. How will he ever best “Room Service,” the number that saw Otis in a bellhop uniform thrusting against a landline? And if he does best “Room Service,” how will he beat that act, especially with Steve breathing down his neck about the bottom line? It’s a credit to Murray Bartlett that this scene about the crippling performance anxiety of a strip-show choreographer works so well in the key of absurdity and still somehow, at least slightly, in the key of pathos. Irene steps in to stroke Nick’s ego. In fact, it’s clear that she’s the person keeping Chippendales on the rails in the face of extreme male rivalry between Nick and her husband.
With Steve away, Irene even takes the chance to bond with her colleagues. They go to a dance club where she learns that (1) Nick is “sometimes” gay, and (2) Denise keeps coke on hand for such occasions. We’ve never seen Irene drink anything harder than a soft drink, but Denise gives her a bump, and suddenly she’s screaming, “I love cocaine,” in the white disco light. Long after Nick and Denise leave with randos, Irene is still dancing by herself while Steve stalker-calls the household phone line again and again. (I shudder to think we used to live this way, without the ability to offer our neglected lovers the cold comfort of a “sry phone dying” text or a “wut can’t talk now,” or even the gaslighting reply that is “did u mean to call me,” sent two hours after the fact.)
But just as things reach a coke-fueled crescendo, we hit the buzzkill that is the “in the beginning” section of Welcome to Chippendales. Here is young (pre-Steve) Somen, learning the printing press in sepia tones. Here are the origins of parental pressure, lightly applied since Somen was old enough to feed paper into the machine. When Steve flies home to Los Angeles, it’s with the baggage that he will never be enough. He reacts to this existential panic by trying to prove to everyone else how big he already is.
This is why Steve screams — like really loudly and terribly and inappropriately — when presented with the opus Dr. Hunkenstein, a far-out, three-part erotic rock opera in which an evil doctor attempts to fashion the perfect male specimen from the individual components of other male specimens. It’s a vision sprung from Denise’s drug-addled dreams and refined by Nick’s balletic sensibility. Gilbert and Sullivan. Merchant and Ivory. Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Someone please add Mr. Nick De Noia and Denise, the Inventor of Breakaway Pants, to the list of iconic creative duos.
They’re workshopping the laboratory-set routine when Steve returns from his voyage and vociferously objects to the idea that the world kept turning even when he wasn’t present to give it the green light. Steve insists he’s the only true boss at Chippendales, and thy strippers shall have no other bosses above him. He calls the glorious new act vulgar and deranged, which, yeah, of course, that’s kind of the point, Steve. But, poetically, Steve is already a step ahead of Dr. Hunkenstein, who is still at work building the ideal “man”-ster — Steve already loathes his own creation.
And even his wife isn’t safe from this explosion of shame and ire. Who is Irene — kind, loyal, good-with-the-books Irene — to hire a full-time handyperson just because (1) Steve is away and unable to help, and (2) many, many things are broken, and (3) it’s obviously the most cost-effective solution?
But it’s the fissure between art and commerce at Chippendales that has never run deeper than in this moment. Nick and Denise discuss breaking out and forming their own club, one where they can be creatively unleashed and not hemmed in by a patron who thinks the status quo is “sufficiently spectacular.” Even when Steve has calmed down from his hostile outburst, his instinct is to make the situation worse. He teams up with the new handyperson, Ray — who also happens to be an amateur carpenter, kung fu practitioner, and photographer — to get back into the family biz.
That’s right. We’re printing wall calendars with Chippendales dancers in place of Hindu deities. I must say this show is rarely hysterical, especially given the subject matter, but it is consistently low-key giddy. Like, it’s hilarious how susceptible Steve is to the slightest of flatteries from anyone, including a handyperson he would prefer to fire. It is hilarious to listen to Kumail Nanjiani in a suit and tie tell a male model to “twist your buttocks” to the camera. And it is hilarious to watch a pair of overgrown man-babies debate whether a wall calendar of scantily clad beefcakes is rightly classified as “art” — and thereby Nick’s purview — or “merchandise,” a department run by Steve.
Nick is fuming when he finds out about the calendar shoot, but that was Steve’s point all along. What’s less clear to me is that Steve predicted how extreme Nick’s reaction would be. As the episode ends, he boards a one-way flight to New York City, presumably to drum up investors for an East Coast rival to the club. Nick cannot live under the pressures of a patron like Steve, let alone teach the Chippendales hunks to pas de bourrée.