The time for unbridled joy is over almost as soon as it begins. Paul and Dorothy, who buoyed Steve with their enthusiasm, are dead. The crass spectacle of Steve’s rough-and-ready dance troupe has been displaced by — well, honestly, it’s still a crass spectacle, but, under Nick’s control, one with the sheen of professionalism. All in all, Welcome to Chippendales is a much gloomier show in its second hour. The business is riddled with heavily foreshadowed fault lines. Ghosts haunt the strip club.
But before we dive into “Four Geniuses,” a note to those who read my episode-one recap: After watching the series premiere, I decided to watch the trailer (which I tend to avoid because trailers give too much away these days!). Anyway, my expectations have been sufficiently managed now. Somen “Steve” Banerjee is the kind of guy who keeps his shirt on. I get that, and I’m moving on. In fact, Welcome to Chippendales is now an exercise in personal restraint: For how many episodes will I be able to resist the urge to Google what happens to these cursed people?
The deaths of Paul and Dorothy are immediately confirmed on Steve’s radio and the front page of the Los Angeles Times and likely anywhere else where a murder-suicide passes for news (and thus, I have not had to Google it). The tragedy shakes Steve, who takes himself to lunch at an Indian restaurant, maybe in search of comfort. Until now, the most meaningful reference to Steve’s Indian roots has been the word Chippendales itself — apparently an obscure reference to an 18th-century British cabinet that was all the rage with the viceroys.
Now, Steve eats a few tables away from a group of men in gas-station jumpsuits as they banter warmly about cricket. The scene is poignant, but its significance is ambiguous. Does Steve long for this kind of camaraderie? He didn’t seem to want friends when he was operating the gas pumps himself.
Or maybe it’s a reflection of how far down the gutter Chippendales has already taken Steve. Would he know a dead club promoter and a dead Playboy bunny if he’d stuck to backgammon? Probably not! And yet this reading still feels like a stretch to me. Steve was always the sad man eating (expired sandwiches) alone.
Elsewhere in Tinseltown, Nick De Noia is dissolving his very short marriage to the actress Jennifer O’Neill. By the end of the day, he’ll be hooking up with Jenny’s (male) divorce lawyer. Still, in his heart of hearts, Nick wants more than sex in a public restroom. Back at home, he packs away his wedding photos, blunting his pain with a large glass of red wine and a VHS of the children’s series that won him his Emmys. We all exist on the spectrum of normies to celebrities, but sulking in the blue light of faded glory, Nick confirms what I’ve long suspected: The most pathetic human condition is “almost famous.”
It’s against this backdrop of misery that the show must go on. Crowds at Chippendales are thinning. Women are growing tired of watching a cowboy act they’ve already seen. Steve calls Nick to refresh the number, but Nick sells him on a grander proposition. The first time customers turn up to Chippys, it’s to watch men take it all off, but to keep them coming back for more, how the men take it off needs to constantly evolve. So Steve instates Nick as creative director, and the “genius” count goes from one to two.
Nick’s first order of business is to replace the ragtag dancers (fair enough). He handpicks a new crew, who find a de facto leader in Otis (Quentin Plair), a Black actor with some formal dance training and excesses of charm. He can even tango. Steve pauses before hiring a Black dancer, then decides his “audiences will love it.” The moment is charged with foreboding, but the ladies do indeed love it when Otis stripteases his way through George Benson’s “On Broadway.”
In fact, the only lady in the audience who seems to have no interest in Otis is cute-as-a-button Irene (Annaleigh Ashford), which makes her interesting to Steve. He awkwardly sidles up to her at the bar, and they bond over how Chippendales isn’t their kind of place (despite the fact one of them is the owner). But Irene really makes an impact when she suggests Steve’s bartenders fill the highball glasses to the brim with ice, thereby displacing alcohol and cutting costs. She’s an accountant with a background in bartending. By the end of the episode, she and Steve will sit at his-and-hers desks in the main office. Genius No. 3, people.
It’s a bit unclear to me yet who Genius No. 4 is. Is it Otis, who likes performing but isn’t sold on all the kissing and groping he’s asked to endure? When he finds out it was Steve himself who (1) tipped off the NIMBYs protesting the club and (2) then called the evening news to drum up some free publicity, Otis is awed. He has a business degree and a family to feed, and he wants to learn everything he can about how Steve runs Chippendales. Steve’s not sure, but Irene’s increasingly got his ear, and she so far uses that influence for good. Soon, Otis is spending more and more time with his clothes on.
The other candidate for Genius No. 4 is the costume designer Denise, played by the always-bewitching Juliette Lewis. Within the confines of the strip club, at least, she is indisputably a genius. Until now, the dancers have been forced to sit down mid-striptease to awkwardly shimmy their trousers over their shoes. It breaks their momentum. Armed with a pair of snap pliers and human ingenuity, Denise “invents” breakaway pants, transforming an entire industry right before our very eyes. Again, Steve’s not so sure about hiring her, but Irene assures him that bringing costume design and repair in-house will save money in the long term.
The relationship between Irene and Steve is absolutely peculiar. They bond over a shared personal narrative of being the most embarrassingly modest kind of rebels. See, Steve’s family has owned a printing press for generations, but he’s broken away in pursuit of his own fortune. Irene comes from aluminum-siding people, but she dreamed of combining her accounting degree with Hollywood glitz. They’re horniest for each other when finding new ways to maximize the bottom line. Chippendales starts selling merch, for example. And to keep their sexually primed clientele from going elsewhere to pick up men, they start charging men to come to the club after the strip show concludes. Is it love between Steve and Irene? Is it lust? Or is it simply unchecked greed masquerading as a dorky meet-cute?
So far, the story of Chippendales has been told as a case study in business development. It’s Denise, attempting to persuade Nick to hire her, who articulates what’s so powerful about Chippendales as a social phenomenon. The club doesn’t just appeal to women’s sexual fantasies; it speaks to their fantasies of taking control.
And the issue of “control” is quickly proving to be toxic among the so-called geniuses. Steve is suspicious of anyone but Irene — no matter their qualifications. Nick, who has been promised full creative control of the show, is threatened by Otis’s increased involvement on the business side of the operation. Steve started Chippendales with his own money, but it’s Nick’s choreography that’s become synonymous with the brand. Is Chippendales a bar, or is it the burlesque show that happens inside the bar? One thing is already clear from this two-episode premiere: Despite its milieu, this isn’t a series about women’s empowerment at all.