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In "Leeches," Welcome To Chippendales goes in circles

Despite “Hunkenstein” and a Phil Donahue segment, this episode finds the show's characters starting to feel one-note

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Welcome To Chippendales
Welcome To Chippendales
Photo: Erin Simkin/Hulu

Is this episode when everything turns? And by everything, I mean my opinion. Up until now, I’ve enjoyed the disco-fueled, neon-drenched, cigarette-hazed bender of a show Welcome To Chippendales has billed itself as. This increasingly lurid origin story for the famed stripclub has had no shortage of amazing (and amazingly bonkers) moments that have made it feel like a rollicking, fun ride. But with “Leeches,” I may have hit a wall.

Listen, I’m not saying Welcome To Chippendales is without merit. Nor am I saying that it is not ridiculously entertaining. This episode alone gifted us “Hunkenstein” and a Phil Donahue moment—not to mention a whole daytime TV montage followed by arguably the cringiest live interview ever committed to tape. But amid all the serviceable and even enjoyable moments, I’m starting to find issues with the tonal disjunction in creator-writer Robert Siegel’s approach to the material.

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Allow me to elaborate: We open this episode with yet another example of how Steve’s skewed image of success is driving him to make ever more ridiculous choices. Getting his suit jackets tailored so folks can see his Rolex watch is, arguably, the kind of power move he hopes will get him to be seen as someone of importance. Instead, even as he’s muttering “perfect” to the tailor, you can’t help but feel sorry for such gauche attempts at looking (rather than just being) rich. It would be a helpful character detail were we not already on episode five, in which this kind of attitude on Steve’s behalf has already been firmly established.

As has Nick and Steve’s rivalry, which, instead of reaching a kind of detente, has become more of a cold war of sorts. It’s fitting then that their encounter while Steve is visiting his latest franchise (which obviously he’ll take full credit for) is then staged out in the snow. Maybe it was the kind of twee snowglobe effect the entire scene had. Or perhaps it was the needless infantilizing effect seeing snow for the first time had on Steve. But I just didn’t buy or understand what we were supposed to take away from this scene. That Steve can’t have fun? That he’s, after all these years, still a foreigner at heart? That he and Nick will never be able to have any kind of kinship? I guess it’s probably more simple: No matter how much money or Rolexes or power Steve has, he very well may feel (especially in rooms or alleyways with men like Nick) like a bullied kid who’ll use his hurt to hurt those around him if he feels slighted in the slightest.

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Cut to: the ending of the episode where that same kind of energy comes to the fore as he finds his small empire being encroached upon by a competing stripping night. And how does he respond? By asking Ray to burn it to the ground.

There are, I guess, more elegant ways of tracing such character development (do we think, for instance, we really needed Ray to say “you gotta fight fire with fire” in an episode that ends with arson?), but I’m beginning to feel Welcome To Chippendales is erring on the side of making it all feel much more simple than it perhaps needs to be? Or rather, that each of its characters are starting to feel one-note, with little color or texture to help ground them in a reality that feels more plausible.

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Steve (Kumail Nanjiani)
Steve (Kumail Nanjiani)
Photo: Erin Simkin/Hulu

For example: all of the machinations regarding the “membership card” (for which Steve is now being sued for!) have been left offscreen. We’ve gotten hints that he’d implemented them as a way to keep certain folks from his club, but unlike, say, his decision to create a calendar or fight with Nick over Hunkenstein, we never did get moments where we see him take action on the cards. His motivation, the show wants to tell us, is obvious. But then, why not show it? Why let us see him getting his suit tailored but not the moment he designs and gets the cards printed? Why shield us from such events?

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At least we got the full Phil Donahue segment as well as Steve’s disastrous on-air interview, as disparate examples of Nick’s natural charm and Steve’s, uh, lack thereof. But we always knew Steve would never allow himself to be sidelined—hearing Nick being called “Mr. Chippendale” alone was going to send him into raze, but ho boy was it worse than all of us could’ve foreseen.

So yes, this is the episode where everything turns (not just my opinion) because we do finally see Steve take matters into his own hands in ways that will surely come and haunt him later. Arson is likely harder to shake off than a lawsuit, methinks.

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Stray observations

  • Another minor pet peeve: I understand the desire to avoid flooding us with dates or years or even “10 months later” title cards but would it hurt the show to help us navigate time? How long did it take Nick to get Chippendales East running? How many years has it been since Steve first opened his backgammon club? Hard to tell, right?
  • Okay, we have to talk about “Hunkenstein” because my god! Only in New York, amirite? But seriously, what showmanship! What delirious staging! What hilarious choreo and crowd work! Such great, ahem, butts! Sure, it’s gay AF, but clearly none of the women in the audience minded. The better for all of us. Also, kudos for the show for not looking down on Nick for taking himself so seriously as a stripping auteur; here’s where we should credit director Nisha Ganatra for finding pathos in what would otherwise have been a ludicrous proposition.
  • Analeigh Ashford in 80s eye glassware. That’s it. That’s the observation.
  • Speaking of: “I’m sorry.” “For what?” may well be the exchange that’ll stick with me from this episode. So simple. So weighted with meaning. (Of course Steve flubs it even after Irene spells it out for him that she thinks he’s a good person which…)
  • “I don’t know his work but I love famous people.” Oh god. Steve truly is a walking “I want to be American” stereotype, no?
  • Of course it would be Nick (and/or Denise?) who’d come up with the seemingly obvious idea of featuring a Chippendale chair at the club.