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Welcome To Chippendales borders on rote territory in "February 31st"

In its latest episode, the Hulu drama spins in circles instead of diving into its subject matter with nuance

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Annaleigh Ashford and Kumail Nanjiani in Welcome To Chippendales
Annaleigh Ashford and Kumail Nanjiani in Welcome To Chippendales
Photo: Hulu

I may have spoken too soon last week. Whatever high Welcome To Chippendales was riding in its early episodes (particularly its amazingly solid one-two punch of a double premiere run) has fizzed out in subsequent installments. This is mostly because, as this episode makes clear, the Hulu limited series has sketched out several one-note one-dimensional characters who are stuck in a rather listless merry-go-round of recurring scenarios. Even if we allow that every single one of these incidents actually took place (we are dealing with real-life folks here, after all), the writing for the series has turned Steve, Nick, Irene, and Denise into cardboard versions of themselves. Welcome to Chippendales feels more like a sitcom forever stuck in the same A/B storylines than a probing take on the lurid history of the famed strip joint.

Every episode, it seems, is now structured around a new Chippendales outgrowth (a new dance number! a calendar! a New York City outpost! a tour!) that necessarily creates a rift between Steve and Nick. The two, of course, jockey for control and credit, eventually come to a detente that merely reinforces their mutual disdain for one another… and then they do it all over again. At some point, something (or someone, more like) will have to break. At least I hope so because this is starting to get old.

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This time around, we have to contend with Bradford’s idea of going on the road. Maybe that will keep Steve off their backs. After all, wouldn’t a tour be the next great step for such a budding franchise? The answer is yes, but as always, him and Nick (and Denise) have to contend with Steve, who’s ego sometimes gets the better of him when it comes to Chippendales. Yes, we again find him forsaking the once very useful advice he’d ask of his wife and go ahead with not just one but two foolhardy business decisions that will be quite costly, in ways both economic and personal. Honestly, if this show teaches you nothing, let it teach you at least that you should never do anything Analeigh Ashford would disapprove of!

But even if this kind of writing had not already made me wish more had happened during this episode (Are you starting to feel, like me, that Hulu needlessly stretched out this series longer than it needed?), I would be pointing out other ways there’s an elegance the series’s structure is lacking. If a line “You understand all that?” in regards to the napkin-written contract Nick cooks up on the spot didn’t give you pause in the same way Steve’s blatant disregard for the quality control he was supposed to do with the latest calendars did, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the myriad of Chekhov’s guns Welcome to Chippendales has been littering throughout this episode alone. Of course, they both went “Bang!” and screwed over Steve once more, making him all the more distressed. Bankruptcy, it seems, may not be too far off. Especially given that the class action suit will surely sink the business’s prospects.

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Kumail Nanjiani and Robin de Jesus in Welcome To Chippendales
Kumail Nanjiani and Robin de Jesus in Welcome To Chippendales
Photo: Hulu

Last week I complained that the show was, intentionally or not, keeping out of frame the times when Steve behaves in less than savory ways. The entire VIP membership card operation, for instance, only came to our attention when he got caught—not when he printed or gave them out. And here, even as he’s long been sketched as a paranoid entrepreneur, his fears around whether Nick is swindling him are punted to Ray (Robin de Jesus) who’s the one who most forcefully suggests that Nick is not being completely forthcoming about how much the tour is making. These choices work to keep Steve as a cipher at worst and a sympathetic figure at best. It’s not surprising the episode ends with him gritting his teeth as his mother berates him for what he’s become and the shame he’s brought to the family; he’s the antihero of this story, yes. But he’s so portrayed, perhaps, to avoid more forcefully examining the dark impulses that drove some of his most outlandish actions. I mean, even after the trial is over, we don’t have a sense of whatever guilt he may be feeling. Mostly because the show never clarified how he actually felt about such “business” choices he was making.

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As we enter the final stretch of the show (only two more episodes to go!), I hope Welcome to Chippendales will be able to snap out of its rote routine and offer us some of the razzle dazzle that first drew us in. I worry that the more it reveals (the more it strips down), the limited series will reveal itself to have very little to say about its subject, let alone its subject matter.

Stray observations

  • Honestly, even when the writing may not be what it should be, there is no denying there are plenty of pleasures to be derived from Welcome To Chippendales. Like, any episode that opens with a strip number featuring a shower and an almost see-through thong can’t be all that bad, now can it?
  • “It’s just a napkin. It’s not a real contract.” followed by “This is 100% a real contract.” is the kind of cutesy dialogue cut that’s too twee for me. But maybe I’m alone?
  • I really need the show to stop relying so heavily on montages. This time around we saw it being deployed to advance Steve and Irene’s decision to water down the vodka, do cocaine, and try to fix their marriage/business—not to mention forget about their ongoing lawsuit—with a drunken drug bender. They’re cute and fun but they’re starting to feel like a narrative crutch that’s starting to go stale.
  • Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields cameos!
  • I love Robin de Jesus. There’s an intensity to the energy he brings to the screen. But I’m starting to fear he’s doing his best with an underwritten character here; of all the people we’ve met at Chippendales, he remains the most unknowable. We know (and witness) so little of his personal life that it’s hard to square how he operates with Steve with how he operates on the daily (and nightly, really) without any kind of perspective. Odd that the show makes me feel like it’s overstretching certain plot points and at the same time outright ignoring or underselling some of its characters.
  • We’re all going to be FYCing on behalf of Peggy A. Schnitzer, yes? Her costume design for the show remains a highlight—Irene’s blouses and dresses and glasses alone should make that happen.