Rarely have I watched a limited series so precipitously drop in quality episode after episode. Yet here we are, with only two more installments to go, and I have a hard time remembering how much I enjoyed the premiere and the promises it made. What’s most enraging is that all of the elements of what made Welcome to Chippendales click are still here: the over-top performances are Emmy-worthy (FYC Annaleigh Ashford!!); its design elements are to die for (as close-ups of those thong/chaps combos remind us); and its thematic investment in how corrosive the American dream can be (especially when filtered through an immigrant’s desire to circumvent the discrimination they face). And yet, such delights continue to wear thinner and thinner with every new episode.
“Paper Is Paper” is no exception.
As the episode’s title suggests, our penultimate visit to the gaudy, kitschy Chippendales universe rests on a simple tenet that Steve cannot do without: Money is king. Such is the lesson he’s taught himself to believe. Fines can be paid and lawsuits can be wished away if only enough money is thrown at them. Yet he cannot escape the fate that will soon await the club and its owner. There’s not enough money to shield him from the hole he’s caved himself into. And, just as every other moment when Steve’s been pushed to the edge, he does something desperate (and violent)—in this case, putting on a hit on Nick.
Or, well, let’s not make that explicit. Because the show, as I’ve noted repeatedly, rarely gives us access to the moments when Steve makes such choices. Instead, we’re led to make that connection ourselves. There are shots of Steve looking connivingly as he eyes Ray, his right-hand man in all things “under the table” and then, the next scene finds Nick (now blissfully living in New York City!) being killed. There are other hints, of course, that Steve organized such a bloody end for our beloved Emmy-winning choreographer. All Irene needs to see, for instance, is how Steve takes the news to realize something’s amiss (again, did I mention I’m now spearheading Ashford’s FYC Emmy campaign?).
Just as before, though, the show doesn’t grant us access to the moments when Steve makes such decisions (might it be a liability issue?); instead, the show bends over backward to have the audience make such connections even as it continues to keep Steve’s inner workings not so much a mystery as unnecessarily oblique. Rather than offer insight into how his idea of success violently collides with his jealousies and grudges, Welcome to Chippendales goes for a hands-off approach that illuminates very little about motives and motivations.
Try as he might, then, Nanjiani is left to play a cipher. One that’s become so one-note I can’t bring myself to take him seriously. He’s so laughably bad at keeping a poker face (even in front of his wife as she accuses him of murder) that you wonder how he ever thought he’d get away with such an obvious murder. Thankfully, it seems the very dashing and charming FBI agent in charge of this investigation (Evan Jonigkeit, if you must Google him) is just as unconvinced. “He’s guilty,” he says outright, “We have no hard evidence,” spelling out the stakes of his job in perhaps too blunt terms. Then again, that’s what Welcome to Chippendales is careening toward in these final episodes. Whatever build-up was taking place has now all come to an end, and it seems we’re rapidly going to be wrapping up this storied history.
If its final scenes hint at where we’re headed, it seems Welcome to Chippendales will turn into a cop show. A murder/scandal whodunit, actually. Which, I guess was always going to be the case but it seems such a narrow way of tidying up all of its loose ends (might we have seen the last of Bradford, Denise, and Irene?) Along those lines, and especially if we don’t get any other moments where Steve’s inner workings are revealed outside of rueful glances at guns or out at windows or at the floor (Nanjiani is called to stare into space a lot, have you noticed?), it looks like we’re done trying to understand him.
With one episode to go, this is why we arrive at what feels like the facile thesis statement of Steve’s life, which may well spell his downfall: “I have everything and regret nothing.”
- “BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS!!!” Juliette Lewis, my god! How can an actress be called to stage a screaming grief-stricken scene that’s supposed to be over-the-top (“Am I being crazy or am I being SANE!?”) and yet feel so grounded? (Speaking of, has any character been as underserved as her Denise? She’s such a fascinating figure and yet, having been reduced to merely being Nick’s “work wife” is truly a disservice to what could’ve been a more complex female character eager to navigate what it means to be in a partnership, romantic, business, or otherwise. Alas…)
- We love a nice callback (“I’m sorry”/“For what?”) but, much like that intentionally cheesy montage that opens the episode, you’re left wondering whether Welcome to Chippendales can actually pull off the tonal shifts it so enjoys. At times the show plays like a broad comedy, and at others, it has to contend with the lurid story it’s telling; I’m not convinced it marries those two registers as skillfully as it should.
- “Somen… Show Man… and you show… men!” Speaking of callbacks, Steve having to confront his birth name (Somen) while being interrogated made for a helpful bookend to how such micro-aggressions first fueled him to refashion himself into “Steve” to begin with.
- This now marks the second television season in a row where Murray Bartlett’s gay character is killed (remember The White Lotus season one?), and I just hope the Emmy-winning actor gets to survive his next project (uh… oh right, it’s The Last Of Us; that may not be the case, actually!)
- Okay, hiding a gun in a Chips Ahoy package is kind of an amazing detail.