Are You There, Chelsea

Are You There, Chelsea

This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Brandon Nowalk talk about Are You There, Chelsea.

Are You There, Chelsea debuts tonight on NBC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Todd: Of all of the things that are wrong with Are You There, Chelsea—and there are many of them—I think the thing that bugs me most is the title. When NBC originally picked this show up last spring, it was entitled, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. That was a too-long, very irritating title, but at least it made sense and immediately made clear that this was based on the writing and stand-up comedy of one Chelsea Handler (since it shared a title with one of her books). Are You There, Chelsea just seems like NBC randomly reassembled the words in the original title—making sure to remove vodka and potential religious overtones—until it arrived at something that sounded vaguely like dialogue from a Harold Pinter play, hoping to pull in the hefty audience that’s known for its love of both existential theater and That 70s Show.

Yes, Are You There, Chelsea stars the too-long-gone Laura Prepon—she was Donna on 70s—as Chelsea Handler herself, only a younger, feistier version of Chelsea Handler who works in a bar. Prepon is a lot of fun as an actress, and she’s game for just about anything. The material handed to her, however, is not at all worthy of her talents, as this is yet another show drably slapped together by committee. Prepon is one of the few reasons worth tuning in here, and, sadly, the other reasons mostly consist of, “Well, it’s not as bad as Work It or ¡Rob!… ”

The idea of the show is that Chelsea Handler’s life before she became famous is immensely interesting. That’s pretty much it. She works in a bar. She lives in an apartment with her friends. She gets into tiffs with her ultra-religious sister, Sloane (played by the actual Handler, in a move certain to confuse at least a few people). She occasionally shoots the shit with her dad. She’s supposed to be our normal girl heroine, just somebody searching for direction in a directionless world and hoping that she can get out of the various scrapes she lands in—like ending up in jail—by sincerely entreating her deity vodka to come down and get her out of those jams. (Okay, I don’t think Chelsea actually worships vodka; this would be a better show if she did.) Along the way, she propositions a lesbian in order to get protection while in jail, hooks up with her sister’s ex, clumsily fills us in on the backstory, and wanders along, rambling about whatever she does as she does it.

The single greatest problem with this show is one that affects a lot of multi-camera comedies in this day and age: It seems incapable of telling a story. Instead, it’s more like a loose collection of sketches, tied to a central theme. Now, there’s probably a way to make this structure work—particularly when you’re dealing with the work of a stand-up comedian. (The most famous stand-up show, Seinfeld, was a series of sketches rotating off a central hub, but that show’s stories were murderously structured, where the current practitioners of this form are much more loose.) This is a problem I first noticed on Big Bang Theory, where the creators’ love of the sorts of long scenes that make for multi-camera gold led to the show eventually just telling two-thirds of a story and not telling the resolution in many cases. This can work—no one’s going to think that Big Bang is going to change the status quo forever—but it’s still a little jarring. The last ultra-traditional sitcom to have really strong storytelling was probably Everybody Loves Raymond, and that was likely because that show went out of its way to tell only one story in every episode, one that all of the characters could get involved in and comment upon.

Since then, however, multi-camera sitcoms have gotten even more bold in this regard. A show like 2 Broke Girls, for instance, doesn’t tell stories so much as create a bunch of scenes that have a little bit to do with each other. The “story,” as it is, might lead the characters logically from one place to another, but there’s no coherent emotional arc. Are You There, Chelsea, particularly in tonight’s pilot, has this problem tenfold. When a situation set up in the teaser returns in the show’s tag, it feels particularly jarring because the events of the teaser have had basically no bearing on anything that’s happened since. Similarly, there’s a forced emotional climax that’s meant to stand in for the relationship between Chelsea and Sloane, but it’s an emotional climax that isn’t earned. Chelsea is putting together all of the pieces of what a sitcom might seem like, but it doesn’t really earn any of them. It wants to have heart in addition to the acidic jokes Handler is known for, but it expects us to immediately jump on board with both. Perhaps most importantly, it expects us to really, really love Chelsea Handler and be intimately acquainted with everything she’s done.

Don’t get me wrong. This happens with most shows that are based around stand-up acts. They’re hoping to coast off of someone who’s already popular to do some of the hard work of setting up a world and characters to populate that world. This is work that slays many a young TV comedy, so if a show can coast by turning to an outside source, particularly one who’s had some success like Handler, then there’s a benefit there already. And maybe this show plays better for those who are intimately familiar with Handler’s jokes and with, say, her stories of her relationship with Sloane. For those of us who aren’t big Handler fans, who, indeed, find her kind of tiresome, well, there’s not much here to draw us in otherwise.

That’s something the show just can’t overcome, particularly with its sloppy, sketch-based storytelling. There are fun things here and there. Lenny Clarke is always good, but he’s rarely used all that much here. Lauren Lapkus is a real find as Chelsea’s new roommate, Dee Dee, turning every possible cliché about how she’s a religious virgin with no real experience in the real world into something amusing and funny. And the bar that the show occasionally goes to has a nicely designed set, at least in terms of creating various focal points for comedic conversations.

But at the same time, all of these things contribute to the show’s general sense of confusion and disorganization. Prepon seems like she’s having a good time—and she’s able to drag the audience along just enough—but the whole thing plays like somebody read one of Handler’s books and highlighted a bunch of stuff that just had to be in a TV show, without really considering if all of those things would work together in the same space. This leads to the curious sense that you’re being led on a tour of someone’s life, with a guide that’s occasionally appealing but is someone who you get the vague sense you’re supposed to like more than you do, just because of who she is. Are You There, Chelsea isn’t an outright disaster like some of the other new sitcoms this month, but it’s always tripped up by having a void at its center, a place where we’re supposed to insert our feelings for a protagonist not all of us will know. Hey, maybe that new title makes more sense than I thought… 

Brandon: From the vaginal codeword “Pikachu” to the catalyzing short story about jail time, Are You There, Chelsea is basically the Chelsea Handler life story in yet another medium, only Laura Prepon is no Chelsea Handler. Maybe that’s a good thing. But when it comes to sitcom success, Prepon just doesn’t have Handler’s facility with arid disdain, and weirder still, Handler herself doesn’t even seem to have her voice down on this show. Granted, this is just the pilot, but it’s striking how many lines are flubbed that you can imagine coming out coherently on Chelsea Lately. Is it that difficult to enunciate, not crack a smile, and get through a sub-Whitney sex joke simultaneously?

Whitney took some time to rise to just below the middle, which it achieved by finally letting some emotions out, so at least Are You There, Chelsea is heading out the gate with classic final-act sitcom pathos—not that it’s especially moving, but its heart is in the right place—which Prepon and Handler navigate pretty smoothly. In fact, the second episode is funnier and more cohesive than the pilot, a sign that progress could be made. And though it’s aesthetically unadventurous, I suppose there’s some virtue in a cast of unusual shapes and sizes in primetime. But ultimately, what’s the point? Light laughs and wannabe salacity? With Chelsea Handler playing the disapproving role on her own show, it’s slightly interesting as self-critique. But then why does it feel so empty?