NBC’s new comedy “Are You There, Chelsea?” (Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.) is a riddle wrapped in an enigma drowned in Kahlua. Among the confusing issues:
* The show is based on the early life of comedienne Chelsea Handler, and Handler appears on camera in it – but playing her own older sister, while Laura Prepon from “That ’70s Show” plays Handler herself.
* The show was originally called “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” which is the title of one of Handler’s books, and remains as a line of dialogue in the opening scene – a charming vignette about young Chelsea praying to get out of trouble for a DUI – but was changed to “Are You There, Chelsea?,” which suggests a show told from the point of view of the vodka.
* About 18 minutes of each episode is packed with the kind of unapologetic, frank and raunchy insult humor Handler has built her career on, yet the last 2 or 3 are devoted to phony, dissonant uplift establishing that Chelsea and her sister really do care about each other, darnit.
One thing that’s not confusing: “Are You There, Chelsea?” is terrible.
Forget Handler’s weird on-camera presence (she says she’s too busy with her day job at E! for a full-time job) and the dumb name (which clearly arose out of someone at NBC being uncomfortable putting “vodka” in the title). This is a sitcom that is crude without being the least bit clever about it, and which doesn’t even have the guts to let its main character be as nasty as she clearly wants to be.
The series deals with a twentysomething Chelsea, working as a waitress in a North Jersey sports bar, alongside best friend Olivia (Ali Wong), bartender Rick (Jake McDorman) and little person(*) bar back Todd (Mark Povinelli). In the premiere episode, Chelsea and Olivia move into an apartment with Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), a very strange(**), virginal woman who mainly seems excited to have them as roommates because Chelsea’s cat will give her an excuse to do her own impression of a cranky kitten. There’s also a lot of time spent on Chelsea’s relationship with older sister Sloane (Handler) and her father Melvin (Lenny Clarke), the tree off which her own drunken apple fell.
(*) One positive I’ll say about the show is that almost none of the humor about Todd has to do with his size. He’s not an especially memorable character, but he’s also not just an excuse for short jokes.
(**) Okay, another positive: the character of Dee Dee is ridiculous, and not written as someone who would ever want Chelsea and Olivia to live with her, but Lapkus has a nice, weird energy to her performance, and seems like someone I’d be happy to see in a better-written sitcom one or two development cycles from now.
The running joke of the show is that Chelsea keeps promising to change her hard drinking, sexually reckless ways, but changes so tiny that the human eye can’t register them. She moves in with Dee Dee not because a virgin might be a good influence on her, but because having an apartment within walking distance of the bar will give her license to keep drinking heavily without having to get into a car.
There are a number of writers involved whose work I’ve admired in the past. The pilot was co-written by Dottie Dartland Zicklind, one of the creators of “Dharma & Greg,” and the second episode was written by Robin Schiff, who wrote “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” and the underrated mid-’90s CBS sitcom “Almost Perfect.” But the overriding voice feels very much like Handler’s, full of blunt, sexually explicit punchlines that don’t have any wit behind them, and which don’t even have any shock value any more. (In this day and age, anything that can be said on an NBC sitcom isn’t all that startling.)
When Rick (predictably set up in a will-they/won’t-they dynamic with Chelsea) offers to loan Chelsea a video camera to document the birth of Sloane’s baby, Chelsea tells him, “I know we’ve had our differences, but I am this close to giving you a handie.” She’s so impressed by the layout and décor of Dee Dee’s apartment that she declares, “It’s giving me lady wood.”
Prepon does what she can with the lead role, but Handler’s on-camera presence just undercuts her. Instead of being a cute in-joke, it’s a large distraction: any time Prepon is making any headway towards making the character her own, Handler turns to remind you what the real Chelsea looks and sounds like. And it’s not like the show is interested in playing the kind of meta-narrative games that would have fun with the idea of Chelsea Handler in a brunette wig looking on disapprovingly as a younger actress acts and talks the way she used to.
And as for the fictionalized Chelsea, she occupies that irritating middle ground where she’s not likable enough to be watchable when she’s just existing, and yet neutered enough that her bad behavior isn’t actually all that funny. As I said, both episodes I’ve seen climax with Chelsea and Sloane putting their many differences aside to hug it out and affirm their sisterly bond, and it doesn’t track the least bit with anything that’s come before. Better the writers should have gone the route of pure black comedy where the show feels no more need to apologize for her than Chelsea herself does.
Instead, those hug-it-out moments, like the decision to take vodka out of the title, speak to the schizophrenic, blinkered approach the broadcast networks take to edgy content. Because E! and NBC are now part of the same big Comcast corporate family, NBC wants to put on a show involving one of E!’s biggest stars, but they only want to go so far and no farther with her material. NBC Chelsea can drink a lot, but Heaven forbid the name of her favorite drink be in the title of her show. NBC Chelsea can insult everyone and throw out as many single-entendres as possible, but we have to know at the end of the day that she’s really a good egg who loves her sister deep down.
Now, I’m not a big Chelsea Handler fan to begin with, so I don’t know that I would enjoy a darker version of “Are You There, Chelsea?” But at least I’d respect it more.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org