Throughout 2015, former E! Network talk show host Chelsea Handler dropped hints about what she and new business partner Netflix were up to. She told Late Night‘s Seth Meyers about eating edible marijuana for the first time and forgetting how to take her sunglasses off, and told the audience at the Forbes Women’s Summit about her plans for other hallucinogens. Why? Because one of the four feature-length episodes of her Netflix documentary series, Chelsea Does, would be all about “Drugs.” Now it’s 2016, and Chelsea Does is about to unleash itself upon the world when it streams on Saturday, Jan. 23.
Handler isn’t for everybody. Whether it’s her abrasive comedy style or her penchant for nudity, the former host of Chelsea Lately has either pleased her most ardent fans or fueled the fiery hatred of her strongest critics. (Especially her former employees, as comedian Heather McDonald suggested in an indirect back-and-forth with Handler this week.) That being said, Chelsea Does both amplifies Handler’s trademark persona while undermining it with moments of sincere depth and vulnerability. Across four episodes focusing on “Marriage,” “Racism,” “Silicon Valley” and “Drugs,” the audience gets to see a side of her more intimate and bare than anything she’s ever used to test the anti-nudity rules on Instagram.
Directed by noted This Film Is Not Yet Rated writer and producer Eddie Schmidt, each 75 to 80-minute episode revolves around a dinner scene in which Handler and her guests for the occasion discuss the ins and outs of that particular episode’s topic. So, when Handler tackles matrimony and commitment in the first episode, she joins married couple Jason Biggs and Jenny Mollen. And “Racism?” Fellow comics and actors Margaret Cho, Aasif Mandvi and Michael McDonald help Handler figure things out over a few glasses of wine and a meal. These moments serve as the beginning, middle and end — a simple move that provides a rigid structure to an otherwise seemingly random occurrence of scenes.
They also serve as an entryway for the audience. At least three of Chelsea Does‘ four subjects are things that almost everyone on the planet has experienced or partaken of in some way. (“Silicon Valley” is slightly removed from everyday experience, unless one considers the wider impact of technology on their everyday lives.) So, why would anyone want to watch Handler explore them from her perspective? Relying on fans alone to support this series isn’t enough, so Chelsea Does needs to grab the audience’s attention by some other means. Hence the meals. Like actor and filmmaker Jon Favreau’s early 2000s IFC series, Dinner for Five, Handler’s dinners with friends and colleagues — while still removed from the viewers — help her relate to whoever is watching with something more than a joke.
Yet it’s what Schmidt and producer Morgan Neville set Handler up for after dinner that makes the best, tastiest parts of Chelsea Does‘ sausage. Like when the comedian interviews elementary and middle school-aged children about relationships in “Marriage,” or when she submits herself to the scrutiny of a panel of media specialists (re: censors) in “Racism.” Whenever Handler puts herself out there — as she does when she interviews her family and her first serious boyfriend to figure out why she isn’t marriage material — Chelsea Does becomes something more than just another documentary film series covering current events.
For example, Handler going through the motions of planning her own wedding (even though she isn’t dating anyone or engaged in “Marriage”) is a delight to watch for a number of different-but-related reasons. Whether you are currently single and have no immediate (or any) plans for marriage, married and loving it, married and hating it, or divorced, the sight of the 40-year-old comic asking an effeminate luxury wedding planner whether or not he’s gay while discussing her lingerie options is comedy bronze. When he responds with the suffix “-ish,” however, the scene immediately upgrades to comedy gold. As do subsequent scenes of Handler and a friend crashing a bachelorette party in Las Vegas, and the former serving as the officiant at a wedding in a drive-in wedding chapel.
There’s also a tinge of seriousness to Handler’s comedy in Chelsea Does. She spends a chunk of time at the Toronto offices of extramarital affairs website Ashley Madison, which was hit by a major hacking scandal soon after. It’s a rather telling segment in hindsight, as Handler gets combative with then-CEO Noel Biderman about his philosophy of marriage. As the hacking scandal came about later on, Biderman’s own infidelities were revealed and he resigned from the company. Chelsea Does doesn’t comment on these developments per se, as it invests enough in the audience’s knowledge of the news to realize the significance of what they’re watching.
All four parts of Chelsea Does will be available to stream on Saturday, Jan. 23 on Netflix. Until then, here’s a clip from “Drugs”…