‘Chelsea’ Doesn’t Break The Talk Show Mold, But It Still Has Plenty Of Time To Try

You either enjoy Chelsea Handler’s brand of biting, sarcastic and often crude comedy, or you don’t. If you fall into the latter camp, you should still know that what the 41-year-old comedian wants to do with her new Netflix talk show, Chelsea, is completely different from her previous late-night foray, Chelsea Lately. The heavily criticized E! Network program (including quips by Handler herself) was, as The New York Times described it, a “demanding tabloid seminar that assumes a high degree of pop literacy and spends little time in review.” Audiences familiar with the Kardashians, Lindsay Lohan’s arrest record, and the latest escapades of Britney Spears’ ex-husband were the key demographic. Chelsea, on the other hand, aims to infiltrate the homes of Netflix binge-viewers across the globe. Its canvas is much larger, and instead of diving back into American gossip culture, Handler hopes to be more relevant to more people. Or as the host says in her opening monologue explanation, “This show is being streamed in 190 countries, so ‘Aloha!’ to the island nation of Hawaii. And to the rest of the international audience, ‘¡Feliz Navidad!’ ”

As evidenced by the first episode’s non-monologue, Handler herself isn’t changing her tone for the new, much larger audience. Chelsea displays the same kind of inappropriate comedy that characterized Chelsea Lately and her 2014 Netflix stand-up special, Uganda Be Kidding Me. However, the more cringe-worthy aspects of her past routine are nowhere to be found. For example, Handler’s old sidekick Chuy Bravo, whom she once dressed up as Hitler to celebrate Germany’s World Cup win, is long gone. So is the round table and panel discussion format that chewed through most of her E! Network time slot. Instead, Chelsea is all about its host, the loftier topics that interest her, the guests she invites on to discuss said topics, and of course, the current U.S. presidential election.

In interviews promoting the premiere, Handler, former The View executive producer-turned-Chelsea showrunner Bill Wolff, and Netflix higher-ups have all touted the program’s desire to ignore the traditional talk show format. When profiled by the NYT, Handler emphasized that she didn’t “want people turning it on and seeing the same thing… Monologue. First guest. Band. Da, da, da.” Pressed for further details about her reasoning, she explained: “All these shows try to start out selling something different, and ultimately all become the same, just with a different guy… I have to do everything I can to prevent that from happening.” Judging by the first episode, “Appetite for Instruction,” Chelsea has strong ideas about how to make a non-talk show talk show. Yes, this seems somewhat ridiculous, but Handler acknowledges the silliness of her endeavor quite early.

“I’ve done a lot. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready to learn more. I’ve learned that I don’t want to do a monologue anymore, and that’s why I’m going to go sit down,” she jokes. “I know this seems like a monologue, but this is not a monologue. This is an explanation, and if you don’t know the difference, then you can log out or log off or f*ck off or whatever.”

The live studio audience is all for the explainer (and the Netflix-approved use of the word “f*ck”), and Chelsea Lately and Uganda Be Kidding Me fans will be, too. But what about the global audience Handler and her team are gunning for? They probably aren’t used to the comedian’s particular style, which is a mix of typical self-deprecation and Tony Stark-like ego. (Toward the end of her fake monologue, the host concludes: “The point is, I’m amazing.”) Because of this, viewers unwilling to watch past the first 10 minutes might assume Chelsea is simply a streaming exercise in the titular comic’s self-aggrandizing. Which, up to a point, it is. However, like Handler’s four-part documentary series Chelsea Does, this new talk show adopts a strategy akin to what late-night programs like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee are doing — using each episode to focus on a specific subject, instead of catering to the promotional whims of invited guests, musicians and others.

Hence “Appetite for Instruction.” Handler begins by acknowledging her lack of education beyond high school, and jokes about how her well-funded new gig at Netflix is like getting a free ride to college. This provides ample inspiration for a few skits, including a fake commercial for Netflix University, but it also grounds the episode for its first and second interviews. John B. King Jr., the current U.S. Secretary of Education, quizzes the host to help her find a starting point for her forthcoming learning experience. It’s a decent gimmick, to be sure, but it also garners a wonderful conversation between Handler and King about teachers who had a major impact on their lives. When second guest Pitbull joins them on the couch, he too shares stories about two prominent teachers who helped him out when he was a young kid bouncing around between foster homes.

So does it work? In terms of doing everything she can to break the late-night mold, the first 40 minutes of Chelsea still feel like a typical talk show in some respects. This is, after all, a show in which people talk to one another about various things. And when Drew Barrymore, the third and final guest on “Appetite for Instruction,” takes the stage for the last segment, Handler reverts to some of her more Chelsea Lately-like tendencies. (As when she asks Barrymore about her recent divorce.) However, Chelsea does mark a whole new direction for Handler and Netflix, as neither party has ever done a program like this. Perhaps the only mold to be broken will be the one Netflix shatters with its attempt to enter the talk show circuit, but with more episodes to come, it’s too early to say for sure.

New episodes of Chelsea premiere on Netflix every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Until then, here’s a preview…