‘Chelsea,’ Netflix’s Foray Into Late Night, Is Disappointingly Familiar

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“I’m finally getting to do the exact kind of show that I’ve always wanted to do,” Chelsea Handler says early in the first episode of her new Netflix late-night show (of sorts). But if the first three episodes of Chelsea are any indication, it seems like the kind of show she wanted to do is the same as every other late-night show, except with a little more second-hand embarrassment.

Chelsea hits all the basics of Handler’s comedy that we’re familiar with: she routinely jokes about drinking too much, taking drugs, and dating black men (the subject of her wildly popular books); she makes some awkward and too-predictable-to-even-be-that-offensive racist jokes; she embarrasses herself in ways that are seen as endearing by her fans and cringe-worthy by her detractors; and she spends a large portion of the interview-type segments engaging in mutual fawning with other pretty celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore). Chelsea isn’t aggressively terrible — though, as always with Handler, the racist jokes definitely need to go — and will find a general audience because if you’re a fan of Handler (or were a fan of her E! show) then you will likely enjoy this too.

But the familiarity is part of the problem. Netflix is known for plenty of creative, outside-the-box programming. From Orange is the New Black that has been hailed for its groundbreaking diversity (race and sexuality) to Making a Murderer, a true crime series that had real life effects, Netflix has been home for programming that tends to shake up the norm. Even Chelsea Handler’s other series on Netflix, Chelsea Does, showed a new side of Handler. Chelsea is too conventional to really fit in. What is unconventional is the release schedule: episodes are pre-taped (but timely) in front of a live studio audience and they air three nights a week — Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It’s a strange release format that doesn’t really demand viewers tune in and pay attention — I wouldn’t be surprised if you forget that it exists after three or so weeks — but then again, neither does the show itself. See, Handler’s whole goal is to do a series that she wants and to do a late-night show that stands out from the best but the end result of Chelsea is just a basic show that follows all of the same rules. It’s a shame for both Netflix and Handler because they have an opportunity to redefine the late night genre but instead are just going with the flow.

Handler monologues about not having a monologue, has a few segments that, I suppose, are meant to rival viral videos (she poorly attempts to act in a telenovela, she has a boozy dinner with a handful of actors from Captain America: Civil War, etc.), and then chats it up with guests ranging from Pitbull to the Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. The more unexpected guests are where the show begins to show some signs of promise; in the first episode, in a rumination on education where she talks about being “stupid” and not having a college degree, she has King Jr. quiz her on general education knowledge. That said, another segment that could have been interesting featured TED Talks chief Chris Anderson but fell flat with a terrible fake TED talk by Handler.

It’s odd because this is Handler’s show, and Handler is a comedian with a strong personality that does sometimes work in her favor. But there’s something about Chelsea that is perhaps too self-indulgent. She should be able to do whatever she wants, of course, but the more she inserts herself, the less comical it becomes. For example, what could have been an interesting episode about comic books — and Handler’s attempt to learn more about them (a comic store employee preps her for the dinner/interview by giving her a crash course via whiteboard) — just becomes this long, increasingly boring rant about how much Handler just doesn’t like or care about comics. It’s a perfectly fine opinion but what could’ve been done in a short, 90-second monologue drags on for the entire episode until it becomes grating. Maybe that’s the theme of the whole thing: a conversation with Pitbull turns from entertaining to grating once Handler decides to show off her SnapChat raps; a conversation with Drew Barrymore about her recent divorce turns from entertaining to grating once Handler rambles on about… who even knows; the sketch about Netflix goes from entertaining to grating once Handler relies on overdone jokes about the service’s algorithm, (if you love Narcos and Legally Blonde, you’ll love Chelsea). And it certainly doesn’t help that the episodes feel bloated at over 30 minutes with no commercial breaks.

It was only the first week with three total episodes, so Chelsea could potentially work out the kinks and find its way once it figures out what it wants to do. But in order to do that, Handler & co. are going to have to find a way to balance Handler’s catering to her built-in fanbase from Chelsea Lately with a way to actually set herself apart from the late night scene. Right now, all we’re seeing is more of the same.

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