The best part about “Are You There, Chelsea?” is, truthfully, Chelsea Handler. But Handler isn’t Handler in this lukewarm attempt to engage fans of the talk show host, author and stand-up comic’s bad-girlness. She does appear in the NBC sitcom as her sister, Sloane, admonishing a younger version of herself, as played by “That ’70s Show’s” Laura Prepon, and will guest star in seven of the 12 episodes ordered so far. But even though the source material is hers as well, based on her 2008 book “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” her jokes of “lady wood” and giving a guy friend “a handy” mostly fall flat in primetime. Handler is a divisive woman — most either love her or hate her — but she’s got a following; E!’s “Chelsea Lately” draws around 900,000 viewers a night and is the biggest late-night draw for women ages 18 to 34. But those tuning in to “Are You There, Chelsea?” expecting to find hilarious renditions of Handler’s debauched 20’s — perhaps even the next “Sex and the City” — will sooner find wit in “Whitney.” But maybe they do, so maybe they will. In that case, raise a cocktail to NBC’s new “Happy Hour,” as the Whitney Cummings-Chelsea Handler Wednesday night has been dubbed. What shall they call the Thursday-night block featuring Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” and Amy Poehler’s “Parks and Recreation” — “Smart Hour”?
It’s not all bad, although starting with the fictional Handler in jail for a DUI is a rough way to earn laughs. Drunken driving isn’t funny. Behind bars, Handler prays for mercy from Mother Vodka herself and speaks the exact title of the book — the title the show was supposed to have and one that even graces some of its promos. Handler admitted at the Television Critics Association’s press tour Jan. 6 that NBC wanted the alcohol reference removed so as to make the show more appealing. “It’s not cable, it’s network,” she said. That’s the problem. On cable, with better writers, more creative freedom and with Handler as the star, “Are You There, Chelsea?” could possibly thrive. Instead, we have a show filled with awkward transitions amid a few funny lines and a lead (Prepon) who could use a bit of livening up. The real Handler’s delivery is deadpan; the fake Handler’s delivery is closer to dead-eyed.
After a very pregnant Sloane bails Chelsea out of jail, she berates her for her irresponsibility. Sloane’s husband is in Afghanistan and she needs Chelsea to take her to lamaze classes and more importantly be by her side when she gives birth. That’s hard to do when you don’t have a license and work long hours as a waitress at Jerry’s Ultimate Sports Bar. Chelsea is easy-going about not having her shit together, though, remaining somewhat likable in her defiance to grow up. On a tip from the bartender, Rick (Jake McDorman, of “Greek”), she and best friend Olivia (Ali Wong) answer a roommate ad for an apartment within stumbling distance from the bar. Naturally, the young woman with spare rooms, Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), is a virgin who loves “The Bachelor” and likes to imitate cats. The stereotypes continue when Chelsea dates a guy with ridiculous red hair — an afro of ginger she ultimately can’t overlook. Their romance ends thanks to a carpet-matching-the-drapes bit and Chelsea hunting for scissors.
Poop references also appear at the end after Sloane gives birth and the sisters share barbs. Low-brow, raunchy, edgy, whatever you want to call it humor has its place and can be hilarious, and cheers to the crop of women, including Cummings and Handler, and their shows, including “Two Broke Girls,” for attempting to break down barriers concerning what women can do and say for a laugh. The problem is those laughs don’t come easily, if at all. As tricky as humor can be to define, I can’t suggest a surefire remedy for making shows such as “Are You There, Chelsea?” work. Perhaps if the focus rested on building actual stories with believable characters, not just fillers for vagina jokes. For Handler’s part, at least, she’s got the better comedic timing playing Sloane, and one wonders what the comic is thinking watching a tame version of herself brought to life. She should keep her material, in whatever form, like she likely keeps her alcohol: straight, not watered-down.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama.