When Netflix announced in 2014 they were teaming up with Chelsea Handler, newly departed from E! after seven years doing her late-night talk show Chelsea Lately, it was generally assumed her new show would be something that bore a passing resemblance to her old one; the company said that with Handler, they would be “reimagining the late-night talk show for the on-demand generation.” But now that the initial fruits of that labor are available, it’s unclear what exactly that reimagining has created. And for whom. And, well, why?
Handler’s Chelsea Does is available on Netflix now, though it bears little resemblance to the traditional late-night format she’s known for; her “talk show” will premiere later this year. It’s been labeled a “documentary” in four parts, each episode a little over an hour long, and each on a different topic: Marriage, Silicon Valley, Racism, and Drugs. But frankly, to call it a documentary does a disservice to the increasingly very flexible definition of that term, one that Netflix has helped relax: rather, it seems to be part stand-up special (Chelsea driving around Los Angeles with Loni Love to talk to people of different races), part late-night show (Chelsea sitting around having dinner at her house and getting increasingly high with various comedians), part reality “docu-series” (Chelsea talking to a therapist)—all the parts highly produced. The glimmers of “documentary” are just that—when Handler interviews her elderly father about his marriage to her mother, or (in one of the rare moving moments) when she speaks to the family of Walter Lamar Scott, who was shot eight times by a police officer, or when she’s doing Ayahuasca in Peru.
I suppose it’s creative, this genre-bending, and definitely what teaming up with a non-network or cable news service should be for—were it successful. I’d fixate less on whether Chelsea Does is a documentary if the viewer was able to take anything particularly new or interesting or funny away from the experience. It’s Handler’s world, as it always was, which means she talks to a potpourri of people (a bachelorette party, start-up bros, the white people who run a historical plantation, a scientist who studies how addiction works), and goes to a ton of places (Israel, the Mexican border, South Carolina, San Francisco, Las Vegas) and yet by the end of each episode, nothing seems to have a point.
Despite all Handler’s flexibility with the idea of what she’s producing, Chelsea Does ends up feeling pretty unoriginal. Her famous interviews are rarely unique (faces like Al Sharpton, Khloe Kardashian, Leah Remini, the founder of Ashley Madison, and Willie Nelson appear), and even her interactions with Regular Joes on her soul-seeking journey feel like a Daily Show redux, or a less well-executed version of what Amy Schumer does on Inside Amy Schumer. There’s stock footage-style shots interspersed in each episode to give you a feel for the topic, overly-obvious graphics cards, and highly cliché songs to set the mood (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” during the Racism episode, or “Cause I Got High” during the Drugs episode).
Handler herself would probably brush off any criticism of this sort. Sometimes, she says in the Racism episode, “you just want to say, ‘Everybody don’t take yourself so seriously.’” But what exactly she takes herself for is never fleshed out—is she exploring something for herself, or for the world? And if it’s both, as the old saying sort of goes, do one thing very well instead of everything passable; her vibe comes off as apathetic rather than open-minded. “I definitely grew up this year. I’m more mature than I think I’ve ever been in my life,” Handler says, by way of some conclusion of the Drugs episode. Why we should care is never elucidated.
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Image via Netflix.