NBC seems betting big on “Girl in the City” type sitcoms, along with Fox (the New Girl with now newly divorced Zoey Deschanel, sister to Bone’s Emily Deschanel, and yes daughter of famous cinematographer and director Caleb Deschanel), and CBS (“Two Broke Girls.”) “Are You There, Chelsea?” based on late night talk-show host and comedienne Chelsea Handler’s book, “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea!” The bet seems weird, akin to the old “glory days” of not just bad, but wretchedly bad NBC programming. The only question is, will the show be more Supertrain (a late 70’s NBC show about an atomic powered train, no I’m not making this up either), or Pink Lady and Jeff (a similar era show featuring a stand up comic and two Japanese singers who did not speak a word of English).
The series, starring Laura Prepon as the young Chelsea Handler (Chelsea Handler can’t act) with occasional guest spots by Handler as her “super-judgy” older Christian Sister, opens with a bang. Handler’s character is convicted of a DUI. That convinces her to … find an apartment within walking distance of her job at a local bar. The plot revolves (as in the book by Handler) drinking, having sex, and passing out.
This version of Handler’s life opens with Chelsea in jail on a drunken driving charge, praying to vodka for help. Released, she vows to change her life — not by reducing her drinking, but by moving closer to the bar where she works so she won’t have to drive.
That contrivance is enough to set up the show’s two main locations: The bar, where she works with her best friend Olivia (Ali Wong), and the new apartment she and the equally wild Olivia share with the naïve, virginal Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus). And oh, the fun they have making fun of Dee Dee’s virginity.
Vulgarity and lack of taste aren’t the issues here as much as a deadening single-mindedness. Almost every joke that’s not about Chelsea’s desire to drink is about her desire to have sex (or, if a red-haired man is involved, not have sex). It’s enough to make CBS’ Monday lineup look classy by comparison.
Note of course the red-hair stuff. Red hair on women is generally attractive, on men not so much. British actor Damien Lewis (“Life,” “Band of Brothers,” “Homeland”) pretty much mostly plays villains (because of his red hair). It accentuates paleness which the modern female audience finds distasteful in men as much as it is desirable in women. Of course to have the one you must have the other, a fact with which sadly, the modern female audience does not understand.
As another review put it, drunken behavior leading to a DUI and no ambitions beyond working in a bar, drinking, and hooking up would label a male character a failure. But not a female one.
But still, the trainwreck is interesting. First, that NBC thought a show with no laughs would work. Second, that Handler herself would be a desirable model for women (who make up approximately 85% of the sitcom audience) to tune in to watch. Oh all the high-points are hit. Virginity (generally making a woman more, not less desirable, and certainly more desirable than a woman with a high partner count) being mocked … by other women? Check. Glorification of the bar-slut scene? Check. “Super-judgy” older sister (who presumably thinks drinking till one passes out and random sex with strangers is not a wise move) check!
And for aging cougars with a booze problem, this will undoubtedly be a DVR hit, if only they manage to record it in the first place. There’s that vodka problem. As amusing as the play on a Judy Blume novel called “Are You There God? Its Me Margaret” the amusement tends to fade after quickly glancing at the book cover and moving on. Handler’s first book was titled “My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands” which is pretty one note. [Handler is probably best known for “oops accidentally” released sex tape and dating 50 Cent.]
Commenters on the LAT story, since removed called her “leathery” and noted she was probably hot ten years ago.
Chelsea is not presented, professionally, as a version of her original — not an aspiring comedian, writer, TV star or a person with any clear ambition beyond drinking and sleeping around and hanging out in the New Jersey sports bar where she works, and drinks, and picks up men.
We are, you may have noticed, or heard, in a TV season characterized by shows driven by strong female characters, though the history of television comedy is hung on a long line of unconventional women. Still, this is not exactly Mary Richards’ search for love. “Are You There, Chelsea?” takes the intemperate habits that were long the province of the crazy sidekick and gives them to the lead. The flip side of this emancipation — ewomancipation? — is comedy that seems to celebrate binge drinking and its attendant unintended consequences.
“Chelsea” begins, weakly, with its star in jail for DUI; the main development in the pilot is when she rents a room in an apartment within staggering distance of her job. If these attributes were transferred to a male character, you’d get some hopeless loser, or Charlie Sheen. This is a funny idea of progress, but it is a kind of progress all the same.
The show of course will fail. What is mildly amusing in a little-seen talk show on E! (Chelsea Lately) is not likely to work as a weekly sitcom. First, its not funny. Secondly, leads have to be a calm center, not “zany,” even the great and missed Don Adams had a calm center to Maxwell Smart, never going “zany” and acting like he was out on a limb. The zany stuff only works in small doses: Seinfeld’s Kramer (Michael Richards), or George Costanza (Jason Alexander). If the jokes come all the time, the audience can’t catch its breath, and just surrenders switching the channel. And one-joke shows generally don’t last that long. Nor do unlikeable leads (ask Jay Mohr about “Action!”)
But more importantly, the female audience does not crave a life of binge drinking and one-night stands. Seinfeld worked because guys wanted to be Jerry (the sane one and one with a modicum of fame and money) and women desired him. Sitcoms with a female lead, have to have an end-state. After all, Handler herself is minor in the Hollywood fairy tale pantheon next to the endless tale of tabloid tangles that Jennifer Aniston (the wronged woman), Brad Pitt (the desirable hunk), and Angelina Jolie (that man-stealing bad girl!) spin every week for their female readers. Don’t believe me, just look at them next time you buy groceries.
Chelsea Handler’s life in the show, is not very funny. Because it is sad — a woman wasting her looks and desirability, both limited, on what? Drunken boozy hook-ups that lead nowhere? To no love, no romance, no possibility of kids by a fantastic, great man?
Slate did not much like it either:
It is difficult to situate the fictional Handler in terms of class. Blue-collar isn’t quite the word. Rather, her social station is typified by the deep V-neck collar of the t-shirt that clings fondly to her as she waits tables at a New Jersey sports bar. This is not a service-industry gig held in the spirit of a middle-class slacker or a working-class striver, but of a career party chick. We might compare Chelsea’s life as a real alewife of New Jersey with that of her friend and roommate Olivia (Ali Wong) who has gone to college to become a journalist, God help her, and who has designs on an internship in Manhattan. Chelsea, in contrast, is going nowhere, professionally or emotionally. To underscore the latter point, the series offers her a second foil, an innocent soul named Dee Dee, played by Lauren Lapkus, who, with her round eyes and wiggling limbs, reads as a hybrid of Zoe Kazan and Shelley Duvall’s Olive Oyl.
Nevertheless it is interesting to see that NBC actually moved this from pitched script, to shot pilot, to production. Believing that a boozy life as a female “bro” akin to perhaps Snooki (who functions as a laugh point not heroine since people laugh AT HER not WITH HER) will be a success. Because Jersey Shore got lots of publicity. And people like to laugh at Snooki. [They do, and they do because Snooki is a lower middle class Guidette who gets her comeuppance regularly on the show. If nothing else, America is obsessed with status since status as Seinfeld amply demonstrated, determines EVERYTHING: your love life, employment, treatment on the street, everything.]
If nothing else, this show is indicative of how broken NBC really is. How little Comcast has fixed that broken-ness. Chelsea? The only question is: Supertrain? Or Pink Lady and Jeff?