Pilot Review: Are You There, Chelsea?

While this seems to happen every year (if not every day), once again the question of why NBC continues to fail has generated a lot of ink over the last week, following Bob Greenblatt’s frank admission at the TCA that the network had a terrible 2011. Friend of the blog Cory Barker went into great detail about how the network’s new shows in development seem a hell of a lot like the terrible programs they’ve aired for years, and the network has nothing that appeals to the broadcast audience. Earlier that week, A.V. Club writer and fellow UW alum Myles McNutt pointed out how NBC’s ineptitude at promotion continues to fail its rosters, as well as erode the “Must See TV” image the network clings so tightly to.

Now, I’m not as astute a scholar of the networks as Cory and Myles are, so I won’t get into that world of trying to seriously answer the question of how NBC can put itself back together. What I can do however, as someone who writes about TV from a creative angle, is say that it’s damn hard to defend a network if it’s going to put a show like Are You There, Chelsea? on the air. While it’s probably the least bad of all the bad comedy pilots I’ve watched this season, it still belongs in that category – a lazily written, crude and occasionally shrill show that doesn’t take any steps to earning NBC back its glory.

Based on the books and stand-up comedy of Chelsea Handler, Are You There, Chelsea? centers on Chelsea Newman (Laura Prepon), a bartender in New Jersey with a reputation for being very friendly with both a bottle and the random men who walk through her bar’s doors. After a DUI she starts to think about changing parts of her life, though those changes don’t come close to improving it: her first move is to relocate to a new apartment that’s fortunately walking distance from the bar. Most of the other characters question her commitment, particularly her pregnant sister Sloane (played by the real-life Handler), who doesn’t find Chelsea’s irresponsibility an attractive quality for an aunt to have.

And it’s not very attractive to me either, which gets to the main problem of Chelsea in that it’s not particularly funny. I think I only laughed once or twice during the show at a joke about nuns (“I can count on a nun to be there Saturday night!” “That’s because she has to work Sundays!”) but barely cracked a smirk at anything else the show presented to me. In fact, I found myself more actively offended by certain elements – a few jokes centered too heavily around the bar’s little person barback and Chelsea’s ginger one-night stand, and the show’s audacity at playing a DUI for laughs actively angered me. At one point, I tuned out and started thinking that this is yet another comedy where it would be much funnier if it dove heavily into black humor, focused on just how much Chelsea’s drinking problem destroys her family and those around her, and the title* becomes a cry for help instead of something random.

*The title is also a problem, as being shortened from Handler’s original book now just makes it sound stupid. On Twitter during the Chelsea TCA panel, at Todd VanDerWerff’s suggestion a few of us started pitching ideas for what the show should actually be about to fit its title. My suggestion was a The League-style British comedy about a group of football fans who go on road trips to games and actively despise Manchester United.

Instead, it’s just another “hot girl with a dirty mouth” scenario offering up lines such as ““Holding a flag between your legs is not patriotism” and “This apartment is giving me lady-wood” as punchlines. Virtually all the humor revolves around Chelsea’s sex life and particular quirks, eschewing character moments in favor of shock value punchlines and general unpleasantness to outsiders. For that reason I will give NBC some tonal credit for pairing it with a very compatible lead-in in Whitney, but considering I’ve established on many consecutive occasions that I despise Whitney that should tell you that I don’t care for this show either.

However, Chelsea does have a leg up on Whitney (no pun intended) in that the cast is merely bland as opposed to detestable. I never watched That ’70s Show* regularly but I always liked Prepon there, and she’s not appreciably bad as the lead, she’s just not asked to do more than say raunchy lines and banter with her co-workers (known as “2 Broke Girls Syndrome”). Handler, playing a character who is oddly not herself, doesn’t have much definition beyond being offering a sober yin to the raging yang of Chelsea and the excuse for an unearned touching moment at the denouement. Most of the supporting cast also fails to register, be it Ali Wong as equally raunchy best friend Olivia, Mark Povinelli as a bartender and a shockingly skinny Lenny Clarke as her father Melvin. If there’s one bright spot on the show, it’s newcomer Lauren Lapkus as Chelsea’s new uptight virgin roommate DeeDee. A few critics have already said this and I agree – Lapkus gives her all and seems to be capable of doing more than just pretending to be a cat** and talking about her virginity in a high-pitched voice, and I could see her being one of those actresses who bounces through a few sitcoms before finding one that sticks.

*With the context of That ’70s Show, it’s hard not to laugh as an actress whose character was once nicknamed “Big Red” now finds herself recoiling at a redheaded man whose “gross ancestors… once shagged a court jester.” However, that’s not humor I give the show credit for.

**The show does earn another pass here: Chelsea’s cat Assface (or Boots as Dee Dee calls him) could totally fit in at Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson.

I’ve never read any of Handler’s books before so I can’t speak to whether or not this is a problem with the source material or simply the poor construction of the show, but as it stands Are You There, Chelsea? is just not a very good show. Again, it’s certainly better than some of the horrible shows in the last few months (looking at you, Work It and I Hate My Teenage Daughter) but it’s still a pretty tepid comedy pilot that I can’t say is worth watching. Maybe it’ll find its footing in the weeks to come and become good – we always say that sitcoms can do that – but after the trainwreck of Whitney and NBC’s recent track record, I’m not holding my breath.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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