Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Are You There, Chelsea?

I enjoy Chelsea Handler. Her humor is sometimes cringe-worthy but she throws it out there without blinking, and oftentimes the cringe factor is what makes a joke.

So I was curious to see what would happen when her essay collection was turned into a sitcom with a slightly altered title -- Are You There, Chelsea? The show airs on NBC on Wednesdays at 8:30.

Normally I gravitate toward American Idol on Wednesday night, but I'm still reeling from Rhode Islander Erika Van Pelt getting voted off last week, so I figured it was as good a night as any to flip over to NBC and see if Chelsea was worth a look.

It's a decent setup -- a fictionalized version of Chelsea Handler out and about in her pre-fame world. In the episode I watched Wednesday, Chelsea tries to throw a surprise party for her sister Sloane, and a comedy of errors ensured involving over-drinking, waxing gone wild and male strippers.

Unfortunately, the payoff isn't there. Granted, I'm basing my thoughts on the strength of one episode, but I have to say I feel the show swings and misses.

There are some of the usual problem issues -- going to the well with the drinking/one-night-stand jokes one too many times, predictable plot twists, cardboard cutout characters. But these are issues in every sitcom and, with better writing, they can be ironed out.

The biggest problem I have is the execution of the casting. Chelsea Handler stars in her own sitcom. But she doesn't play Chelsea Handler. She throws on a redhead wig and plays Sloane, Chelsea's sister. The "real" Chelsea is played by Laura Prepon of That '70s Show fame.

Simply put, it's a bad idea.

Chelsea-as-Sloane doesn't work, because Sloane is supposed to be the straight-laced, uber-Christian sister with a husband and kid. Yet she can't avoid lapsing into the real Chelsea, swapping Chelsea Handler-esque insults and one-liners that seem straight out of a Chelsea Handler comedy routine, not the goody-two-shoes mouth of Sloane. Prepon, meanwhile, is supposed to be the alcoholic, sharp-tongued Chelsea Handler. But too often she defers to Chelsea/Sloane and acts like a timid, girly little sister. The result is that neither character is well defined enough to be what they're supposed to be and they end up as unrecognizable blurs.

Even if they could pull it off, it's a distraction to watch Chelsea Handler in a show where Chelsea Handler is a character, but the Chelsea Handler character isn't played by Chelsea Handler. (Confused? My point exactly.)

On the plus side, there are some decent supporting characters: most notably Lauren Lapkus, who you may recognize as the girl on the left in the Joe Pesci Snickers commercial, as Chelsea's naive roommate Dee Dee. I like Chelsea Handler and for that reason, I don't want to see this show fail (it's already been bludgeoned by TV critics). My advice: get rid of Sloane, kill her off or just write her out of the script. It'd free Chelsea Handler (the writer/executive producer) to work on developing herself into a better sitcom character.

Are you listening, Chelsea?


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