The newest Netflix docuseries is not really a documentary, and calling it so would be wrong. The show, made up of four hour-long episodes, is more about its host an her views and experiences with the topics addressed and discussed. How viewers react to the show relies almost entirely on how people see and react to Chelsea Handler. Handler has recently signed a deal with Netflix which, in addition to this show, will produce its first talk show with the comedian at the helm. Handler is mostly known for her now defunct late night talk show on the E! network Chelsea Lately. Additionally she has authored several books that are a combination of memoir and humor. Because I do not have a television I haven’t watched the show, but I have caught the odd clip on YouTube and have seen a little bit of it. I am, though, much more familiar with Handler’s publications, having read every single one of them (for the record, they are: My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me, and Uganda Be Kidding Me). I enjoy Handler’s irreverent sense of humor and off-color jokes. I think that sometimes she takes things too far, but find her mostly charming and her self-deprecation is refreshing.
The docuseries is meant to put Chelsea Handler in a new light for viewers familiar with the other television show, in preparation for the forthcoming new series. Chelsea Lately was more focused on tabloid news and celebrity worship, whereas this four part show focuses on slightly more serious issues and topics, all filtered, though, through Handler and with her own take and views on them. The format for each show is very similar. Each ‘episode’ features Chelsea with her psychologist, the comedian discussing the episode’s topic with a group of friends (including some famous faces like Leah Remini, Margaret Cho, Jason Biggs, and Mary McCormack), interviews with regular people, and even some one-on-ones with more well-known figures (Al Sharpton, Willie Nelson).
People looking for some issues-based documentary will be mostly out of luck. Handler is more interested in the topics and how they relate to her own life. The first episode focuses on the topic of marriage and features the comedian interviewing friends and family, mostly looking into how come Handler has never married, she, in fact, has never even come close to walking down the aisle. Having turned 40 seems to have affected Handler and thus sparked interest in the topic, which she had tended to avoid in the previous couple of decades. Some of the best moments in the episode center around the comedian and an interview with the founder of Ashley Madison, the website that allows married people to cheat on their significant others.
In the second episode Chelsea confronts her issues with technology, both with how it seems to have taken over social interactions but also her own disastrous relationship with it. Handler visits Netflix headquarters, develops an app, tries to learn coding, amongst other things. The episode is ultimately inconsequential, but as usual it is fun because Handler makes it so.
Although clunky, at times problematic, and unfocused, the best episode and the most resonating is the one dealing with racism. Handler is not completely self-aware or introspective enough to see the errors of some of her ways, but having said that, she is also a highly intelligent woman who knows when to step back and let people dig their own graves. Multiple times throughout the episode we see truly ignorant and disgusting language come from people who are not the stereotypical racists and bigots, and it is thanks to Handler’s humor and cynical sarcasm that these moments are highlighted.
The fourth and last episode focuses on drugs, specifically drug taking and consuming. With her friends, Handler has an edible-pot centered meal, she smokes pot with Willie Nelson, she travels to Peru and has an experience involving ayahuasca, and also listens to some people’s experiences with drugs and stories of addiction. Handler apparently doesn’t have a drug or drinking problem, or at least doesn’t think she does, and thus we have another episode that is light on introspection and more heavy on hilarity.
I would have liked to see some more serious soul-searching on Handler’s part given that the show is so self-centered and almost narcissistic in nature. I get that the show is called Chelsea Does, but given a few moments of true brilliance she clearly is capable of made me wish that the comedian had been able to tap into these elements more often and produce something that was a bit more hard-hitting and resonant. That said, I am a fan of Handler’s and really enjoy watching her. Others who feel the same will like the show for what it is, and those who don’t will stay away. Handler is polarizing, and the show is all about her. Take it or leave it. I will take it.