Chelsea Handler's 'Are You There, Chelsea?': What the Critics Are Saying

"Are You There, Chelsea?"
Jordin Althaus/NBC

Laura Prepon (left) as Chelsea and a brunette Chelsea Handler as her sister Sloane.

NBC’s highly anticipated comedy Are You There, Chelsea -- based loosely on Chelsea Handler’s life and comedy book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea – made its debut on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

The series aired in the 8:30 p.m. timeslot, led in by Whitney Cummings’ (a Chelsea Lately regular) half-hour sitcom, Whitney. Chelsea stars That ‘70s Show’s Laura Prepon as a young Handler, while the E! star appears in a recurring role as her uptight, real-life big sister, Sloane. As Chelsea Lately fans waited anxiously for midseason program to begin, what were the critics saying?

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“Starring Laura Prepon (an actress who will hopefully one day get better material), Chelsea tells the story of a woman who works as a waitress at a sports bar and says stuff like, ‘I'm so excited to show him my boobs,’ talks about ‘boners’ and excessive drinking and, well, if you're familiar with Handler at all, then you know the series,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Chief TV Critic Tim Goodman. “There's no crime in turning her life into a sitcom -- it's certainly better than Rob. But there's definitely an "Is that all there is?" element to Chelsea. The show is so wrapped up in moving the needle of apparently outrageous behavior that it never does anything but repeat itself. Handler has a recurring role as elder sister Sloane, which gives her a chance to play both sides of the shtick, but her presence almost makes the jokes even more obvious.”

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Read on to see what other critics around the web had to say about the Dottie Zicklin and Julie Ann Larson-created show.

Los Angeles Times: “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.”

New York Times: “Ms. Handler is not the first woman to build a career on crude, offensive and often demeaning jokes about men, sex and substance abuse, but she is one of the most persuasive and committed — few performers can stay as fixedly in character as a hard-drinking, man-eating misanthrope. Next to the real thing, Ms. Prepon’s Chelsea seems too conventionally pretty and eager to please.  In today’s comedy market, however, outré dialogue isn’t enough to distinguish Ms. Handler’s sitcom from the pack. Encouraged by the success of Bridesmaids, television executives have welcomed comedies that showcase boozy single women who talk roguishly about masturbation, venereal disease and menstruation. Overnight, almost, that kind of raunchy Judd Apatow-for-girls humor has become a fixture even on network comedies.”

HitFix: “Prepon does what she can with the lead role, but Handler's on-camera presence just undercuts her. Instead of being a cute in-joke, it's a large distraction: any time Prepon is making any headway towards making the character her own, Handler turns to remind you what the real Chelsea looks and sounds like. And it's not like the show is interested in playing the kind of meta-narrative games that would have fun with the idea of Chelsea Handler in a brunette wig looking on disapprovingly as a younger actress acts and talks the way she used to. And as for the fictionalized Chelsea, she occupies that irritating middle ground where she's not likable enough to be watchable when she's just existing, and yet neutered enough that her bad behavior isn't actually all that funny. As I said, both episodes I've seen climax with Chelsea and Sloane putting their many differences aside to hug it out and affirm their sisterly bond, and it doesn't track the least bit with anything that's come before. Better the writers should have gone the route of pure black comedy where the show feels no more need to apologize for her than Chelsea herself does.”

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New York Daily News: “The problem isn’t the performers, who also include Ali Wong as Olivia, Chelsea's BFF, Jake McDorman as Mark, the bartender at the sports bar where everyone works, Lauren Lapkus as Dee Dee, the world's most bizarre roommate, and veteran Lenny Clarke as Melvin, Chelsea's loud and clueless father. The problem is the jokes. They’re the same jokes that have propelled Handler to four best-selling books and a thriving standup comedy career, but on TV they need to add up to something more.”

Cinemablend: “The best part about the premiere episode comes from Chelsea’s interactions with the the side characters, due in large part to solid performances across the board, but particularly by Clarke, who knows how to deliver a line, and Lapkus, whose dorky and virginal adorableness as Dee Dee contrasts greatly with Chelsea. That’s about as complimentary as I can be about the series opener.”

Slate: “Who is Chelsea? What are her values? The show only bothers to care in the last act of each episode, when, after 20 minutes of antic cynicism and splattered wackiness, the time comes for hugging, learning, and plot-resolving. Are You There, Chelsea? is viable, just barely, as entertainment because it keeps things simple. If it had the slightest aspiration even to have an aspiration beyond stringing wisecracks on a loop of pure attitude, it would disappear. The show gets by as the vodka of television comedy. It aims to have no taste.”

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