Chances are you wouldn’t expect comedienne Chelsea Handler — delightfully irreverent to some and tiresomely irritating to others — to headline a four-part nonfiction project tackling some of the biggest issues of our day. But that’s a large part of what makes her new Netflix documentary series, Chelsea Does, so invigorating. She knows she’s severely out of her depth, and realizes that’s all the more reason to try and wade deeper. What’s life without a large helping of risk, even if you end up with egg on your face?
In the two episodes previewed (each is feature-length and deals with a specific topic: “Marriage,” “Racism,” “Silicon Valley” and “Drugs”), Handler more often succeeds than stumbles. She hasn’t given up the flip persona that is her stock in trade, but she puts that incautious public face in plenty of situations that take her well outside of her SoCal comfort zone. The first two installments each open with Handler presiding over a tart-tongued dinner with friends. “Marriage” has Jason Biggs and his wife, Jenny Mollen, among the guests, while “Racism” features such folks as Aasif Mandvi and Margaret Cho (the latter has some especially pointed things to say about those who criticized her satirical Golden Globes appearance in North Korean military garb).
These introductory scenes are a good way to acclimate to Handler’s intentionally tactless persona. The way series director Eddie Schmidt and cinematographer Nicola Marsh film them makes it feel like we’re fellow guests at the table. And that intimacy allows us to laugh off — as we tend to do with close friends and family — some of the more questionable aspects. “A white girl talking about race,” sighs one of Handler’s chums, as if they can already sense the world of trouble this is likely to cause.
From there, the episodes move in engagingly episodic fashion, with Handler striking a nice balance between challenging herself and standing her ground. “Marriage” is the more easily accessible of the first two installments because it’s mainly devoted to charting individual experiences rather than taking any kind of wide-reaching social stand. Couples of all races, ages and genders are represented, and Handler (very much a marriage-phobe) lets everyone have their say even as she pokes merciless fun — be it at a Las Vegas bachelorette party that she quips her way through with best friend Mary McCormack (an always welcome presence) or, more presciently, during an interview with former Ashley Madison chief executive Noel Biderman, at whom she can’t help but raise several cocked eyebrows. (This was just before the affair-catering social media site’s hacking scandal, which led to Biderman’s voluntary resignation.)
Handler is only struck dumb once during “Marriage” — at Vegas’ famed Little White Wedding Chapel, where she officiates the nuptials of a couple so clearly, completely in love that she can’t help but bite her tongue and just bear witness. Her observed silence is much more pronounced in the “Racism” episode, where, despite some raucously funny moments (like a visit with a well-spoken segregationist who Chandler hilariously terms “so smart and yet so dumb”), she really goes all in on putting herself in situations that are no laughing matter and very direct challenges to what she admits is her often cloistered worldview.
This is a powerful hour-and-change that reaches its apex when Handler visits with the family of Walter Scott, the South Carolina African-American shot down by white police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. Only a passerby’s video ensured that Slager did not escape punishment for his crime. There are so many ways in which this situation — privileged celebrity interviews the victims of an unspeakable tragedy — could go wrong. And yet it’s clear from the first moment that she and the family begin talking (they all share a mutual giggle together, and then Walter’s father notes that it’s one of the first times he’s laughed since his son was killed) that there’s an underlying humanity to Handler’s barbed personality.
Poking fun is, for her, a potential way to break down barriers. And though she won’t apologize for all the times she’s offended someone or stepped over a line, Handler recognizes that even the coarsest comedy needs to evolve — to be shaped and sharpened, as frequently as possible, by the harshest realities.
Starring: Chelsea Handler
Director: Eddie Schmidt
Producer: Morgan Neville
Premieres: Saturday, Jan. 23, on Netflix