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The normal critical MO when it comes to new late night and talk shows is to review them on the first night, while bending over backwards to emphasize how unfair it is to review a talk show based on its premiere episode. With her new Netflix talk show, Chelsea Handler repeatedly tells the audience, in the studio and at home, that Chelsea isn’t a typical talk show. To honor that spirit, I waited and gave Chelsea the first week of its strange Wednesday-Thursday-Friday air pattern before settling in to review how Chelsea isn’t a typical talk show, but how it is.
First difference? This weird Netflix release situation, with three episodes per week dropped at the same time around the world even if that time is likely to be inconvenient for much of the world. Netflix doesn’t care about live viewership, but it feels notable that the first episode seemed like it was generating some interest on Twitter and then I haven’t heard a word since, which could be anecdotal, but also partially has to do with how much Chelsea is really just a typical talk show.
AIR DATE May 11, 2016
Second attempted difference? No monologue, or so Handler proudly told us in Wednesday’s premiere as part of a monologue about the lack of monologue.
“I know this seems like a monologue, but this is not a monologue, this is an explanation and if you don’t know the difference you can log out or log off or f— off or whatever,” Chelsea said.
The second episode started with what I’m sure Handler would call a conversation, as she stood in the middle of the stage and talked with the audience about their favorite sleep aids. I agree that this one was definitely not a monologue, so I don’t need to log out or log off or that other thing.
Friday’s third episode began with Handler standing in the middle of the stage talking about why she didn’t know anything about superheroes or superhero movies and didn’t care, before introducing a show dedicated entirely to castmembers from Captain America: Civil War. I’d agree that this one was more of a directionless ramble than a monologue.
Points to Handler here, though show-opening structure isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing that needs refinement. After starting with one version of a traditional monologue, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert have all revised their intros over the past year with some success. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to ditch the monologue or offering your own interpretation of the monologue. You just have to find what you want to do and probably the solution doesn’t stop with, “Talk a lot about how you aren’t doing a monologue.”
Chelsea also isn’t your typical talk show, because instead of having one place to conduct interviews, Handler has at least three different locations and three episodes hasn’t been quite enough time to figure which sitting areas are earmarked for which types of guests.
There’s the sterile, corporate glass desk, accompanied by two white office chairs. It looks horribly uncomfortable and the set-up has, thus far, only been used with TED Talks chief Chris Anderson, an unenlightening conversation that was mostly an excuse for Handler to cue up her fake TED Talk on the nature of time and then to claim, “I only made this show 30 minutes and I think that’s doing a favor for everybody, because nobody should have to watch me for longer than that.” Note that none of the first three Chelsea episodes came in at 30 minutes or fewer.
Getting more use thus far is a fun arc of sofa parts, built around a low wooden coffee table. It looks like a coffee house or possibly a brew-pub that sells overpriced flatbreads and has an impressive roster of beers on tap. This is where Handler puts people she’s friendly with, or where she puts people she wants to see be friendly with each other. So this is where Handler sat down with Drew Barrymore, though Barrymore’s interview, which included a strangely harsh condemnation of a blue collar worker’s pride at using the word “perspicacity,” was almost the opposite of friendly. And this is where Gwyneth Paltrow got to sit and discuss her status as the world’s lifestyle guru.
Finally, there are two padded, comfy chairs, where Handler spent a long time telling Chadwick Boseman how little she knew or cared about superhero movies or comic books, as he nodded encouragingly and probably wondered how this was helping him promote his movie or what entertainment it was generating as an alternative.
The show’s other recurring star, Handler’s dog Chunk, seems perfectly happy to greet guests on any platform. The show needs more Chunk.
One of Handler’s longtime gimmicks, particular in the talk show format and her recent Netflix documentary, is disingenuously parading her alleged ignorance, but countering it with an eagerness to absorb new information, a curiosity that often comes from unexpected directions. At its best, this tendency shakes guests out of complacent prepared answers and encourages candor. Normally, Pitbull is a reason for me to hit fast-forward or change the channel, but after an obligatory question about his “Mr. Worldwide” nickname, Handler transitioned to his SLAM! charter school and the teachers who inspired him, producing the first sympathetic, human moments I’ve ever seen from Pitbull. Paltrow and Tony Hale both spent limited time plugging their commercial ventures and more time on their experiences lobbying for causes before Congress, a topic you sense they don’t constantly discuss. A filmed dinner party with Handler, Chris Evans and a trio of other Civil War cast members lagged when Handler wasted time on lame, “Comic book movies are strange” jokes, but when the conversation shifted to gender disparities in Hollywood, it suddenly became interesting. This doesn’t necessarily get great conversation, but it forces guests to think on their feet. It’s the best thing about Chelsea, but it may also be a thing she won’t be able to maintain, since guests and their publicists will presumably catch on.
As often as Handler uses her feigned stupidity as a transitional point to learn about things that interest her, though, she uses it as a lazy crutch. A visit to a school of telenovela acting in Mexico quickly became nothing more than a string of punchlines about Handler’s limited Spanish skills. Enlisting a comic store employee for instruction on the Marvel Cinematic Universe devolved into Handler’s hollow derision of the genre and how silly it sounds if you play dumb about it. It’s one thing, and a perfectly valid thing, for Handler to not want her show to be just another place for stars to come peddle their new releases, but being contemptuous of that kind of show, while still half-doing it is perhaps worse.
Inquisitive Chelsea is a talk show host I might periodically want to check in on. Pompously Dim-Witted Chelsea is a show I can pass on. I get that she doth protest too much and that she’s smart, just like I get that no matter how many times she tries to say otherwise, through its first three episodes, Chelsea is a pretty straight-forward talk show with occasional sparks of interest and needless shadings of self-dismissal.
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