What is Chelsea Does, and why does it exist? Before I even watched Chelsea Handler’s four part docu-series, I knew the answer to the second part of that question: to tease her upcoming talk show, Netflix’s first foray into both topical programming and a gradual release model, and lock in the entertainer’s massive audience. After sitting through nearly five hours of Handler’s baffling new project, though, I still can’t answer the first.
With episode titles like “Chelsea Does Racism” and “Chelsea Does Drugs,” a curious viewer might expect an increasingly common form of stunt journalism — Morgan Spurlock meets Review‘s show within a show. That series, whose episodes might be closer to half an hour than nearly 70 minutes apiece, is buried somewhere inside Chelsea Does, but so are several other concepts, among them a panel show, an earnest piece of advocacy journalism, and a gleeful celebration of Handler’s ability to say whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Jumbled together, the effect is sometimes uncomfortable and always confusing.
Across all four installments — which focus, in order, on love, race, technology, and substances — the only common factor is the host. Handler occupies an awkward place in the current conversations about gender and comedy, or rather just outside of them; she often goes conveniently unmentioned whenever the question of why we don’t have a female late-night host comes up once again, because even though she has been and likely will be a very successful one, she’s also not the kind most people making those critiques have in mind. Feminist-ish crusade against Instagram’s nudity policy aside, cheap Angelina Jolie jokes and tired claims to being an equal-opportunity offender have always kept her from Fey-style figurehead status.
Not that Handler’s complaining. With a proven track record that includes four bestselling books and the mansion in Bel Air they helped buy her, she’s joined Adam Sandler in the elite class of widely loved, critically loathed talent Netflix is adding to its roster now that the likes of Jessica Jones and Master of None have prestige-minded viewers on lock. It doesn’t matter to Netflix if The Ridiculous Six is a rotting salad of bigotry or Chelsea Does fails to make much sense as a show. As long as they draw in subscribers, everybody’s happy — everybody, that is, except those on the receiving end of non-jokes like this: “If Muslims are primarily the people who are blowing up planes, then I would like them to be searched before I get on a plane!”
That line comes from “Chelsea Does Racism,” the most predictably yet overwhelmingly infuriating of the four episodes. Specifically, it’s addressed to Daily Show alum Aasif Mandvi during one of the dinner-party sequences, slickly staged affairs during which Handler shares her opinions with the likes of Margaret Cho (also race), Khloe Kardashian (technology), and Jason “Fuckin’ Larry” Biggs (love). Ironically, these back-and-forths have the highest batting average of any segment on the show, forming a happy medium between bizarre, solipsistic faux-therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist and field segments that vacillate between openly contemptuous and jarringly earnest. But how high can that batting average be when it leads to a statement as awful — yet, almost 15 years after 9/11, yawn-inducing — as that?
The same episode also sees Handler attempt to prove she’s not the real bigot by visiting a plantation-cum-wedding-destination, sitting down with a KKK member, and strangest of all, meeting with the family of police brutality victim Walter Scott, whose shooting at the hands of a South Carolina police officer was caught on video this April. (That footage of a man’s violent death is inserted into a semi-comedic documentary with little to no aplomb perhaps speaks more to the tonal clumsiness of Chelsea Does than anything else.) It doesn’t work, of course; police killings and supporting segregation are on another level from refusing to apologize for saying a three-year-old Pax Jolie-Pitt will be a terrible driver, but it doesn’t make the latter any less unpleasant to watch, or unflattering to Handler.
What it does manage to do, however, is emphasize how odd and inevitably unsuccessful the premise of Chelsea Does is, even separate from its host. “Racism” is a preposterously broad topic, so much so that it’s impossible for Handler to either fully explore it in just over an hour or add anything a 2015 audience hasn’t heard before. (Did you know Los Angeles is a diverse city? Israel exists — crazy, right?) This is equally true of romance, tech, and even drugs, demanding the question of what, precisely, the series wants to accomplish. Does it want to inform its audience? It doesn’t succeed. Does it want to simply trot Handler in front of a camera to keep her fans happy until her show proper is ready for roll-out? It sort of succeeds, but then what’s the point of those field trips to Jerusalem and Peru, which are self-serious and expensive besides?
Before we have the chance to figure this out for ourselves, though, it’s all over. At just four episodes, Chelsea Does was enough to get thoroughly under my skin, but not nearly enough to communicate what it wants to be, besides a showcase for Handler’s faux-transgressive brand of snark. Perhaps the answer is nothing.
Chelsea Does is available to stream on Netflix this Saturday, January 23.