Some people have a hard time watching shows that mine awkward situations for comedy, like The Office, Arrested Development, or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Chelsea would be those people’s worst nightmare.
At the end of the first episode, host Chelsea Handler and her guest, Drew Barrymore, are chatting and drinking rosé when Handler introduces the rapper Pitbull. He leans down to pet Handler’s dog, who meanders around the set throughout the show, and he and Barrymore shake hands (“Have you guys ever met before?” Handler asks). Handler cues a video of her rapping, terribly, on Snapchat. Pitbull grabs the bottle of wine and takes a swig. “That rosé is the way!” Barrymore “raps,” and then immediately apologizes: “I’m the whitest woman on the planet.”
But wait! It gets worse! Handler asks Pitbull to “give her a beat” and climbs up on the coffee table. She raps, again, terribly, and Pitbull starts to join in before she tells him to “shut the fuck up.” He laughs and goes in for a hug, but since she’s standing on a table he ends up just kind of hugging her ass. It’s like watching Ted Cruz attempt to shake hands with Carly Fiorina. It’s a beautiful disaster, and so is Chelsea.
Chelsea is something new for Netflix. New episodes appear three times a week, on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, at midnight Pacific time, and are simultaneously released in the nearly 200 other countries in which Netflix operates. “I’m a late-night television host that doesn’t want to be tied down by time or television or even hosting,” Handler cracks in the first episode.
The show includes in-studio interviews with celebrities and lower-wattage public figures like education secretary John B. King, plus pre-recorded segments filmed in far-flung locales like Spain, Japan, and Mexico. In the first episode, Handler struts out in a Pat Benatar t-shirt tucked into a tight black pencil skirt, trailed by her dog, a fluffy German Shepherd-Chow mix named Chunk.
Despite its “anti-talk show” imprint, Chelsea is not all that different from any other late-night talk show. The first three episodes feel like works-in-progress — Handler is a stiff host, and there’s at least one too many plugs for Netflix. Evergreen celebs like Barrymore and Gwyneth Paltrow sit down for light, meatless interviews; the second episode is an extended ad for Captain America: Civil War, with Handler inviting the cast of the movie over for dinner. At the outset Handler delivers what she insists is not a monologue but an “explanation,” describing the show as “the college education I never got, and Netflix is giving me a full ride!” But if it looks like a talk show and smells like a talk show….
Still, there is a little something different about Chelsea, and it’s not just the fact that its host is one of only two women in late night-esque TV (before TBS premiered Full Frontal with Samantha Bee earlier this year, Handler had been the only woman in late night: Chelsea Lately aired from 2007 to 2014 on E!). The episodes aren’t all structured exactly the same, which lends the show an anything-goes atmosphere befitting its host, a gravelly-voiced party girl who’s “managed to stay happily unmarried” and childless. In her not-monologue, Handler describes herself as “the cool professor you can get high with,” and although Chelsea is so far fairly trifling, it’s got an appealingly loose, shaggy vibe — less “late night” than “morning after.”
It doesn’t feel quite right to compare Chelsea to Full Frontal or the long-running network late-night programs. You have to tune in to watch those shows the old-fashioned way, and they film their episodes earlier in the day, rather than 24 hours ahead of release, like Chelsea — which makes them much more topical than the somewhat random assortment of subjects Handler dives into on her show. The “Netflix University” concept feels like a feint: Netflix has ordered a whopping 90 episodes of Chelsea, so it’s likely banking on viewers bingeing on the show rather than dutifully tuning in three days a week.
This sense of freedom from the 24-hour-news cycle is liberating in some ways, and suits Handler’s perma-hangover persona — she isn’t a voice of liberal outrage like Samantha Bee. The show is taped before a live audience, which accounts for awkward moments like the table-rapping fiasco mentioned above. But instead of wondering why they didn’t just cut those moments out, I found myself growing fonder of the show because of them.
During the second episode’s Marvel-sponsored dinner party, the guests slowly let their guard down: Chris Evans admits he’s scared of Chelsea because “you’re funny, I’m not”; Frank Grillo gets drunk and makes a weird, racially charged comment; Chadwick Boseman, in a separate interview in the studio, wonders aloud why he didn’t get an invite to the dinner (she tells him she sent an invite to his reps).
It’s clumsy and a little bizarre, but it’s also kind of fascinating; at her best, when she’s interacting with other people, Handler reminds me of the “Amy Goes Deep” interview segments on Inside Amy Schumer — as with Schumer, you get a sense that Handler is genuinely curious about people, and if she has a question, she’ll ask it. “How do you stay serious when you’re playing something that’s so not based in reality?” she sincerely asks a table full of Marvel contract players.
There’s something appealingly intimate about Chelsea. The set is small and low-lit, giving it a cozy living-room vibe, and Handler’s demeanor — more party host than talk-show host — feels appropriate for a show that people will likely watch in bed on their laptops or phones. Handler and her production team have time to work out the kinks. Despite a slow start, I’m not ready to give up on Chelsea just yet.