Chelsea Handler refuses to do a monologue on her new Netflix talk show, Chelsea. How do we know this? Because she does a monologue about not doing a monologue. All week, before the show’s May 11 premiere (new episodes are available for streaming on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays), Handler has been telling the press that Chelsea will break the clichés of late-night talk shows: the musical guest, the sidekick, the house band. So it’s ironic that she kicks off the first episode in the most traditional way: with what she calls an “explanation.” Meaning: don’t call it a monologue, even though that’s what it is.
After opening with a winky piano ballad from Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who sings jokingly about Handler’s show getting cancelled (meaning: it’s not a musical performance – it’s poking fun at musical performances!), Handler walks in wearing a Pat Benetar t-shirt and a pencil skirt (meaning: not a suit) and introduces herself by highlighting all the reasons she’s not your typical host. “I’ve written books,” she says, in the show’s strongest comedic moment. “I’ve been in movies. I’ve hosted TV shows. I’ve passed a breathalyzer. I’ve failed a breathalyzer. I’ve been arrested. I’ve managed to stay happily unmarried. I’ve learned that I don’t want kids no matter what f—ing language they speak. I’ve also managed to raise two happy and healthy dogs as a wealthy single white female. Do you have any idea how many obstacles I’ve had to overcome? I’ve avoided getting pregnant – most times. I’ve purchased cars for people that I’ve felt sorry for. I bought my makeup artist a horse and then I fired her.” She gets some well-earned laughs from the studio audience, and then wanders over to her spot… behind a desk. She claims it’s to honor her newfound education from the show. But if she’s dispensing with late-night talk-show clichés, why would she keep the worst one?
Handler insists that she’s finally getting to do the exact kind of show she’s always wanted to do — except that “what that show is, I have no idea.” That, right there, sums up the biggest problem with Chelsea. Her show should feel somewhat radical, considering that Netflix has given her so much freedom, including no restrictions on runtime or language or structure. “I’m a late night television host that doesn’t want to be tied down by time or television,” she says. And she’s a good pick for a show like that, because she represents so much of what late-night television isn’t: she’s a woman, her humor has an edge that Fallon and his friendly cronies lack, and she’s famous for not shying away from tough questions. But while Handler knows all the things her show isn’t, she doesn’t seem to have a vision for what she wants.
Even though she’s been given a get-out-of-jail-free pass from Netflix, Handler still chooses the same conventional structure that everyone else has. There are pre-recorded bits. There are interviews. (Pitbull, Drew Barrymore, and John King, Obama’s Secretary of Education, all make appearances on Handler’s couch.) Handler plays games with guests and stages silly moments meant to create memes, like when she invites Pitbull to rap along with her, a hobby she often shares on Snapchat. As a host, she only breaks the tiniest rules, like allowing her dog to wander around set.
The main way Handler distinguishes herself from her colleagues is that she is, by her own admission, not conventionally intelligent. She jokes about believing that Florida is a country. She plays a game with King called “Edumacate Me,” which requires her to name all seven continents. (“Central America’s not a continent,” she says, thinking out loud. “Russia? No.”) She bonds with Drew Barrymore over never having gone to college. “I think people are afraid to ask too many questions because they’re afraid of appearing stupid,” she explains. “But I’m okay with appearing stupid. Knowing you’re stupid is the first step to becoming smart.” It’s a fair point, but she jokes about her low IQ so often, it starts to get uncomfortable. “I’m treating this show like the college education I never got,” she says. “And Netflix is giving me a full ride!”
Handler clearly feels like she owes something to Netflix, which makes things awkward. She mentions the company’s name so often, it’s like she’s daring you to create a drinking game around it. Both of the mildly amusing skits in the first episode focus on the streaming service. One pokes fun at the Netflix algorithm that helps you choose what you want to watch. (“If you like Narcos and Legally Blonde, you’ll love Chelsea!”) The other is a fake ad for “Netflix University” that actually feels like a real ad for Netflix itself. House of Cards’ Robin Wright, Bojack Horseman’s Will Arnett, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper all appear in it, with name titles that plug their shows, and there’s an unfortunate moment when a Netflix “student” insists that Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox made him realize he’s into “black chicks.” It’s hard to tell if Handler wants us to laugh at this character’s ignorance, or the joke is supposed to be on Cox — either way, it’s groan-worthy.
The things that should be strengths for Handler, including her caustic sense of humor, sometimes feel like weaknesses here. Describing the type of guests she’ll invite on her show — and sending up your average late-night talk show guest in the process — she mentions that her audience of Netflix password-sharing Millennials can enjoy her conversations with scientists, politicians, hookers, and “my black driver, Billy.” It’s a weirdly tone-deaf moment. Those Netflix password-sharing Millennials come from a pretty diverse background. They aren’t likely to appreciate that line.
Handler’s bold, ask-‘em-anything interview style is also weirdly soft here. She often misses the obvious follow-up questions. When King explains that both his parents died when was a kid and school saved his life, Handler practically cuts him off to talk about her own experiences at school. “I had one teacher who really made me believe in myself!” she says, before asking about King’s teachers, largely ignoring this formative trauma in his life. Even Drew Barrymore, Handler’s real-life friend, avoids talking about anything too personal with Handler. They have a meandering conversation in which they drink Barrymore’s brand of wine (meaning: it’s not a marketing moment — it’s just tipsiness!) and bond over the fact that they’re both supporters of the sisterhood and love to read the dictionary. Barrymore tells a cute story about learning the meaning of ‘perspicacity’ from a toll booth operator. Even when Handler finally asks Barrymore about her divorce, Handler still can’t bring herself to say the d-word. Inquiring about Barrymore’s “latest news,” Handler asks the actress if she knows that people are rooting for her. Of all the questions she could’ve asked, that’s the least interesting one.
Granted, this is only the beginning of Chelsea. We’ll get a better sense of the show when more episodes debut on Thursday and Friday. Every talk show host has a tough time at the beginning. And that opening “explanation” still gives me hope about how funny Handler can be. She just needs to use her natural perspicacity to her advantage and stop apologizing for her intellectual shortcomings. Am I using that word correctly? I had to look it up. Maybe Handler’s right: watching what she calls a “dumb” show can make you smarter.