Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pilot Review: Are You There, Chelsea?

Are You There, Chelsea? (Wednesdays at 8:30 on NBC)

And just like that another show I had been looking forward to has been removed from my DVR schedule after just one episode.

In many ways the disappointment of Are You There, Chelsea? is much more heartbreaking than The Firm. The latter didn't really have a chance, considering NBC bought it after pilot season and ordered all 22 episodes without ever seeing any footage; it was doomed from the start. But Chelsea should've had a chance and should've been so much better. It was delayed to midseason so that it could be retooled, but if this is the better version of the pilot then I can't imagine how it was ever picked up in the first place.

Are You There, Chelsea? is based on Chelsea Handler's bestselling autobiographical book of comedic essays Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. It follows Chelsea (Laura Prepon) and her party-girl lifestyle. She is arrested for a DUI, so without her car she moves into a new apartment within walking distance of work... at a bar. Other characters include Chelsea's pregnant (and much more responsible) sister Sloane (Chelsea Handler); her best friend Olivia (Ali Wong); her new roommate Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus); the bartender at Chelsea's workplace and former semi-flame Rick (Jake McDorman); and Todd, the colorblind midget barback (Mark Povinelli).

If last year's trainwreck $#*! My Dad Says taught us anything, it's that not everything that's funny in one medium will be funny in another. Vulgar humor just doesn't work when it's toned down for a broadcast audience; while that show bore almost no resemblance to its basis, Chelsea at least has a similar feeling to Handler's book. The problem is that it's just not as funny without the crass language and shocking sexcapades. Handler has a very clear voice in her writing, and because she didn't write this show it doesn't come across. Plus it needs to be edited down to be appropriate for its early timeslot.

Speaking of which, I was shocked by how much the producers got away with in terms of language. I don't know if references went over the censors heads or what, but this was not a show for 8:30 on NBC: vagina jokes, multiple references to pubic hair trimming, top/bottom jokes, STD jokes, making light of drunk driving, etc. Chelsea Handler recently announced at TCA that the reason the word "vodka" was dropped from the title was to not turn off viewers who may potentially find drinking offensive. That makes absolutely no sense considering how many jokes about drinking, sex, what color a redhead's pubes are, chlamydia, vaginas, and midgets there are. "Vodka" is the least of your worries. And this argument might sound counterintuitive considering I just said the material needed to be edited for appropriateness, but it's the way in which it's presented that makes it offensive. It rides the line between tame and over-the-top, never being a fully neutered version of Handler's humor nor a full-blown adaptation of it. I don't know how to really explain what I mean, except that I think the way they adapted the material somewhere between tame and crass made it very much not funny. If the producers (one of whom is Handler herself) could have found enough humor in the situations to not need the adult content, it would've been funny; if the show were taken to a cable network where it wouldn't need to be edited at all, it would've been funny. But the middle ground Chelsea finds itself in is not funny.

Laura Prepon (That 70s Show) does her best to differentiate herself from the actual Chelsea Handler, but she's just not that funny. She doesn't capture Handler's bite and bitterness. The supporting cast is entirely forgettable. Ali Wong is the worst of the mediocre, delivering her lines like a porn star trying to get a laugh. She has that very presentational "I'm in a sitcom and I'm telling you jokes" style of acting, and it was awful. Jake McDorman (Greek) is similarly annoying as the bartender, though that's based more on the fact that he doesn't do anything the entire episode but refer to the one night he and Chelsea tried to have sex but failed because she wanted to be on top. It got old after about 6 seconds. The writing is stale and not nearly as funny as the constant, grating laugh track seems to think it is.

The only thing I can say in favor of Are You There, Chelsea? (I HATE THAT TITLE) is that it's not the worst sitcom of the season. Luckily for this show, Work It is also on the air... for now. Chelsea may yet take that crown if Work It disappears from the schedule.

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