a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Chelsea Handler, executive producer & star
What: 4-part documentary series
Where: Netflix streaming
When: Season 1 premiered January 2016; Season 2 hasn’t been been announced yet
Why Watch: The comedian who hosted the late-night E! talkshow Chelsea Lately for seven years took a year off to do something, in her words, she had no business doing: documentary. In this four-part series, Handler covers marriage, Silicon Valley, race, and drugs.
The problem with a comedian-led documentary is that the focus is always going to be more on the comedian, and what she thinks of the issue, than on the issue itself. Each feature-length episode of Chelsea Does begins in an intimate roundtable: Handler gathers a few friends for dinner or drinks, and the camera weaves in and out as they glibly discuss the topic at hand. Most of these folks are entertainers in their own right – Margaret Cho, Khloé Kardashian, Jason Biggs, Aasif Mandvi – and so there’s a level of performance happening that generally impedes any kind of truly candid, revelatory talk. The episode then broadens its scope as Handler speaks with experts, her own therapist and family, and regular folk she accosts on the street. All the while, though, the focus remains on Handler.
So is it a bad thing for a comedian to be so self-indulgent? Not necessarily, especially considering that stand-up is largely, and inherently, a self-absorbed medium because that’s where the comedy lies – in one’s personal experience. Handler takes advantage of this sporadically, as when, in the episode on race, she gathers a group of representatives from media-related organizations that focus on representation and opens the conversation with her well-known stance that she makes fun of everyone and never apologizes for anything she says. She then begins to needle them with provocative comments like “What’s wrong with saying Asians are good at math?” which is then echoed by Samy Chouia (Council on American-Islamic Relations) who comments that “saying Blacks are good at basketball is a good thing.” It’s then that Dr. Darnell Hunt (NAACP) is forced to explain to everyone – not just the white comedian in the room – why this particular stereotype is harmful (a focus on physical dexterity implies a lack of intellectual capability). It’s fascinating to watch a group of intelligent individuals, whose jobs are rooted in thoughtful representation, prove that, yep, everyone is a little bit racist. When Handler quickly incites with her outrageousness and then sits back and lets others do the talking, she’s at her best.
As a brash, outspoken comic who’s known (and most loved) for her tactlessness, Chelsea Does also works when it reveals another side of Handler. The independent woman who rails against marriage becomes vulnerable and introspective when reunited with her ex (the big one, from twenty years ago); maternal when she gently holds and quietly soothes a weeping friend having an intense ayahuasca experience; and stoic as she tries to maintain her hard, unbreakable exterior as her father tells her she’s “not the type you marry.” These rare glimpses into the truly personal are more effective and interesting than most attempts at comedy throughout the series.
Directed by Eddie Schmidt, Chelsea Does isn’t successful as a documentary. The tone and format is all over the place (is this reality TV or a rigorous look at difficult topics?), and Chelsea’s comedic presence (aggressively negative) diverts from any real serious examination of the issues – the takeaways are obvious from the get-go. But in those rare moments when Handler lets go of performing and gets really personal (when her expression and body language speak volumes) or fully utilizes the interviewing skills she’s honed over a decade (thoughtfully conversing with the family of Walter Scott), Chelsea does work.
Bechdel Test: PASS