Bad reviews, her executive producer’s dismissal and documenting the first time Tony Hale and Bill Hader have ever not been funny on camera notwithstanding… Handler is learning episode by episode how to bring the talk show into this century.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show comes off not as important as it is self-important. Though her directives are clear and motivations seemingly altruistic: Chelsea learns something new every night and takes audience along with her, the show’s rhythm is as non-existent as a packed wedding dance floor.

In its first three weeks, the 3x/week late-night entry has struggled to overcome many obstacles, not the least of which is Handler herself still trying to figure out which camera to face and bumbling with near slapstick diffidence during the breaks between guests or bits.

Handler now admits as much with the expression of someone doing the you-go-this-way/I’ll-go-that-way grocery store aisle mamba as she attempts to transition without stumbling to a different wing of her Wayfair living room-inspired set to a cascade of ultra-lounge beats.

Coping with multi-tiered set, which essentially circles the audience like a paper moon, spreads pained looks on her legions of Chelsea faithful as the imposing floorplan demands they crane their necks Centre Court-style in order to get a glimpse of Gwen Stefani’s frozen-in-place face or a spinning model of the solar system as explained by a purple mohawked astrophysicist.

This week, Handler’s executive producer and showrunner Bill Wolff announced he’s leaving was fired from Chelsea after fewer than a dozen episodes. And this is a guy who lasted longer on The View than a porn star who just did a couple lines of NoDoz. The Chelsea series will continue its regular production schedule, and will not find a replacement for Wolff.

Netflix keeps its viewership analytics stashed in the same warehouse as the briefcase from Pulp Fiction and the Ark of the Covenant, but early reviews have been lackluster.

Wolff perhaps sensed the whole thing is more disjointed than a fossil dig and with more erasure marks than a rough draft — or maybe he recognized that the only steady, calming presence on the show is Handler’s dog, Chunk, the best spokesman for rescue mutts this side of Sarah McLachlan. Chunk’s continued politeness and genial accord with all guests alludes to the notion that Handler may be missing a calling as a dog whisperer — till she jettisoned that plan attempting to be a dog walker in Brentwood for an afternoon.

Bumpy as the climb to altitude has been, when Chelsea focuses on a single topic — such as parenting, namely her choice not to, which is her current obsession — good things can happen.

Wednesday’s show, her first episode post-Wolff, started with a three-second monologue of Chelsea all but asking for a take-two from her viewership as she put her back to the audience, turned and said, “Welcome to my show” followed by alternating segments of her staged dinner party (her second in the show and a staple of her four-part doc series aired earlier this year on the streaming service called Chelsea Does) and an in-home interview with a Mission Viejo couple who may be raising a transgender child.

At her dining table which featured mounds of pre-made tapas, cured meats and unbroken bread — Chelsea picked the brains of Mayim Bialik, Malin Åkerman, Randall Park and Kate Hudson, a group you may expect only to find together at Beverlywood Montessori carnival to benefit carnies, or in the pages of Us Magazine in a battle of who wore the same cotton tee to Ubatuba Acai best. Here, the quartet were perfectly at-ease with their host, imbibing more than dining and dishing once well-lubed. Hudson made a stand when she said, “I’m going to say something morbid here, please don’t take it the wrong way…” proceed: “…And that is, we’re all going to fucking die.”

Hudson tried to backpedal but her point was dutifully hanging out there over the almost-empty decanter of chard. She’s right, though. We’re not special and we’re not perfect we’re not getting out of this alive — and whatever footprint we leave here, creatively, as a friend/sibling/parent or child is ultimately — up to us.

I don’t want to call this the Chelsea A-ha, but it was, thus far, the signature moment of the show (well, that and when she made Gwyneth blush when she brought up the fact that ex Chris Martin brought in Chelsea the night before on episode no. 1.)

…It takes a certain kind of celebrity to make other celebrities comfortable and come off their talking points. It took Marc Maron close to 300 podcasts, but he does it right. Chelsea shows glimpses of it already. Though every guest’s self-awareness is to a person, indefatigable, she still gets the best of whatever they’re willing to put forth once she can get a drink or two in ‘em. Think of her as Hollywood’s sassy, winking bartender.

Eventually, someone will come along to do a Chelsea-type show better. After all, we live in the age of Insta and Twitter and Snapchat and whatever else is coming next. More access, more self-curation is the thing. In some ways, it’s a far cry from the heyday of Carson, where even B-listers like Suzanne Pleshette had a line for everything. The time when the Swami asked her if she’d ever been on a tractor and she dead panned, “Johnny, I’ve never even been in a Chevrolet” comes to mind.

In that day, we didn’t want complete access to our celebrities. We didn’t want to know about how to get baby throw up on an evening gown or how to cure hangovers on set with a quick tryst behind craft services or about any husband-banging-nanny problems (#husbandbangingnannyproblems). That stuff, and all the other gooey details of life, was left to the imagination, or rather, was ours to ponder. We got plenty of that noise in real life, let the stars hang somewhere about us.

But we are transitioning, just as Handler is starting to face mid-career and middle age; just as her show is onto, well, something. The production value is certainly not lacking and the lengths and distances (to Japan to dress like a Harajuku Girl, to Russia for a figure skating segment), she will go to to mine new material is both farther and further than any late night talk show to date. She is going where no woman has gone before, or at the very least padding her mileage for when she’s done.

The fact that Handler is so physically and emotionally committed, not just in a press-junket kind of way, to shaking up the format — is why the show is important. It’s an all-out assault on the formula of the late-night TV and what can be possible in an accessible if not easily accessed 27 minutes. While Handler’s continued learning may lead her right back to her own study to do so in private, Netflix has given her 10 million reasons to stick around for awhile.

Now if she can only figure out how to do what she did with Chunk — and make the audience stay.

 

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