Chelsea Handler wants you to join her squad. Or, at the very least, she wants you to want to join her squad, going by the guests on the first week of Chelsea — Handler’s new half-hour talk show that just debuted on Netflix and will drop new episodes each Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday — whose members include Drew Barrymore and Gwyneth Paltrow. (Jennifer Aniston appears to enjoy an honorary affiliation, if a gratuitous dig at Angelina Jolie -- a frequent Handler target -- is any indication.) Late night’s other female host is a celebrity in her own right, and Handler's new set reflects its host’s famous-rich-lady status: a sleek, contemporary couch; mood lighting; shelves with fake books and curvy ceramics. To complete the living-room feel, Handler’s mutt Chunk wanders in and out, greeting newcomers with a sniff and a nuzzle.
As the show’s first-name title suggests, Chelsea is an invitation to get to know its namesake better. Her defining interests in booze, sex, and “black guys” remain, but she also comes clean about her unschooled curiosity -- a trait she also indulged in her Chelsea Does specials, also for Netflix. The show begins with a contradiction: The E! refugee wants to tackle more serious subjects than the Kardashians, but the comedian doesn’t want to let a lack of knowledge about a subject get in the way of her self-expression. As Netflix’s first talk show, Chelsea needs to convince viewers to tune in to Handler’s show instead of the thousands of other options available on the site. So far, it has yet to make its case.
Handler thanks Netflix within the first few minutes of the pilot for letting her make “the exact kind of show [she’s] always wanted to do.” That show, it turns out, is pretty old-fashioned -- a musty contrast to her brashly single-and-child-free modernity. A combination of in-house publicity, celebrity promotion, and some very limp sketches, Chelsea droops out of the gate. When Barrymore shills her wine line, Handler utters her only funny joke in the first three episodes — that she’s not into the “vagina-licking contest between two girls,” despite the actress and the host’s mutual compliments. The next night, Handler praises Paltrow for “never pretend[ing] to be anybody other than who you are,” i.e., someone who continues to be her own self-parody by hawking $950 toilet paper.
There should be something bracing about Handler, a self-made woman who’s found success in two male-dominated fields (comedy and late-night television) by eschewing conventional femininity, even likability. But she remains persistently easier to respect than to enjoy. Handler reaches a small peak in the debut episode when she discusses her lack of higher education and her consequent fears of looking stupid. But then she decides to go full Renner by denying sympathy to women in Hollywood who (rather bravely) speak out against industry sexism, thus undoing whatever goodwill she’d shored up for owning up to her ignorance. (Handler’s stance is that women in entertainment should just do and make things happen instead of talking about the very real obstacles that get in the way of women doing and making things. Her dinner party guest Chris Evans is then left to rather obviously point out that most movies seem to hire nine actors for every actress they cast.) Handler’s not exactly a crackerjack comic, either; her rhythms feel slower and her jokes lazier than those of her late-night counterparts.
Perhaps most disappointingly given the attempted image makeover, it’s the earnest segments that consistently fail to deliver. One of Handler’s first guests is Secretary of Education John King Jr., who explains his job and speaks movingly of his parents’ early deaths. But his and Handler’s tales of teachers who inspired them, however well-intentioned, fall short of entertainment. Veep actor Tony Hale’s accounts of modern slavery, meanwhile, abut rather uncomfortably against Paltrow’s fight for GMO labeling. The actress’s squirming self-consciousness at the sound of her own frivolity unintentionally becomes the episode’s most riveting moment.
The overlong segment in which Handler learns about the pantheon of Marvel superheroes encapsulates Chelsea’s main weakness. Yes, the host is learning new things, but the show never convincingly argues why we should care about her education, or the subjects she’s learning about. Handler’s apparently got a pretty photogenic set of friends, but, like almost everything on Instagram, it’s much more fun to imagine what her gal pals are talking about than actually overhear their conversations. So much for #SquadGoals.