‘Are You There, Chelsea?’ Is Missing… Chelsea Handler

It’s a new year, and that means a slew of midseason series, all clawing for airtime. Some will live, many will die. Likely to suffer the latter fate is NBC’s adaptation of Chelsea Handler’s 2008 bestseller Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, which title NBC has shortened, and rendered into its own opposite, as Are You There, Chelsea?.

This change is telling, because in various ways Chelsea is not here, thank you very much, and I’m not sure how hot I am over who showed up in her place. As a putative nonfiction memoir, Vodka succeeds, to the extent it does, because its central voice is so credible. I mostly buy Chelsea Handler as she pens her exploits as a precocious third-grader or talks with alarming candor and lack of contrition about her drunk driving arrest. Though the book takes lots of creative license — think a less thoroughly word-smithed David Sedaris, a writer whose influence is keenly felt on Vodka’s pages — it seems the product of a real person, and an engaging one at that.

For the TV adaptation — which premieres 12 January — the main character (Laura Prepon) remains a smart, wisecracking cynic, but appears reduced to it. She inhabits a familiar sitcom register of winking, ironic detachment; unlike the book, though, she rarely, if ever, shows genuine emotion.

The show borrows the book’s central event, Chelsea’s DUI debacle, and makes a big deal out of the fact that a now-unlicensed Chelsea must move to a nearby apartment so she can walk to her job tending bar. (This establishment, incidentally, is given us as a “sports bar,” but it looks more like a Cheers-style retro pub, and if there are any HDTVs blaring ESPN, I failed to note them.)

All this accomplishes, however, is to introduce us to wacky roommate Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), who’s subletting the place. Nothing’s ever made of Chelsea’s abbreviated commute, and the humorous narrative possibilities opened up when one abuts urban residences and drinking establishments — as in, say, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment or Scorsese’s After Hours — are never exploited. Not that it’s fair to hold Chelsea up against such company.

At least as central, Chelsea’s alleged to be a raging and unrepentant alcoholic, singing vodka’s praises ad infinitum and describing herself as “influential in the drunk community.” (She must have fascinating business cards.) But after the pilot’s first shot, she’s never actually drunk. I wondered what could be behind this. After all, recreational medication taps a whole keg of low-hanging comic opportunities, and I yearned for a bleary bender à la Anna Faris’ in Smiley Face or at least an Ab Fab-style boozy reverie.

But no, and I suspect this call was a tactical one: the producers saw the challenge to be posed to some viewers’ sensibilities in having a heroine whose backstory involves the stigma of DUI, a dead-end career, and a dating lifestyle that could be interpreted as co-dependent — and who, most importantly, seems untroubled by any of it — and got chilly legs. With all that, actually showing Chelsea shitfaced probably struck them as dropping at least one too many umbrellas into the piña colada of bad taste, so they demurred.

Though this is an understandable choice, it’s not one I’d have made. We’re left with a core premise that’s repeatedly asserted but never demonstrated; in no way does Chelsea ever actually seem like a drunk. But the show might as well have gone there, since Chelsea comes across as indifferent in terms of taste regardless. This is conveyed straight away, in the stereotypical butch lesbian character whose appearances bookend the pilot.

As we so often are, we’re asked here to guffaw over the hilarious subject of prison rape, as said lesbian menaces Chelsea in a holding cell after Chelsea’s drunk driving arrest. Later, at her place of work, Chelsea introduces us to Todd (Mark Povinelli), the bar back, a diminutive fellow with a case of dwarfism, by saying he has an “obvious challenge.” To wit, ha ha, he’s colorblind! It’s not the best joke in any case, but Todd’s vision fails to come up again in the first two episodes (and I’ve got five bucks saying it never will). This makes the whole gag a barely disguised, mean-spirited jab at his real infirmity after all.

Chelsea makes a habit of mocking difference. The pilot’s plot revolves around an antipathy Chelsea harbors toward redheads, for which it’s hard to find a term other than “racist.” (“Like 98% of women who can see, I’ve never been a fan of the redheaded male”; “It wasn’t his fault he was a redhead, it was his gross ancestors.”) It also tends to take a blasé attitude toward genuine suffering. Consider Sloane (Chelsea’s expecting older sister, played in a surreal bit of casting by Handler herself), whose husband is off fighting in Afghanistan. Time and again, we’re reminded specifically of this, but to no apparent purpose unless it’s a setup for cringe-inducing repartee. Chelsea questions Sloane’s sex drive, because she chose to marry a partner who spends so much time abroad. “Yes, that’s why my hurt locker is aching,” Sloane replies. I reply in turn with a palm to my own face.

This isn’t to say Are You There, Chelsea? is completely hopeless. There are bright spots. The brightest, predictably, is Handler, who brings a texture to her role that Prepon fails to bring to hers. Another is Dee Dee, who gets the show’s first actual funny moment — though this only comes a tardy seven minutes in and, unpromisingly, in the form of a knock-knock joke. Aside from a bizarre imitation of a cat that left me wanting to switch off my TV and go do something else, the newcomer Lapkus is funny and likeable as Chelsea’s eccentric landlady. Gags of questionable taste somehow work when vectored through her. If it had been Chelsea with the imaginary childhood friend who’d died of smallpox, I’d have attributed this to a too-conscious effort on the writers’ part to be edgy; however, it’s easy enough to imagine Dee Dee really doing such a thing, so it got a chuckle from me.

Another hopeful glimmer comes in the form of a general upward trajectory the series seems to be following, at least judging by its two inaugural episodes. If the pilot, frankly, is an utterly abysmal morass of midget cracks and anti-Irish slurs, at least it gets the point across that the show has little intention of preserving the conceits of the book it’s based on.

This disposed of, however painfully, the second episode can traffic in actually being a sitcom. This it does with modest aplomb. Rather than hinge on how hideous redheads are, “Sloane’s Ex” goes in a more I-Love-Lucy-after-dark direction by having Chelsea sleep with her big sister’s ex and then lie about it, a lie that quickly spirals into a flytrap of unintended consequences. This — not alcoholism and husbands mired in combat zones — is the salty, empty-calorie stuff of which sitcoms are typically made. If Are You There, Chelsea?’s creators want to eschew the soupy waters of nonfiction memoir and plot a course toward the traditional TV comedy, they’d be well advised to hew to it more closely.

RATING 4 / 10