Chelsea Does is indulgent and self-obsessed, but so is stand-up comedy. The kind way to describe that is self-knowledge, and the less-kind way is self-absorption, but either way, good stand-up, more so than other comedy formats, relies heavily on an individual point of view. In her four-episode Netflix documentary series, Chelsea Handler travels and interviews people and witnesses various facets of the global human experience, and still turns all of that into, “So, what do I, Chelsea Handler, have to say?” That’s her job as a comedian. And yet in Chelsea Does, it’s in spiritual conflict with the documentary, almost newsmagazine format, and with the show’s occasional explainer tone. Is episode “Drugs” about cultures that surround psycho-affective experiences, or about what Handler thinks about drugs? It skews heavily to the latter, but it includes enough of the former that you can’t write it off as “for Chelsea Handler superfans only.” It’s a tension the show never quite resolves, but sometimes it adds to the appeal.
When Handler left her E! late-night show in 2014, she said she wanted to “exercise [her] brain a little bit more,” perhaps branch out. On Chelsea Does, she is indeed doing that. Each episode covers a different topic — marriage, racism, Silicon Valley, drugs — with both casual glam and sometimes surprising depth. We see Handler have contrived dinner-table conversations with other celebrities and comedians (Margaret Cho, Jason Biggs, Khloé Kardashian, among others) and some lightweight “kids say the darndest things” segments; we see Handler talk to her therapist and her own family about some of the topics at hand, and interview with experts. The collage nature of the show works better for some topics than others. “Marriage” is the series’ high point because it’s the most appropriately personal. There are few if any objective truths about marriage, and Handler’s own ambivalence carries the episode. She even meets up with an ex-boyfriend, and their scenes together are fascinatingly revealing — her body language, her moments of genuine shock and tenderness all feel authentic, and they have a real pull to them. Handler has made a career out of extreme candor, but I wouldn’t say she’s real so much as she’s “real.” She’s a persona, and seeing her switch gears into being a person is itself interesting. Sure, it’s a little bit funny to see Handler drunk and on Ambien, trying to play some weird bootleg Twister, but the more effective moment comes later, when Handler spoons and comforts her friend who’s weeping her way through an upsetting ayahuasca trip.
Less successful is the show’s episode about racism. Handler wants so desperately to valorize and legitimize her own racist material that she convenes a panel of anti-defamation leaders, asks for their input, and tells them they’re all wrong. Then she travels to Alabama to prove that’s where the real racism is. Handler maintains that making fun of all races somehow precludes any of that fun-making from being racist, and that’s false and frustrating. Mercifully, the episode is not a complete wash: She also sits down with Walter Scott’s family and asks them about their son, about police violence, and suddenly, the show contains depth and humanity. The segment is wrenching, and Handler again drops her shtick and facilitates a conversation that is meaningful and worthwhile.
Chelsea Does works far better than you’d expect this borderline vanity project to. It has a very effective blend of breeziness and seriousness: Handler’s total abandon in asking frank, maybe rude questions of some of her subjects is part of the show’s charm, and her incredulity and persistence often serve her and the series well. The show’s curiosity and smarts buoy it during times of less credibility, and there’s almost a sense of determination radiating out of the episodes. We’re doing this. Luckily, they’re doing it pretty well.