Joining NBC’s primetime line-up tonight is Are You There, Chelsea?, a multi-camera comedy series starring Laura Prepon and inspired by Chelsea Handler’s book Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea.. The more female-skewing comedy seems like a good fit to be paired with Whitney. Whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable, likely depending on how you feel about Whitney.
Chelsea stars Prepon (That ’70’s Show, October Road) as the title character, a cocktail waitress who’s introduced to us as we learn she’s been arrested for driving under the influence. Ha-ha. After squeaking out of that situation (more or less), Chelsea returns to her job and later moves into a new apartment, during which we get to meet her friends and co-workers. This includes the dreamy bartender Rick (Jake McDorman), fellow cocktail waitress and childhood pal Olivia (Ali Wong), the bar back Todd (Mark Povinelli), and Chelsea’s new roommate Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus). Lenny Clarke (Rescue Me) plays Chelsea’s father Melvin, and Chelsea Handler recurs as her born-again-Christian sister Sloane.
The best part about the premiere episode comes from Chelsea’s interactions with the the side characters, due in large part to solid performances across the board, but particularly by Clarke, who knows how to deliver a line, and Lapkus, whose dorky and virginal adorableness as Dee Dee contrasts greatly with Chelsea.
That’s about as complimentary as I can be about the series opener. Some of the jokes feel a bit too staged and awkward to be funny, and Chelsea’s narration is occasionally clunky and offbeat with the rhythm of the show, however, it’s very possible, even likely, that these wrinkles will smooth out as the series progresses, assuming it sticks around. Oftentimes in retrospect, it seems like pilots are a much more condensed version of what a series will turn out to be, before the characters have the opportunity to grow on us and the show settles in and finds its footing. Watch early episodes of Friends and other beloved comedy series for evidence of that.
The title character seems set up to be an independent and possibly even closed-off type of woman, which certainly isn’t a criticism, however there are times when Chelsea borders closely on brusque and unlikable. A tiny bit more warmth may go a long way with the character. As a fan of Chelsea Handler and of Prepon, I want to give Chelsea the benefit of the doubt that her rough-around-the-edges design is really just a prototype, and that the character will eventually evolve into a person that is both funny and relatable to the average viewer on some level. It’s largely for that reason that I’m reserving full judgment on this series until I see a few more episodes. There are definitely jokes that hit and a dynamic among the characters that hints at something original, but not entirely unfamiliar, which is why I’d suggest fans of Handler give this series a shot.
NBC has the right idea in putting Chelsea on next to Whitney. Given how much better Up All Night is likely to fit in on Thursday nights with the rest of the peacock’s single-camera comedies (minus the unfortunately shelved Community), added to the perfect pairing that is Whitney Cummings’ Whitney and Handler’s Chelsea, it’s difficult to follow NBC’s choice not to start the fall off with a similar set-up. Regardless, Chelsea’s success may hinge on how well Whitney does on Wednesday nights and the reverse may also prove to be the case. Up against ABC’s comedy block, Whitney and Chelsea will both have their work cut out for them, but without Cougar Town on the line-up, TV viewers looking for an alternative to family comedy may find it in Are You There, Chelsea? and Whitney.
Are You There, Chelsea? premieres tonight (Wednesday, January 11th) at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.