The Chelsea Handler machine continues its slow march across pop media. The humorist, who will turn 37 next month, has an amusingly cruel and even viciously funny talk show on E!, which led to another show on E! that’s ostensibly about the making of the first show. Then there are her best-selling memoirs — three of them so far, plus a collection of other people’s stories about their encounters with her. She also tours a lot, performing a stand-up act that is more anger ventilation than lighthearted laughs. Although “quietly” is not the word that comes to mind for what she’s done with her career, it did kind of sneak up on us.
So now here’s the sitcom.
NBC’s “Are You There, Chelsea?,” premiering Wednesday night, features an actress who is really only five years younger than Handler (Laura Prepon) playing a younger interpretation of the “Chelsea” described in the memoirs. Handler herself plays this Chelsea’s older sister. If it sounds a bit thrown together for sitcom’s sake, it is.
And in a subversive way, Handler has already made her influence known in the sitcom market, in the surrogate form of her pal Whitney Cummings, star of NBC’s mostly mediocre “Whitney” and co-creator of CBS’s less-mediocre “2 Broke Girls.” Chelsea Handler is merely the gripey voice that empowers all other gripey voices that are similar to her own. The vagina jokes heard on “Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls” can be traced back to their potty-mouthed spiritual mama; on “Are You There, Chelsea’s” first couple of episodes, female parts are referred to as “the entertainment center,” “the hurt locker” and “the bottom half.”
The point is to pulverize outdated notions of how a woman — even a funny woman — should talk about herself and others. In theory, perhaps even feminist theory, that’s not such a bad thing.
But that all has nothing to do with the sad, half-baked result that is “Are You There, Chelsea?,” which is built from an astonishing number of cliches, given the real Handler’s claim to unapologetically hard-edged fare. It’s exactly the sort of stink pile that Handler would make insulting remarks about if such a show’s star came on her talk show. When it was determined that the show couldn’t be aired with the title “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” (which was also the title of Handler’s most popular book — and a reference to the Judy Blume novel of yore), Handler should have taken the concept to someplace on the cable dial more suited to her style.
Prepon’s Chelsea is a free-spirited and self-absorbed cocktail waitress at a bar that is managed by a love interest (Jake McDorman as Rick). There is a best-friend character who also works as a waitress at the bar (Ali Wong as Olivia) and, in a detail that will resonate for Handler’s fans, a dwarf busboy (Mark Povinelli as Todd).
After Chelsea gets a DUI and loses her license — about which she is offensively unrepentant — she and Olivia decide to answer a roommate ad at an apartment that is mere steps from the bar. They move in with dopey, virginal Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), who happens to be the only person on this show I’d be willing to construct a sitcom around.
Prepon, seldom seen since her long tenure as an intelligent beauty on “That ’70s Show,” shoots blanks in the role of unlikable Chelsea. Handler herself is intentionally muted (brunet instead of her usual strawberry blond) as Chelsea’s big sister, Sloane, who gives birth to a daughter while her husband is fighting in Afghanistan. It’s up to Sloane to bail Chelsea out of jail and bitterly hector her into growing up, but her presence here seems superficial by design.
Perhaps this makes sense to the many who’ve read “Are You There, Vodka?,” but because I’m not among them (I chose Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” instead), it’s difficult to understand what tone the sitcom wishes to achieve: Only nasty? Mainly mean? Funny-ha-ha or funny-disturbed? Or are we all merely participating in a giant prank, in which a woman who makes sport of mocking the phony show-biz realm around her tries to see if she can actually worsen NBC’s prime-time schedule woes?
(30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.