“I’m finally getting to do the exact kind of show I’ve always wanted to do,” declares Chelsea Handler proudly, as she begins her new talk show, Chelsea, on Netflix. She talks throughout the first three episodes of the programme about how edgy and different it is, but the reality is made clear from the series’ opening musical number, sung by Chris Martin off Coldplay – which is about as edgy as a damp sponge.
The idea of the show is revolutionary, in its own way. The programme is recorded mostly in front of a live studio audience, with episodes released three times a week at the same around the world. There’s an immediacy to that model that holds a huge amount of potential for topicality and, with no advertisers or ratings to worry about, sincerity.
Sincerity is certainly something you can never accuse Chelsea Handler of lacking: her trademark is her no-nonsense, say-what-she’s-thinking manner. It may make for a candid, shocking persona on traditional TV, but once she’s freed from those constraints, any shock factor swiftly disappears into a bland vacuum of harmlessness.
“I’m going to have my friends on the show,” she announces, as if her penchant for using her celebrity mates – also true of her docu-series, Chelsea Does – isn’t the norm in the pally-pally world of the modern chat show. Then she continues the rest of her opening monologue, which mostly revolves around bad jokes about drugs and sex (oh, how racy), or claims that she won’t be doing an opening monologue – but without any knowing self-awareness.
The cutaway scenes recorded in advance aren’t magnificent either – a focus on education becomes a cheap excuse for some advertising (in the form of “Netflix University”), while the fact that guest Gwyneth Paltrow speaks Spanish offers a flimsy excuse for our host to try acting in a cheesy telenovela (something that surprisingly turns out to be not all that hilarious).
That’s the main feeling from most of the show, which brings the odd chuckle but fails to prompt hearty guffaws – one segment about grammar and Scrabble, delivered from behind a desk (again, as per tradition), reveals Handler to be worse at autocue reading than you might expect.
And what of her friends? The stars, when they do come, behave in exactly the same way as they do on a normal talk show, from Paltrow advertising her Goop products to Chadwick Boseman talking Captain America: Civil War. There’s a lack of stunts designed to go viral, which is refreshing, but the conversation here is never more than asinine small talk. Even the creator of TED Talks is rendered oddly uninteresting.
That’s partly due to Chelsea’s consistent focus on herself over her guests. She shows an endearing ability to send herself up, from her terrible Spanish acting to her lack of superhero knowledge, but that’s not enough to produce interviews with any insight, or, crucially, entertainment value. A brief chat with Veep and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale broaches the subject of political campaigning, but doesn’t go into any depth, while a conversation with Pitbull about the Slam charter school he’s set up in Miami doesn’t even explain what his work involves. The thematic approach to the episodes steers the show towards such serious issues, but Handler can’t get out of her own way to navigate the waters effectively – Drew Barrymore offers a candid aside about divorce, but it’s not explored at any length. It says a lot about the effectiveness of a host when the most exciting thing to happen is when their dog walks across the set.
Chelsea has spoken many times about wanting to “free” the talk show on Netflix, but from what? That’s the question this series hasn’t yet answered. It’s early days, but for all its modern distribution, this feels curiously staid and old-fashioned – especially when placed next to the unpredictable spoof stylings of Comedy Bang Bang (also on Netflix UK) and Alan Davies’ As Yet Untitled on UKTV’s Dave, which lets its guests talk about anything they like. It’s telling that the highlight of the series’ first week is a dinner conversation outside of the studio, in which Chris Evans, Frank Grillo, Sebastian Stan and Emily VanCamp sit down for dinner at what we’re told is Chelsea’s house – and, for a brief moment, it turns into a debate about the “ubiquitous” (Evans) gender gap in Hollywood. Even that candid chatter is edited, but you wish the whole programme was more like that: interesting and freed (to some degree) from conventional constraints. “I’m finally getting to do the exact kind of show I’ve always wanted to do,” says Chelsea proudly. What a shame, then, that she apparently wants to do something that has already been done before.
New episodes of Chelsea are available every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Netflix / Adam Rose