How you feel about Chelsea Handler may determine how you feel about her documentary series, Chelsea Does. Netflix’s original show sees the comedian investigate a range of issues, from marriage and racism to technology and drugs. The title, though, makes it clear what the show is about: Chelsea Handler.
Handler is a comedian who relies upon an apologetic abrasiveness to get laughs, which is fine as far as a comedy act goes, but as a documentarian, that persona doesn’t translate very well. For those in the US, where her name will be familiar to many Netflix subscribers, her in-your-face brand of non-fiction could well prove a source of fun. For UK viewers, who may never heard of Handler, it’s more likely to annoy.
The series works under the assumption that Chelsea is our accessible window onto the world, that what she thinks about the subject in hand is what will make us interested in it. Chelsea Does Marriage, for example, becomes an examination of why Chelsea hasn’t got a husband. All that approach does, though, is make each documentary focused on her, our perception of her and, in its worst moments, her own self-perception. The result, however well-intentioned, is indulgent and superficial, like a programme designed to congratulate Chelsea for “doing” anything at all.
That’s partly down to director Eddie Schmidt, who helms all four episodes, but can’t seem to decide whether his collaborator is a presenter or a subject. There are lots of documentaries presented by men with overpowering characters, from Louis Theroux to Michael Moore, but there is a consistency to their style and tone and an ability to step aside to showcase other people. Chelsea Does can’t get past its host, which means the tone is all over the place; the overwhelming mood is smug.
There is a tendency, as part of its semi-reality-TV format, to feature Chelsea chatting with other celebrities about The Issues. These roundtables rarely add any substance to the matter in hand. In the case of the dire first episode, it comes across as shallow filler that only makes the whole experience boring as well as preening. After all, why talk to real people about their lives when we can hear what Chelsea’s famous friends think?
But that same bolshie attitude means Handler’s good at poking holes in other people’s arguments – in the case of Chelsea Does Racism, conversations with white supremacists prove both slyly critical and amusing, proof that when Chelsea can stop talking and listen to others, she’s capable of probing, provocative interviews. (Other exchanges are less successful: Willie Nelson chatting weed is hardly ground-breaking film-making.)
Schmidt also crafts some effective moments: one sequence involving President Obama singing Amazing Grace in Charleston is superbly moving, elevating the series’ tone to the kind of quality and respectful insight you’d expect from another, classier documentary. Which, unfortunately, means it feels out of place here.
Because, sure enough, the camera swings back around to Chelsea again. That can work well, when the series allows us to see her out of her depth: in the episode about Silicon Valley, we witness just how clueless she is around computers, as she becomes visibly frustrated and embarrassed when sat in a room with switched-on kids. (At one point, she confesses she doesn’t understand what Netflix is.) Another discussion that sees others pick apart her jokes that involve racial stereotypes remains broadly narcissistic, but lets us see her on the (unconvincing) defensive. Even with these moments of vulnerability, though, if there’s a journey of discovery that Handler is meant to be undergoing, that discovery is often unseen, rarely dwelt upon and hardly revelatory.
It doesn’t help that the loose runtimes ramble on over an hour – Netflix’s freedom from broadcast schedules also means that episodes could clock in at 17 minutes, the kind of length that might make the show easier to swallow. The end product occasionally entertains, but in an age where documentaries are arguably more accessible and accomplished than ever (partly thanks to Netflix), that’s not enough to make Chelsea Does a must-stream. There’s perhaps an intriguing study of a comedian somewhere in these almost-five hours of footage, but it’s never fully extracted and certainly never candid enough to be revealing. For a show purportedly tackling universal topics, though, there is simply too much Chelsea and not enough Does. Whether you like the comedian or not, you can never shake the feeling that deep down, Chelsea is only doing herself.
Chelsea Does is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.