TV Review: ‘Chelsea Does’

'Chelsea Does' from Chelsea Handler infuriates
Courtesy Netflix

Chelsea Does,” a group of four documentaries examining different topics, works best when its host, Chelsea Handler, stops doing and simply listens. The series can’t quite decide if it’s an exercise in image management for its star or an in-depth examination of whatever subject is under the microscope, and that indecision ends up giving much of the endeavor a self-indulgent and superficial tone. Occasionally, “Chelsea Does” is both rigorous and curious and uses its star’s comedic talents to judiciously probe difficult subjects, but those moments aren’t as frequent as one might hope.    

Put simply, “Chelsea Does” contains a lot of filler, much of which reaffirms the self-congratulatory myopia and cluelessness that afflicts much of America and certainly Hollywood as well.

Viewers would likely be best off skipping the first half of the second documentary, “Chelsea Does Racism.” There’s no better demonstration of condescending obliviousness than listening to a wealthy white woman complaining about how accusations of racism hurt her, even as she giggles mischievously about how amusing and often true racial stereotypes are. That kind of unfortunate material, which is sometimes found in the glib roundtables with famous friends that are scattered through each of the four documentaries, does nothing to either entertain or deepen what should be vital discussions of difficult and relevant topics.

However, in the second half of “Chelsea Does Racism,” an interesting and not entirely unpredictable thing happens: The less Handler talks and the more she allows a wide array of Americans to share their experiences with race, bias and prejudice, the more effective the documentary becomes. Handler takes a back seat in various interviews with white supremacists and Civil War aficionados who roll out the “heritage not hate” arguments, and she needles them in ways that highlight the preposterous elements of their arguments. 

When Handler politely tells a white woman in South Carolina that slavery was not, in fact, a festival of familial good feelings, the woman testily talks about how pained she is by Handler’s “antagonistic” questions. Comparing human beings to farm equipment, one Civil War re-enactor explains that slaves “were taken care of,” and the appalled look on Handler’s face is her most effective rejoinder.

Handler could connect her touchiness about being criticized for her racially charged jokes to the self-pity of the South Carolina woman who wants to believe in historically inaccurate fantasies about slavery, but Handler does not arrive at that level of realization. However, by ceding the floor for long periods to everyone from Al Sharpton to Shimon Peres to Native American activists, all of whom provide their own sometimes contradictory perspectives and opinions, the second half of the documentary becomes much more effective and certainly far more watchable. The further it travels from smug conversations designed to make its star look good, the more value there is in these documentaries, which were directed by Eddie Schmidt (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”) and produced by Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet from Stardom”).  

It would appear that the goal of these “Chelsea Does” films is to show the comedian and late-night host going on a journey of discovery, but too often a sense of true curiosity is missing, and the lessons, such as they are, are often predictable. Clocking in at an hour or more, each documentary could stand to be cut by quite a bit; tighter editing would likely increase the impact of each. As it is, the 74-minute first episode, “Chelsea Does Marriage,” is a painfully dull forced march through various un-enlightening conversations about weddings, relationships and commitments. It’s unclear what anyone learns by going to a Vegas wedding chapel or by seeing a wedding bouquet that incorporates a sex toy, and Handler doesn’t even get quality jokes out of these moments.

Interviews with Handler’s family members are interspersed throughout each piece, as are moments from very staged-looking sessions with a therapist, but true insight and moments of vulnerability are not all that common. Handler talks about her fear of commitment and her issues with abandonment in “Marriage,” but deeper personal issues behind those words aren’t explored in any depth. At one point in “Racism,” Handler gets her aged father to make a series of racially unfortunate statements (which also crop up during family conversations in “Marriage” as well). She then gets up to leave, indicating that the segment over. “I don’t think it covered the issue at all,” he says of their conversation. He’s not wrong.

Much of the first half of “Chelsea Does Racism” is frankly appalling, given that Handler, in various settings and conversations, quickly brushes off substantial explorations of insensitivity and laughs as she indicates that she has no real desire to understand why jokes perpetuating tired stereotypes might deserve to be retired (she giggles when an Asian activist tries to explain why jokes about Asians as nail technicians and bad drivers are offensive). In “Marriage,” she talks about how members of her family have “jungle fever,” and in “Racism,” she casually mentions that she finds Asian men unattractive. It’s not wrong for her to be upfront about her biases — truthfulness can be the start of a good conversation and even a funny comedy bit — but the assumption that her unexamined prejudices are always adorable is grating, to say the least.

Whiplash sets in during the second half of “Chelsea Does Racism,” which is radically different from the first half, and far better. Handler goes to South Carolina, where she talks to a series of men and women whose words starkly lay out the gulfs that still exist in America when it comes to race and the understanding of history. Her conversation with the family of police brutality victim Walter Scott is sensitive and smartly handled, and her visit to a museum that houses the horrifying paraphernalia of the slave trade is similarly powerful. A museum guide tells her that 20 million people died in the slave trade, and a silent Handler looks shocked to her core. One wonders if this moment changed her, until a series of patronizing concluding remarks at the end of the documentary casts that transformation into doubt.

The most powerful moment in this documentary is a montage of images of African-American men, women and children killed by police; the segment is set to a soundtrack of President Obama’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for the eight people murdered in Charleston by a white supremacist. It’s a welcome shift from the self-congratulatory ignorance of the first half of the film, but still, it’s a jarring change of tone. 

Late in “Chelsea Does Racism,” Handler asks a panel of representatives from Asian, African-American and Muslim interest groups what Hollywood can do to change a society that is still demonstrably and dangerously biased. Given the deeply rooted problems the entertainment industry has when it comes to representation and stereotypes, that’s one conversation that could have gone on much longer. Handler is advised to hire non-white people and let them tell their stories with specificity and authenticity. Even more powerful is what Handler does in the better moments of this fitfully compelling, occasionally infuriating series: She listens.

When Handler travels outside her own worldview and gets out of her own way, and uses her sharp comedic instincts to expose absurdity and hypocrisy, what “Chelsea Does” is sometimes worthwhile.

TV Review: 'Chelsea Does'

Documentary series; Netflix, Sat. Jan. 23

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  1. Erx says:

    Chelsea is not only racist,but also bigoted against Muslims. A typical islamaphobic borderline hateful hideous woman. She goes to Israel,yet not Palestine. The worst levels of racism in the world right now are that which is committed by israeli’s against Palestinians. Handler, who is Jewish (like many other bigots,ie: maher,Harris etc) is just a typically fashionable hate merchant – she goes where the hate blows.

  2. Lisa says:

    chelsea you are a sick twisted ugly bitch inside and out

  3. FerventFlinger says:

    what a horrible “talent” that only got a tv show out of nepotism. What’s netflix’s excuse? UGH.

  4. “However, by ceding the floor for long periods to everyone from Al Sharpton to Shimon Peres to Native American activists,” you couldn’t even name the Native Americans..?

  5. Rick says:

    I agree racism is wrong, but it is not something you can pin on any one ethnicity. It is high time someone highlighted the fact that racism is one thing all ethnicities have in common.

    Unfortunately Chelsea shows an immense amount of ignorance and bias in these documentaries.

  6. larale22 says:

    Great review – about time someone addresses the privileged laziness that keeps Chelsea from being a Lenny Bruce or a Bill Hicks or a George Carlin. She has the comic timing and no-one can take that away from her, but the pretense that she has any insight into what she is commenting on, enough to turn it into a mirror on society the way these other brilliant comedians were able to, is clueless at best, arrogant at worst. I used to like her, but after sitting through this self-indulgent, unfunny mess of poorly edited derivative television I have become very uninterested in watching her again. Maybe that is a blessing!

    • Rick says:

      Well said @larale22.

      I used to think she was funny, but these documentaries showed me she is anything but insightful. I guess it shows what you can do when you have money. Beware of shows starring, written by, and executive produced by the same person!

  7. Manon Farmer says:

    “”A museum guide tells her that 20 million people died in the slave trade, and a silent Handler looks shocked to her core”” Really! that’s good ! about time she may understand Jews do NOT have the exclusivity of martyrdom : In Canada way more than ”6 million” were wiped off their territory just to name my own Country, ,but as we all know, the list goes on and on with real genocides

  8. Terrible review.

    Chelsea Does It is raw and real and honest. The race episode is really insightful.

    Give this show a chance if you like documentaries and in depth discussions about uncomfortable topics.

    Promote education. Share with your (age appropriate) students.

    • As an educator and someone who enjoys asking uncomfortable questions, being intentionally disruptive, and shifting consciousness through humor…because some of us choose to… I think this show is intentionally not meant to be for everyone.

      For the worldly curious who appreciate the use of humor to expose dark subjects, “Chelsea does” a great job of showing multiple sometimes ubsurd / sometimes serious views of the same subject. I appreciate how and when she listens. She even shares her father’s views as part of the show and takes time to explain to him how his views, while she was growing up, contributed to her own views of herself and others as an adult.

      I also plan on showing this to age appropriate students.

  9. Mark Romero says:

    I think Ryan misses the point. Chelsea Does was purposefully not created in a traditional documentary style and shouldn’t be criticized for not mapping as one. It’s Handler exploring these topics from her unique personal perspective which, like all of us, is laden with emotions, flaws, misconceptions and poignant accuracies. You’d think the fact that Handler incorporates a shrink into all of this was a dead giveaway for Ryan. I guess we all are flawed.

  10. Adisa Ayo says:

    the first episode begins with a very staged dinner party scene which is meant to be awkward. It the goes into a fake scene where Chelsea is talking to a bunch of school children about being her being single. By this point my blood had reached boiling point and I wanted to throw my romote at the scene.

    Really awful stuff.

    • Manon Farmer says:

      I agree with you Adisa Ayo. Her ”humor” does not dupe anyone : at its best it may have a legitimate cynical stance, but after a while it’s easy to see a scared and = insecure= , THUS very arrogant neurotic jewish girl, trying to be witty by being agressive, obnoxious, and mostly vulgar . She said ”back off, you’re so agressive” to Steven Colbert who was in no way agressive; =clearly a projection= of how she ‘IS herself, and was with her guests on Chelsea Lately

  11. I found the show fresh and original. She’s not a hard-hitting journalist. She’s a comedian delving into some big subjects and she only has an hour. You sound as if you are expecting Chelsea to be more like a 60 Minutes reporter. If I want that, I’ll watch 60 Minutes. LIghten up.

  12. Jesse says:

    This reviewer didn’t even watch this. Her references are as though she watched clips. Her timeline of things doesn’t match up to the actual documentary.

  13. Jody says:

    Maybe you should have watched more closely. She was in AL not South Carolina when she spoke with the civil war reenactors. Super accurate reporting! Idiot.

  14. Ryan S. says:

    My girlfriend and I got 20 minutes into the first episode before we turned it off. Hot, boring garbage. It made me question why I follow Chelsea on Twitter and Facebook. Sure, I like the occasional topless shot on twitter as much as the next guy, but most of it is pics of her dogs with nothing funny, so I unfollowed her on Twitter and Facebook now. It’s not me, Chelseas, it really is you. It was fun while it lasted it. I wish you well in future endeavors.

  15. empicard says:

    I’m working on my own blog post on why I don’t like this series. This review encapsulates everything that I wanted to say about it.

  16. EllenF says:

    Nine people were murdered in the Charlestown shooting, not eight.

  17. Thomas says:

    The review aside, the documentary is boring. Look at it this way, if you clipped each scene into a short youtube video, would they get any views? No. Would a single one go viral for humor or because it’s educational or provokes emotion? No. Even the shortened videos would not be funny, enlightening, or heartfelt. I like her on her show and I like her. But she should stop doing this.

  18. terry levine says:

    The show is not funny. In fact it is painful to watch

  19. Chelsea handles it like Chelsea. Deadpan wit is her humor…naturally she looks unaffected, she is a commentator. The entire thing is heartfelt schtick. It was brilliant. And as someone who is in the wedding industry, her wedding episode was SPOT ON. The glaring light on the absurdity of the industry was stark and direct. She rocked this series.

  20. I agree that self reflection and discovery was missing in a lot of the show. I feel like it was definitely supposed to be documentaries following her self journey but she didn’t seem to really learn a lot in any of it. I think Racism would have gone better if Handler and the audience were informed about how African Americans got to this point. Al Sharpton got into a little bit but I find that a lot of people’s misconceptions of racism and black people is because they don’t know how much of an effect slavery had, that America prevented black people from getting rid of the effects, and all the things after slavery that kept black people from being socially and finically equal to white people. Truth is most people think black people have all these problems because they are lazy and dumb but if you read some history books besides the one’s used in high schools you quickly realize black people has these problems because America wants them to.

  21. Melissa says:

    This series is exactly the way I thought Chelsea would handle it. It is Chelsea approaching these topics. She isn’t Colbert with a regular/stage personality. I am not usually a fan of her talk shows but i don’t mind her stand up. I found this series very entertaining and interesting. I also appreciate it that she doesn’t come at the this with 2 ivy league degrees. She comes at it with a normal human perspective. If you replaced Chelsea with anyone else in the world you would have the same amount of criticism. No one wins when they engage in these conversations. She is funny, she is herself, she had interesting guests, and she gets some interesting quotes. I am interested in seeing her new show.

  22. Lucia says:

    Agree with Ms. Ryan’s review. Chelsea does better when she listens. Or at best, a bit of real self-analysis combined with her humor would have benefitted the series, particularly in the episode on racism. I’m a fan of hers, but she only managed to come off as vapid and arrogant, when she’s always managed to excel in confidence and wit. Unfortunate.

  23. Rosie says:

    I’ve only seen 2 episodes so far and they play for me like a research paper. Chelsea is a comedian and thankfully this writer gets her. Clearly you didn’t and while i appreciate everyone is entitled to their opinion, so far I found this new show entertaining and even informative – like how regular people engage and talk. I’ve loved Chelsea since I heard her say “shidoobee” over 10 years ago as a correspondent on E! She seems to tackle these subjects with honesty and give it her entertaining zing as well. OK, no Pulitzer in her future but I predict an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 2016. Pretty harsh indeed.

  24. Geez, pretty harsh. I’m not a big fan of Handler, and I agree that it can be grating to watch a group of privileged celebrities sit around sipping wine and passing judgment on other people. However, I think she deserves credit for even tackling such a volatile issue as race, and I found a lot of the interviews quite enlightening (I only had time to watch the racism episode). Handler is no saint, but I really didn’t see “image management” as the main focus — at least not in the episode I watched.

  25. Sean says:

    Your moronic review is the reason comedians like Chelsea should keep making shows like this. You miss the point entirely, along with the woman from the anti-defamation league in episode 3. Shows like this aren’t meant for people like you that can’t take a moment to appreciate the creativity of a wildly intelligent mind, and the comedy that so delightfully ensues. Your narrow-minded subjectivity clearly blocks you from appreciating the comedic quality of the production and leaves your review empty, dancing with vivid words lacking any meaning at all. Stick to presidential debates or CBS afternoon soaps or whatever you review, because this definitely isn’t your venue.

  26. James says:

    I could have done without all the politically correct moralizing in this article. Perhaps this review would have been better served by having it be done by someone with more experience dealing with the comedic world. Nothing is more dangerous to the art of comedy than taking this or that subject and attempting to forbid people from joking about it.

    • unicornsandhearts says:

      yep, the only time I cringed was the horrible round table with Khloe and Leah defending that 3rd graders should get cell phones. The rest of the docu-series was brilliant.

    • Tim says:

      I agree with you. This “review” only served to show the authors own political opinion. It was hardly a review of the show itself.

  27. Demi Moron says:

    Chelsea should have married a BLACK MAN like that Kendra! : P Now she does a doc-u-series… about what??? Herself?? GET OUT OF HERE!

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