As a movie like “Bridesmaids” attests, being smutty and rude isn’t just for guys anymore, which informs the minor phenomenon — latenight talkshow, books and now an NBC sitcom derived from the latter — that is Chelsea Hand-ler. Still, “Are You There, Chelsea?” — which somewhat confusingly casts “That ’70s Show’s” Laura Prepon as a twentysomething Handler-inspired character, with the comic playing her “judge-y, super-Christian sister” — merely reinforces that if Handler’s an acquired taste, she’s also a pretty sour one. The protagonist prays to vodka, and only her loyal fans will likely survive the first two episodes without it.
Whether Handler’s hard-drinking, casual-screwing persona represents a sort of feminist progress — “I am under the influence, hear me roar (albeit to myself, in relentless first-person narration)” — will very likely be in the eye of the beholder. Her irreverence, however — as adapted by producers Julie Larson and Dottie Dartland Zicklin (“Dharma & Greg”) — merely comes across as grating, feeling less provocative than tedious.
Chelsea mockingly notes both God and vodka are “invisible and have a hand in unexplained pregnancies,” and when she sets her eye on a plush new apartment, she professes it gives her “lady wood.” Yet if a similar below-the-belt preoccupation has worked well enough for CBS’ “2 Broke Girls,” it’s hard to see NBC catching its own lightning in a bottle by pairing “Chelsea” with “Whitney.” To say the two seem compatible compliments neither.
As played by Prepon, Chelsea works at a sports bar with best pal Olivia (Ali Wong) and — after a DUI arrest — quickly finds a wide-eyed new roommate (Lauren Lapkus) who is saving herself for marriage. “You’re a virgin? Everywhere?” Olivia marvels.
Beyond her sister, Chelsea’s inner circle includes the handsome bartender (Jake McDorman) with whom she swaps insults and her dad (a wasted Lenny Clarke). The whole rhythm is such a stale set-up/joke formula, the sweetened laughs sound especially forced.
Prepon is mildly appealing, and Chelsea’s continuous adventures with booze and one-night stands ought to have some resonance with a young audience living the dream, as it were. That said, it’s an awfully thin construct, and either too FX in its tawdriness or, alternately, not HBO enough in its execution.
Even the title — as revised from Handler’s book “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” — becomes about as nonsensical as the rest of the show.
Personally, the one belly laugh inadvertently came when Olivia groans about having been “an idiot to major in journalism.” While that’s likely to resonate more with critics than ordinary viewers, after wading through two episodes, the lady — wood or not — has a point.