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TV Review: ‘Chelsea Does’

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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