One thing sets “Chelsea” apart right off the bat: Chelsea Handler, whose new Netflix show debuted Wednesday, is one of the few women in late-night comedy. Like Samantha Bee, whose “Full Frontal” has already gained a loyal following, Handler’s show won’t air four or five nights a week: Three will be her limit.
Of course, it’d be possible to have a hair-splitting debate about whether “Chelsea” belongs in the “late-night” discussion at all. Her program will arrive Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at midnight Pacific Time, but the chat show is a worldwide property for Netflix, so each episode will be released simultaneously in every country in which the company operates. That said, even if new episodes turn up in Australia in the late afternoon, “Chelsea” still has enough of the hallmarks of a late-night show to be judged on those merits.
Handler does try, here and there, to change up the format a little. Like a few other hosts in late-night, she mostly avoids a desk, preferring to sit most of the time in a circular array of couches with her guests. And though the first two episodes have the usual quotient of celebrity interviews — Handler’s pal Gwyneth Paltrow stops by to hawk the creams she sells on her lifestyle site — the former “Chelsea Lately” host also talked to education secretary John B. King and Chris Anderson, one of the brains behind TED Talks.
From Anderson, Handler learned that people can only pay attention to presentations that only last around 15 or 20 minutes, and she told him that in pursuit of brevity, episodes of her show will clock in at 30 minutes. That’s not quite accurate, however. Like many Netflix shows, “Chelsea” suffers from what I’ve come to call streaming drift: The first episode runs more than 37 minutes and the second one is 33 minutes long. Both contain quite a bit of mediocre or uninspired material that could have been cut.
The first episode contains a number of glorified ads for Netflix; the premise of one is that “Netflix University” can take the place of an expensive college education. It’s not much of a foundation to rest jokes on, and like a few other Netflix-oriented bits in these opening installments, it was stretched far past the point of its slight potential. So far, many of the show’s pre-taped segments come off like “Saturday Night Live” digital shorts that didn’t quite make the cut.
As she did in the frustratingly inconsistent “Chelsea Does” documentary series, Handler also leaves the studio in order to find opportunities to demonstrate her improvisational skills, but these efforts aren’t any more successful. For “Chelsea,” Handler traveled to Mexico to take telenovela acting classes, but the questionable “joke” revolved around Handler’s lack of Spanish fluency, and the premise got old well before the segment finally ended.
Handler’s monologues also felt strangely stiff. One of her dogs has free reign on her set, and the host looked relaxed when interacting with the pooch and when drinking wine with Drew Barrymore in her first episode. But much of the time when Handler talked directly to the camera, it felt strangely awkward, and the monologue material lacked any real bite.
Though guest Tony Hale had a movie and TV series to promote, at times, “Chelsea” interviews did take stabs at substance. At one point, Handler said she wanted her viewers to go on an educational journey with her (hence being quizzed by King on various bits of knowledge and trivia). Hale got to talk about work he’s done with an anti-slavery charity, and King and another guest, Pitbull, talked about the differences that good teachers can make in young lives (the pop star has helped establish a charter school in Miami).
Handler isn’t a particularly engaging interviewer, however; her curiosity has limits and most conversations eventually circle back to drugs, sex, alcohol and fame. Those topics can be enjoyable, of course, but on “Chelsea,” the interviews usually followed predictable patterns. Though Paltrow and Barrymore appeared thrilled to be hanging out with their good friend, those interactions tended to devolve into lovefests in which two rich and famous people lavishly complimented each other. The occasional raunchy joke wasn’t a sufficient distraction from the meandering superficiality of it all.
Paltrow’s ex-husband, Chris Martin of Coldplay, kicked off the debut episode by singing a song about the final episode of “Chelsea.” The joke was that he got confused about the nature of the event and was meant to perform a welcoming song, not a concluding dirge. Of course, it’s unlikely “Chelsea” will end any time soon, given the investment that has been made in the show and its host (Netflix has committed to at least 90 installments of “Chelsea”).
But unless it gets sharper and funnier or begins to offer something more than a puffy celebrity hang, it’s hard to make the case that it’s a necessary addition to the talk-show scene. Handler’s longtime fans may be willing to “Chelsea” and chill, but it’s difficult to see how this particular offering will expand that narrow base.