The answer to the implied question in the title of NBC's new series, "Are You There, Chelsea?," would be a yes.Chelsea Handler's certainly there - it's just that she's distractingly styled as a brunette so she can portray her conservative sister, Sloane, and executive producing a series that thus far isn't trading in on her successful brand of humor.
"Are You There, Chelsea?" is based on Handler's popular books (with the title riffing off of "Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea"), and "That '70s Show's" Laura Prepon in the lead as a 20-something, unknown version of the now famous E! personality.
Wednesday night's pilot set us up with everything we'd need to know, not without help from a convenient voice-over:
Prepon's Chelsea is a lush of a sports bar waitress who can power slurp the worm out of a high-end tequila (which lands her in jail with a DUI); has an endless supply of terms to supplant "vagina" (such as "Pikachu"); and has taken a Marine to bed on Veteran's Day intending to be patriotic.
Viewers spent the first episode watching fictional Chelsea get bailed out of jail by a very irritated, very pregnant Sloane and become the roommate of the adorably weird Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), who is actually one of the more enjoyable characters.
Chelsea trades a few jokes with her dad, Melvin (Lenny Clarke), almost beds a ginger and bickers with her sister Sloane, only to hug and make up at her bedside after Sloane gives birth. (This is a sitcom, after all.)
The fictional, younger Chelsea Handler is pretty much exactly how you'd envision the actual Chelsea to behave. In theory, this isn't a bad idea. A half-hour comedy based on Chelsea Handler's bawdy humor could work, especially considering that while the comedian has her detractors, she has just as many fans. But what NBC has presented so far isn't quite the way to go about it.
Critics point to some problems with the pilot: For starters, having the real Chelsea Handler in the cast, but not playing herself. As HitFix notes, "Handler's on-camera presence just undercuts [Prepon]...any time Prepon is making any headway towards making the character her own, Handler turns to remind you what the real Chelsea looks and sounds like."
Secondly, it doesn't add anything new to the Chelsea Handler we've come to know - and if anything, "Are You There, Chelsea?" simply waters down that persona.
The New York Daily News critiques that while the writers use "the same jokes that have propelled Handler to four best-selling books and a thriving standup comedy career...on TV they need to add up to something more."
And lastly, a number of critics were unimpressed to the slap-dash presentation of the pilot. As the A.V. Club puts it, "the whole thing plays like somebody read one of Handler’s books and highlighted a bunch of stuff that just had to be in a TV show, without really considering if all of those things would work together in the same space."
Rounding out the cast is Jake McDorman as the potential love interest, bartender Rick (we learn in the pilot that they haven't hooked up because they both like to be on top), and fictional Chelsea's journalist-in-training friend Olivia (Ali Wong).
Did you catch the series premiere of "Are You There, Chelsea?" If so, what'd you think?