‘Chelsea’ is Here, With Vodka

2011 marked the arrival of women in mainstream comedy. Past funny females like Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers stayed in the realm of stand-up comedy, and their ventures into television went no further than cable shows. The box office success of last year’s “Bridesmaids” put women on the map in the comedy world. Shows like Zooey Deschanel’s “New Girl,” as well as Whitney Cummings-produced comedies “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney,” came shortly after and changed the face of network television. Now, it’s Chelsea Handler’s turn.

Following the success of her E! programs, Handler brings her brand of comedy to NBC in her new show, “Are You There, Chelsea?” Based on the best-selling book “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” the show centers on the title character, Chelsea Newman (Laura Prepon): a tall, blond, promiscuous, booze-loving bar waitress who moves into an apartment that’s walking-distance from her work to prevent getting a(nother) DUI. Handler herself appears as Sloan, Chelsea’s preachy yet sharp-witted older sister.

In the pilot episode, Chelsea and her sassy best friend/coworker Olivia (Ali Wong) move in with Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), a kooky but lovable virgin. Fans of Handler’s comedy would expect a clash between these characters, considering the contrast of their sexual experience. Surprisingly, the girls are more observant of each other than they are judgmental, and their dynamic is fun to watch. Although each of the girls runs dangerously close to becoming a stereotype (Korean roommate Olivia complains that her parents’ house “always smells like kimchi”), the jokes stray away from the offensive, and the characters provide a solid sense of diversity and light-hearted humor.

There are a few problems evident in the pilot. For one, Prepon’s interpretation of the Chelsea character comes off as a half-hearted impression of Handler rather than a commitment to her lines — it doesn’t work out so well, since the actresses have different senses of comedic timing. Another problem is the distraction that comes with having Handler play a character that isn’t herself. She does a great job delivering one-liners as Sloan, but underneath the dark brown wig, it’s still the undeniable presence of Chelsea Handler. The most glaring problem is the over-the-top eccentric behavior of Dee Dee. Her wide-eyed goofiness and naïve innocence come off as unbelievable in a show where she’s surrounded by realistic characters who deliver lines with deadpan sarcasm.

Believe it or not, these problems are virtually gone by the third episode. Prepon has abandoned her Handler impersonation and hit her stride, bringing her own comic presence to the show. Handler’s Sloan is no longer a distraction, but rather an asset. Those who tune in to the show expecting Handler’s signature dry humor will not exactly find it in Prepon’s Chelsea, but they’ll get their fix from Sloan’s one-liners and quick quips. The character of Dee Dee still sticks out like a sore thumb, but she’s self-aware and it works.

With sharp writing and a cast of charismatic characters, the show promises a laugh for everyone.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5