It could become a keeper with less of the real Chelsea

The cast (from left): Jake McDorman, Lauren Lapkus, Mark Povinelli, Laura Prepon as Chelsea, Ali Wong, and Lenny Clark. Absent is Chelsea Handler, playing not herself but Chelsea's sister.
The cast (from left): Jake McDorman, Lauren Lapkus, Mark Povinelli, Laura Prepon as Chelsea, Ali Wong, and Lenny Clark. Absent is Chelsea Handler, playing not herself but Chelsea's sister. (ROBERT TRACHTENBERG / NBC)
Posted: January 10, 2012

The lewd leading lady in NBC's new sitcom, Are You There, Chelsea?, is the ultimate frat boy's fantasy: She's a hot young blonde who drinks way too much and has a weakness for recreational sex.

A character like that almost always ends up participating in her own messy, self-destructive tragedy.

But it is the unique gift of Chelsea Handler, the late-night TV host whose comic memoirs inspired this series, to make a dissolute lifestyle look like remarkably breezy fun.

In the pilot, after incurring a DUI, Chelsea is convinced she has solved all her problems by finding an apartment within easy walking distance of her favorite watering hole.

As played by Laura Prepon, Chelsea is a bed-hopping cocktail waitress at a sports bar in New Jersey with one of the nimblest senses of humor on TV. She's like Kat Denning's Max on 2 Broke Girls - if, that is, Max were a nympho lush.

But Chelsea's aggressive this-is-who-I-am, like-it-or lump-it stance can be traced back to earlier sitcom spitfires, such as Roseanne Barr and Brett Butler.

While the show is crude and crammed with locker-room language, it's also quippy and quick in a way that makes for a very satisfying half-hour.

The biggest problem Are You There, Chelsea? has is too much Chelsea - the real one. Handler has a heavy hands-on role as the show's executive producer.

She also dons a thrift-shop wig to play Sloane, Chelsea's older sister. Sloane is supposed to be a born-again do-gooder, but Handler gives her some of the most caustic lines in the script.

Sloane is pregnant in Wednesday's debut. An episode some weeks from now begins with the new mom meeting her sister at the movies.

"I can't believe I'm out without the baby," she says, dabbing an eye. "Oh, Sloane! You miss her?" asks Chelsea. "God no! These are tears of joy. I'm just so happy no one here is going to be attacking my nipples."

Where does this woman worship?

Prepon, like Ashton Kutcher a veteran of That '70s Show, is delightful as Chelsea, but the presence of Handler on the set seems almost palpably to intimidate her.

Small wonder. Squinting her eyes, Handler delivers her gags with a spitty Joan Rivers snarl. Very witchy. You get a strong "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the funniest of them all" vibe from Handler when she's in scenes with Prepon.

The supporting cast is variable. The best are Lenny Clarke (Rescue Me) as Chelsea's dirtbag dad and Lauren Lapkus as her eccentrically innocent roommate.

In the early going, Are You There, Chelsea? is often hit-or-miss and stumbles into artificiality at times, but it has all the makings of a really entertaining sitcom.

It's already quite funny, and the atmosphere will loosen up once Handler retracts her claws a little bit. But don't hold your breath.


Contact television writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or @daveondemand_tv on Twitter. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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