Chelsea Handler and I go way back. In seventh grade I watched “Chelsea Lately” on DVR when I got home from school because I wasn’t allowed to stay up until 11:30 p.m. to watch it. (I was allowed to hear pikachu and blowjob jokes at the age of 13, but that’s a different point.) Her reign as E!’s late night trailblazer fizzled as she grew visibly bored with the program’s shallow perspective. That was in 2014.
After a year and a half of lying relatively low — topless Instagrams notwithstanding — Chelsea Handler has returned to television in a four-part docu-series called “Chelsea Does.” Over the course of four and a half hours, Handler, flanked by a therapist, comedian/celebrity friends, experts and children, learns about marriage, technology, racism and drugs, producing what is undoubtedly the best work she has put out since her second collection of essays “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” in 2008.
Chelsea Does Marriage: The first episode of the series is the least captivating, but from the wedding cake opening sequence onward, it lacks the flashy “pop” culture feel of Chelsea’s E! programming — a welcome surprise. Chelsea navigates all facets of the institution: discussing marriage over dinner with married friends, helping officiate a wedding at the famous little white chapel, and, the highlight, bantering over lunch with her siblings and father. When the children ask Chelsea’s father if his late wife, Rita, was the love of his life, he hilariously says, “I don’t know.”
The episode strikes a smart balance, contrasting genuine moments of intimacy and insightful thoughts on marriage with Chelsea’s sharply expressed critiques of marriage. She wishes a soon-to-be bride a “happy wedding, marriage and divorce” and expresses her annoyance with the girls at a bachelorette party. There’s also a cringe-worthy section featuring Ashley Madison’s co-founders.
Chelsea Does Silicon Valley: From the get-go, “Silicon Valley” tops its predecessor. Khloe Kardashian, Guy Branham, BFF Mary McCormack and Leah Remini center in the show’s in-between skit dialogues at Chelsea’s kitchen tables, all of their phones collected in a fishbowl. The plot centers around Handler’s hilarious, kryptonic relationship with technology.
She unsuccessfully operates copious amounts of technology, sitting on a bidet with her pants on (“If you have that much stuck in there, you should probably just take a fucking shower, no?”), briefly taking an elementary coding class and pitching a cool app called “Gotta Go,” which is actually available on the real-life app store. There’s ample time of Handler mindlessly wandering around tech buildings and furiously attempting to work with all the advancements in Silicon (apparently not pronounced the same way as silicone in implants) Valley. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch Handler scream at an Xbox.
Chelsea Does Racism: I have to admit, I watched this episode last because I had the lowest expectations for it. While I do find Handler extremely funny and relatable, sometimes she makes racial remarks that make me wince. But any tension was eased in the first segment as Chelsea discusses the topic with fellow comedians, including Margaret Cho. The topic is explored honestly and from a place of learning — a theme pervasive throughout the entire series.
Chelsea comments on political correctness as “the handicap of any honest conversation.” For the first time, she elaborates on her thought process behind racial jokes, first by explaining that she jokes about every race (not singling out one) and then by explaining how making jokes about race illuminates its absurdity.
The show’s intellectual views come to a climax when Chelsea sits with members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Anti-Defamation League, National Spanish Media Coalition, American Indians in Film and Television, Media Action Network for Asian Americans and Council on American-Islamic Relations. Unsurprisingly, they find her outrageous. They discuss her E! “side-dick,” Hispanic dwarf Chuy, Hitler jokes and excessive hate on Angelina Jolie’s son Pax. Chelsea says, “I would say I’d write him an apology letter, but I won’t.”
And Loni Love is a pure delight throughout the episode — often literally taking the wheel, driving around in Chelsea’s Bentley, and also majorly contributing to the episode’s comedic strength. The show’s most peculiar moment comes when Chelsea discloses to Dr. Olson, “I buy a lot of people cars when I feel racist.”
Chelsea Does Drugs: If the title didn’t make it obvious, “Chelsea Does Drugs” boasts more hilarity than its counterparts. Who knew Chelsea was so into drugs? I knew she loved her vodka and occasional sleeping pills, but throughout the final episode she consumes a several course weed-infused meal with friends, adderall, caffeine, sleeping pills, alcohol and finally a trip to Peru to take Ayahuasca, a.k.a. DMT — the “God Drug” — which promises life changing revelations.
She reminisces about taking LSD the same day as her SAT’s, kissing her friend’s ear while rolling on molly and a coke habit during her waitressing years. As a creative person, she thinks drugs “are good for the imagination and good for the thought process.” The funniest toker talk moment comes when her friends reveal an intervention almost happened a few years prior. The punch line hits a sweet spot: “Isn’t the person with the problem the last to know?”
It isn’t all high times, though. After the evening of sleeping pills and martinis, she draws a rather ill-conceived family picture, on which there is an arrow pointing off the page. The next morning, without remembering drawing it, she realizes the arrow represents her dead brother and says with an innocent giggle, “That’s so fucked up.” Moreover, she interviews two addicts, one to cocaine and one to painkillers, who detail their experiences with rehab and sobriety, giving the episode a stronger base.
She also smokes weed with Willie Nelson in his RV. His braids are amazing.
The Ayahuasca segment is the most intriguing of the entire series — a grand finale. Chelsea feels only a slight “buzz,” while her friend Jenny is “fucked up.” Chelsea lies next to her while Dan sits still on his mat “in outer space.” The second evening, Chelsea takes a larger dose alone with a shaman and a translator. During flashbacks to her childhood home on Martha’s Vineyard, she smiles and gasps, and tears stream down her face.
“Chelsea Does” succeeds in meshing “reality” television and documentary filmmaking by capitalizing on the beloved American tradition of watching stupid people do stupid things on camera for the masses (i.e. MTV, Spike, “Cops,” Tila Tequila etc.), but it also manages to flip the intellectual scale. Instead, the audience gets to see someone who, despite the opinion of some, is an intelligent, very realistic person. Through Handler’s frankness, curiosity, helpful friends and overall commitment to overcoming all the bullshit surrounding marriage, technology, racism and drugs, there’s a fresh uniqueness to the sometimes hilarious, sometimes absurd and more often than not, intelligent discourse on the topics explored.