Kelso, I don’t think we’re in Wisconsin anymore. Instead, welcome to New Jersey, where a post-“That ‘70s Show” Laura Prepon is a drunken inmate of the local jail, praying to the vodka gods and planting desperate smooches on a lonely Dot Marie Jones (“Glee”). NBC’s adaptation of the shameless tales told in best-seller “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” is disappointingly watered-down. It lacks the raunchy charm of the drunken ringleader, comedian, late-night talk show host and author Chelsea Handler.
“Are You There, Chelsea?”
Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.
Bar waitress and proud recipient of a recent DUI, Chelsea Newman (Prepon) has a lot on her plate — er, in her shot glass. Without a car, apartment or boyfriend, she’s living the 20-something-year-old’s dream. When handsome-but-sexually-incompatible (he always likes to be on top!) co-worker Rick (Jake McDorman, “Live Free or Die Hard”) suggests an apartment one block away from her workplace, Chelsea is introduced to the pilot episode’s first crisis: a strange roommate. Soon follows a romp with her first “ginger” — who makes up for his lack of a soul with the fiery-haired “clown in a leg lock” between his thighs — and the frenzied birth of her niece. By the end of the episode, the vodka gods must have been feeling generous (or at least a little tipsy), as Chelsea’s prayers are answered at long last, and the chaos settles into a … slightly less chaotic impromptu dance party.
Handler’s popularity in her late-night antics on The E! Network and the hilariously shameless essays of re-gifting and dry-humping in her novel produce expectations far too high for NBC to meet. Her apathetic, dry humor is absent from the script, replaced by such mediocre jokes as a dated reference to the Jonas Brothers’ virginity (what is this, 2008?) and a less-than-clever poke at her date’s “horrible clown hair.”
Handler’s large personality makes it difficult for Prepon to appeal to the audience, since only a true connoisseur of the bedroom arts could provide the authenticity needed for such a role. While Prepon nails the comedian’s low, raspy voice, her delivery is sleepy and lacks the grit of the wonderfully vulgar Handler. Prepon demonstrates little variety in her facial expressions — a tragic mistake, considering the subtle grimaces and twitches are half of Handler’s appeal. Displaying only small flashes of her namesake in stifled laughs, mocking glances and the naming of her cat, “Ass Face,” Prepon may read the lines of a classic Chelsea Handler, but never truly adopts the cynical persona.
It’s possible that Prepon may have been a more successful Chelsea had the real one not been cast as her pregnant sister Sloane. Handler delivers her performance with sharp glares and stone-faced one-liners, creating a character far more “Chelsea” than that of Prepon — because she is Chelsea, after all. She sputters head-shaking, long-winded comments as if she’s forcing out Sloane’s baby with each joke. Constantly teetering between serious sentiment, underlying mockery and self-deprecation, Handler provides doses of authentic humor in her few scenes as the maternal sibling.
That was the Chelsea Handler the audience imagined when flipping through pages of chronicled bed adventures and drunken forays into the pants of a redhead named Jonathan. Prepon may loosen up as the season continues (with a few more drinks, of course), but until then, there’s no better “Chelsea” than the original.