January 13, 2012

TV: Are You There, Chelsea? (NBC, Tue 8:30)

This is another in this year's wave of comedies that claim to be edgy because the people being vulgar in them are women (see also 2 Broke Girls, Bridesmaids, Whitney...), this one based on the comic essays/memoirs of Chelsea Handler. The title is a dumbed-down for TV dilution of Handler's book title Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea.

Laura Prepon plays Chelsea, who waits tables at a New York bar, drinks a lot, has a lot of sex, and talks a lot about drinking and having sex. Prepon is a likable actress, maybe even too likable for this part; her version of Chelsea is a little too sunny and not quite as cynical as the show wants her to be.

The supporting cast features Chelsea's best friend (Ali Wong), who is supposedly extra funny because she's a vulgar Asian woman; the hunky bartender (Jake McDorman); the little person barback (Mark Povinelli) -- little people are apparently a comic fixation for Handler -- and her father (longtime sitcom veteran Lenny Clarke, who deserves better than this). Each of those characters has precisely one character trait -- Asian, hunk, short, dad. Even for the first episode of a sitcom, they're thinly written.

Chelsea's sister, Sloane, will also make occasional appearances; she is, confusingly enough, played by the real Chelsea Handler, wearing a brunette wig and doing a bad Parker Posey impression.

The show's best character is Chelsea's new roommate, Dee Dee, played by Lauren Lapkus with a lively, weird spin on the Phoebe Buffay "is she crazy or just stupid?" type. Dee Dee is a virgin, and it's interesting that neither she nor Chelsea appears to be particularly judgmental about the other's lifestyle; slightly puzzled, perhaps, but ultimately just writing it off to different people making different choices.

There is an occasional good joke here, most of them so far for Dee Dee, and though their characters are underwritten, I think most of the supporting cast has the potential to be interesting. If the writers can flesh out the characters and find the right comic wavelength for the non-Dee Dee cast members, this could become something interesting. It's never going to be sophisticated humor, and a certain number of the jokes are always going to be built around how many euphemisms Chelsea can find for her vagina, but there is -- maybe -- some potential.

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