All four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
“I’m just trying to understand why people do this,” former late-night star slash no-filter comedian Chelsea Handler admits to a group of her friends all discussing the necessity – or lack thereof – of marriage. It’s this simple, pure motivation for answers and discovery that runs through all four episodes of Handler’s new “docu-series” Chelsea Does (in order of intended viewing: Marriage, Racism, Silicon Valley, and Drugs). The topics may be cherry-picked for the expected shock value that Handler is known for, but the cool thing about Chelsea Does is that anything that’s truly jaw-dropping doesn’t come out of her mouth, but the mouths of some of the people she interviews in the course of learning more about everything from BDSM to the “truth” behind the Confederate cause in the Civil War.
That probably doesn’t exactly sound like her usual wheelhouse if you’ve seen an episode of Chelsea Lately or two, but her going off the air last year feels like the right lead-up to Netflix’s new show. It gave us time to miss her, and as such now presents her as less of a television personality and more of her curious, if brash, self. There’s endless fun to be had here watching Handler, and an occasional pal or two, wade her way through uncharted waters on a journey towards… something. She’s as unsure as the viewer is on what she expects to find or discover or divinely realize about each topic presented in one-hour episodes, but the fact that she’s willing to try results in endearing (and yes, totally bingeable) television. The likes of which has more than a few moments of unexpected emotional clarity that may catch you unawares. I know it did me.
The show uses a dinner table setting with Handler and a couple of her comedian/actor friends as an intercut home base throughout each hour, letting them discuss the framework topic on hand before relinquishing the comedian into the world. As the first subject delved into, Marriage starts Chelsea Does off on the best possible foot. While it’s easy to pre-judge the topic as “less shocking” than the others (well, okay, besides Silicon Valley), there’s something subversive about the angle Handler is coming from that makes it a fascinating watch. Here’s her, for example, talking to the camera about a polyamorous, happily married, BDSM-loving throuple: “I mean, I don’t want anything bad to ever happen to them. I just don’t ever want to see them again.”
She doesn’t get it, never has in the past, and has repeatedly faced troubled waters in relationships because of it. When one of her exes, a British guy named Peter, shows up with her to talk about the pair’s romance (she refers to him as her “first love”), there’s a crackling truth that emerges from beneath the surface of the series while they have their those-were-the-days conversation. It slowly, possibly, maybe, shows the first glimpses at revealing to the audience, and Chelsea, the answers they’re looking for. She realizes, as Peter talks, that he remembers watching her hold babies when they were together, wasn’t aware he was observing her, reading her body language, knowledgable of something she said she doesn’t want – a child – more than she potentially ever will be.
“You want someone who cares about where you are and if you made it home,” she admits bluntly to the camera after talking with Peter. “And penetration. I would like to be penetrated.” Chelsea Does, thankfully, does indeed get to have it both ways, eking out deep meaning from simple observations in one instance and providing a gut-busting one-liner the next. We all knew Handler could do the latter, she’s made a living out of it after all, but it’s the slow discovery of her earnestness for the former that fuels Chelsea Does with an uncommonly affecting light.