We’ve had late-night talk shows that mock, satirize, and tell. We’ve had late-night talk shows that opine and even teach. Chelsea Handler’s new Netflix talk show, Chelsea, sure does all that. But it does something that it sets it apart from the crowded field of colleagues and competitors. It questions.
Launching with three episodes every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday this week, and continuing with that schedule, Chelsea is Netflix’s first late-night talk show—or talk show of the late-night variety.
There are many who have been perplexed by the idea of a regular talk show on a streaming service, where there are no schedules or time slots and shows are meant to be binged en masse, and how that would work. Truthfully, though, it’s possibly the first programming of a talk show that understands how we’ve begun largely consuming the genre these last years—which is whenever the hell we want, typically online, and definitely not live.
The onus on these shows, and you’ve seen it in their escalating attempts at stunts and celebrity-driven viral bits, is to create content that you’d want to seek out or happily stumble upon after its late-night airing. Handler, who had previously spent seven seasons roasting the most vapid celebrities and their inane hijinks on the E! Channel, is betting on that content being chiefly her: her education.
An extension of her Netflix documentary series Chelsea Does, her Handler-esque interpretation of Anthony Bourdain or Morgan Spurlock’s style of cultural anthropology by way of personal exploration, Handler calls Chelsea both “the exact kind of show that I always wanted to do” and “the college education I never got.”
The structure of the first show reflects that, with Handler swapping out the typical monologue for what she calls an explanation—for what this show is—and also a bit of a middle finger: “I know this seems like a monologue, but this is not a monologue. This is an explanation. If you don’t know the difference, you can walk out or log off or fuck off or whatever.
Then: “I’m a late-night television host that doesn’t want to be tied down by time or television or hosting even.”
Handler has been nothing if not vocal of her desire for Chelsea to not resemble, in any form, the paint-by-numbers talk show.
Lately the biggest move of radicalism in late-night seems to be whether you sit at a desk and for how long. Handler confronts and dismisses that notion early on, both sitting at a desk and clarifying that it’s simply metaphorical. Chelsea is her education, she’s a student, and this is her desk. “And Netflix is giving me a full ride.”
From the desk she continues to explain how her show will be different. She will be traveling the world to ask real people questions about the issues big, small, serious, and silly facing them. She’ll have celebrity friends and comedians on, for no greater reason than she likes them and wants to bounce what she’s learning off them, and she’ll have experts and everyday people on to supplement her education.
To that end, the first episode of Chelsea featured interviews with U.S. Secretary of Education John King (to discuss the importance of education), rapper Pitbull (who is opening a charter school), and Drew Barrymore (to compare notes as two successful women who did not go to college).
As much as all of this seems like a vanity project—which, make no mistake, it most certainly is—it’s also a refreshing, unfiltered, and unusual perspective for a show that seeks to tackle issues with more gravity than Kim Kardashian’s Instagram controversies.
Late-night hosts tend to either talk down to their audiences or talk up their intelligence, even if from a place of comedy. The best of the bunch, like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, talk through these issues from a place of comedy. Handler is doing that, too, but less from the mad-as-hell attack point and more from the curious baseline that, honestly, most of us exist at.
She’s referred to her time on E! as “seven years of ridiculous stupidity.” Here she’s trying to remedy that.
“I’m not afraid to express my opinion no matter how ill-informed they may be,” she says. “I think people are afraid to ask too many questions because they are afraid of appearing stupid. I’m not afraid of being stupid.” After all, recognizing and addressing your own stupidity is the only way to get smarter.
And so the first episode of Chelsea really was like the first day of school. It was exciting—another woman in “late-night,” whatever that means!—and nerve-wracking—what will this show be and will Handler pull it off? It was overstuffed with awkward introductions and anxiety over first impressions, and because of that sometimes a little boring.
Also, as anyone recalls from their first days of school, you don’t actually learn anything. That’s certainly true of Chelsea, too. The premiere is often very fun, especially when Handler’s eye-roll-driven plain-talking sense of humor slips in off the cuff. (At one point she laughs directly into Pitbull’s face.) But it didn’t probe in the way we’ve been sold, and still expect from future episodes.
The signs of promise come in the next episode, which features one of the fish-out-of-water field segments that made Chelsea Does such a captivating series. This one is slighter than some of the topics she tackled in the documentary series—acting on a telenovela—but has Handler in her element: asking questions, pushing buttons, and exposing realities through her signature needling and Teflon armor of, at least seemingly, not caring how people will think or react to her.
It also features an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow about her GOOP sex issue, which is far more entertaining of an interview space for Handler, especially when compared to the premiere’s weightless conversation with Barrymore. (Though that did have the semi-juicy benefit of Barrymore addressing her divorce in her typically charming and honest way.)
Typically late-night talk shows, like this one, don’t find a groove or sense of identity at least until a week of episodes airs, and usually not for months or even years. Hell, Chelsea Lately took probably two seasons to settle into the brand that made Handler into the polarizing star we all love or hate—which is certainly a more interesting place to be than a guy in a suit who smiles and sweats until everyone likes them.
We’ve been promised that Handler has traveled extensively to shoot provocative segments for Chelsea around the world and with incredibly interesting people. When more of them factor into the show and the on-set segments settle into themselves, we’ll have a better sense of what this show will be.
On the topic of education: Even launching a talk show, and even be someone as seasoned as Handler, requires a learning curve.