REVIEW: Chelsea Handler does documentary like a stone cold pro in Netflix’s ‘Chelsea Does’
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Chelsea Handler and her insistence on shunning the virtues of tact and political correctness. Nevertheless, something about the promos for Handler’s latest documentary series made me stop and listen. The queen of crass showing some heart when tackling ‘big topics’ like racism and the war on drugs? Finally, the Chelsea Lately host had grabbed my attention. And thank goodness she did, as Chelsea Does is probably my favourite documentary series since Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends.
Exploring subjects of ‘personal and universal curiosity’, the woman whom I had once dismissed as too sarcastic and too unsympathetic reveals herself as smart, sensitive, and even able to profoundly move people in Chelsea Does. She is also very, very damn funny. Sure, we don’t learn anything that’s really ‘new’ in her features on marriage, racism, Silicon Valley and drugs respectively, although we certainly like seeing discourses of this nature being broadcast to what’s sure to be a huge international audience. What we really gain from the series is a newfound appreciation of our host, and her ability to verbalise what we’re all thinking in a way that’s enviably witty, considered and concise.
In just four episodes of this ingenious show, which benefits greatly from its skilful direction by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Eddie Schmidt, I’ve been well and truly converted into a Handler devotee. Here’s how Chelsea does it:
Part 1: Chelsea Does… Marriage
The main thing to take away from “Chelsea Does… Marriage” is that it’s documentary done on a very personal level. Like each successive episode, it takes off from a dinner party situation where Handler sits with a handful of her famous friends, chatting about the topic of the hour in a swanky restaurant; very à la Master of None.
In these interludes, and the conversations we see between Chelsea and her father and siblings, we at home feel personally involved in the discourse. Why won’t someone propose to Chelsea, already? She’s such a catch! Does she even want to get married? Why, or why not? These are all questions we ask ourselves as we’re instantly drawn in by this first of three distinct dynamics employed throughout the series (the second sees Chelsea ‘out in the field’, meeting professionals or members of the public to gauge their knowledge or opinions of the topic, while the third, and most revealing of Handler, shows her intimate conversations with clinical psychologist Dr Steven David).
All three of these approaches play into Chelsea’s journey of discovering how she feels about marriage, charting her own individual experiences rather than taking any kind of wide-reaching social stand (we’ll get to that in our next instalment). As the straight-faced host speaks to a wide cross section of American society – from an ex-boyfriend to a preschooler who wants to marry her cousin, to the owner of Vegas’ famed Little White Wedding Chapel, to a BDSM trio with their own views on relationships – she encounters a myriad definitions of marriage and romance to ultimately inform her own. This is where the likeness to Theroux is most apparent, as Handler adeptly selects each uniquely fascinating subject to either silently ridicule of offer a loving platform to.
Is it narcissistic of Handler to spend a feature-length documentary trying on wedding dresses and asking people what they think of her marriage chances? Perhaps. Is it entertaining? You betcha. As a side note, we particularly appreciate her love for Eric Bana. Bring on the next episode!
Part 2: Chelsea Does… Racism
If you only have time to watch one of Chelsea Does‘s feature-length instalments, make it this one.
“I would never, ever apologise publicly”, announces Handler near the beginning of the episode in reference to the perceivably racist comments she’s been known to make in the past. Had she not made such a positive impression on me in “Marriage”, I would be railing against her stubborn rejection of political correctness at this point. Instead, I approach with caution.
Handler’s unapologetic argument about her attitudes to race is that it’s okay to be a bit racist, so long as you’re making fun of everyone equally. While I’m still not entirely convinced by the validity of this as a catch-all justification, Handler ably demonstrates through her conversations with civil rights leader Al Sharpton, former Israeli president Shimon Peres, and even the family of Walter Scott – the South Carolina African-American shot down by white police officer Michael Slager on April 4 of last year – that she is one of the few people on this earth intelligent and sensitive enough to spit in the race fire.
As she speaks with the Scott family in their home, Walter’s father notes that it’s one of the first times he’s laughed since his son was killed. It’s this humanity secretly underlying Handler’s barbed personality, when coupled with her complete disdain for advocates of what she perceives as ‘actual racism’, that offers a real way of handling America’s incendiary race issues with real understanding, heart, and humour combined. It makes for one of the most compelling discussions of race I’ve seen in some time.
We don’t want to give the whole game away about Part 3: “Chelsea Does… Silicon Valley”, and Part 4: “Chelsea Does… Drugs”, but we can say we enjoyed both of these episodes as much as the first two. While both offer completely different tones – one filmed in the beating heart of the world’s most cutting edge technologies, and the other primarily featuring a remote Peruvian ayahuasca retreat – by this point we’re delighted to spend more time with Chelsea, regardless of the topic or situation (even if we disapprove of Netflix’s screamingly obvious opportunity for self promotion in Pt. 3). For this reason above all, the experience of Chelsea Does is one that won’t be easily forgotten. Well, that and Willy Nelson’s ramblings about marijuana. We hope to see it picked up for further instalments.
All four episodes of Chelsea Does are available on Netflix from tomorrow, Saturday 23 January.