Although reality television and documentary might seem like similar beasts, in many ways they’re antithetical to each other. One is all about artifice and manufactured drama, about throwing people into situations that are guaranteed to precipitate carefully orchestrated explosions, while the other is about mining a subject precisely, deeply, to encourage the unexpected. With one, you get manipulated scenes of real people presenting a public face; with the other, flashes of insight amid layers of meticulous analysis.
The main problem with Chelsea Does, a four-part Netflix docuseries centered around the comedian Chelsea Handler, well, doing things, is that it doesn’t know which one of these genres it should aim for. There are arguments to be made for both: Handler was for many years the only female late-night host on television, and her raunchy, deliberately outrageous brand of humor paved the way for the current Schumerian era of comedy. She’s also a powerful woman in Hollywood who’s almost pathologically unable to not say what she’s thinking. The people she encounters in Chelsea Does include a matchmaker, a polyamorous triad, and a woman whose business is setting up video-chatting for pets, and Handler’s eyebrows twitch so furiously while she talks with them that they make the case for having their own category at the Emmys.
If Chelsea Does were less turned off by the conceptual limitations of being a star vehicle with a very funny, innately cynical person at its helm, it could be either a groundbreaking examination of comedy or a very funny, innately cynical reality show that ran out of material after two episodes. Instead, its director Eddie Schmidt—a longtime documentary producer whose credits include This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Beauty Is Embarrassing, and Valentine Road—seems to have decided to make a docuseries in the manner of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, or Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways. The difference is that the show’s only underlying theme is Handler herself, and that it seems intent on handling topics like racism and Silicon Valley and drugs without ever being willing to shift its gaze away from her.
This isn’t Handler’s fault so much as it’s the inevitable byproduct of trying to fuse reality TV and documentary into one cohesive whole. Throughout Chelsea Does, its star seems confused as to what role she’s supposed to play: She’s alternately guarded and brazen, defensive and unapologetic, naughty and nice. She can’t figure out if she’s the host or the subject—whether she should be pointing out the many ways in which she’s the real-life model for Trainwreck, investigating modern phenomena, or simply adapting her outrageous late-night comedy shtick for a Netflix audience rather than a live studio one. (She doesn’t, she admits, entirely understand what Netflix is.)
The show can be fascinating, particularly when it delves into Handler’s neuroses, by showing her discussing topics with her shrink, or drawing pictures of her family under the influence of Ambien, or talking to her father about whether he liked any of her boyfriends (he didn’t). It can be dreary and rote, like when she talks to the founder of Ashley Madison and his wife about the state of their marriage, or to Willie Nelson about his burgeoning weed empire. (Much of the art of interviewing lies in letting people actually answer questions.) And it can be churlish, particularly when Handler insists in “Chelsea Does … Racism” that people of color are too sensitive about racial stereotypes, and snickers when the activist Guy Aoki calls her out for joking that Angelina Jolie’s adopted Vietnamese son would grow up to be a horrible driver who’s great at doing nails.
The show has been criticized for being extraordinarily narcissistic, which seems unfair—series have been built around male stars and their various foibles for decades, and even in the august documentary world, the tradition of having eccentric characters investigate serious subjects is longstanding (Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Louis Theroux). But the tension in Chelsea Does between aggressive humor and thoughtful consideration is hard to resolve. The show veers between being frustratingly shallow and oddly intense, never quite finding the ground it needs to regulate its tone. Handler, too, seems ill at ease playing herself, as opposed to her comedy persona: She’s abrasive in a meeting with the developers working on an app she wants to launch, and juvenile in a roundtable she initiates with media advocates against racism. Her funniest jokes seem unfortunately timed. “I want to live in a place where a person of every color is able to hit on me,” she tells the camera, shortly before she goes to interview the family of Walter Scott, who was shot and killed by a policeman last year.
But for all its uncomfortable juxtapositions and awkward tonal inconsistencies, there are moments in Chelsea Does that make for truly compelling television. In one scene during “Chelsea Does … Drugs,” she takes ayahuasca in a ceremony in Peru, and smiles while tears roll down her face. Schmidt can’t resist the urge to splice in footage from Handler home movies, but a more canny director might have left the moment shrouded in mystery: a glimpse into the true heart of a subject who, despite the oversharing, remains elusive.