Part of the problem is Handler’s insistence that she’s doing something radically different. “I’ve learned that I don’t want to do a monologue anymore,” she said in the first episode’s monologue, delivered to a laughing audience. “I know it seems like a monologue, but this is not a monologue. It’s an explanation. And if you don’t know the difference, then you can log out, or log off, or fuck off, or whatever ... I’m a late-show host that doesn’t want to be tied down by time, or television, or even hosting.”
That’d make more sense if Chelsea didn’t feel like such a classic late show, through and through. After her opening monologue, which disses the idea of an opening monologue, Handler transfers to a desk and makes a few jokes about the upcoming election, before cutting to a pre-taped sketch poking gentle fun at her new network. There’s nothing here viewers haven’t seen before—but that’s not entirely Handler’s fault. The late-night talk show really only hinges on two things: It airs late at night, and its stars and guests talk about current events, be they frivolous or weighty. What’s there to revolutionize?
As with many Netflix shows, the biggest difference the viewer might immediately notice in Chelsea is the lack of ad breaks. With network shows, commercial breaks have come to inform the structure of each episode: They demand that a guest fit an anecdote into six minutes, or that the viewer sit through five ad breaks before watching the musical performance or stand-up set they might have tuned in for. Not so with Chelsea. Bored by the opening sketch, but interested in Handler’s discussion with Education Secretary John King? Just skip ahead to that. If a panel runs a little longer than expected, the show can keep it all in, since running times don’t matter much (episode one is 37 minutes long, episode two is 33). Meanwhile, even premium-cable talk shows like HBO’s Last Week Tonight, which also don’t have to worry about ads, still have to fit within a half-hour block.
Chelsea is also notable for its “near-live” status (it records the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of each week it airs), while all other network talk shows, from Stephen Colbert to Jimmy Fallon to Trevor Noah, tape hours before they air. Since joining Netflix, Handler has talked about how bored she got with the demands of her E! show and the necessity of discussing the latest life updates of reality stars and hot items from gossip blogs. She envisions Chelsea as 60 Minutes but “faster and cooler,” and the first two episodes of the show try to accomplish that by throwing wonks like King or TED Talks founder Chris Anderson together with celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Gwyneth Paltrow. It provokes some insightful moments—and some wince-inducing ones, like Handler’s attempt to freestyle rap with Pitbull minutes after he tearfully talked about the educators who had an impact on his adolescence.