Every documentary has that one topic that hooks you in immediately. Take into account fellow Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. This recent smash success had everyone abuzz by grabbing its audience into calling to question a murder suspect’s trial and conviction. It knew exactly what it needed to be, and stuck to its strengths to tell a story. Chelsea Does, contrarily, tries to tackle a different topic each episode, and whether or not you’re going to enjoy the whole season will depend entirely on how open you are to all of it, especially without the comical vibrance Chelsea Handler usually puts behind it.
Chelsea Does is a Netflix exclusive experimental documentary series starring comedian Chelsea Handler, where she explores four aspects of our modern-day life. Themes of marriage, drugs, Silicon Valley and racism each get their own episode, wherein Handler goes from coast to coast of our country exploring qualities such as the impact of modern-day technology, or how racism and segregationists try to bend history in their favor. When Chelsea Does realizes what it’s trying to with these topics, this documentary series shines very well. Sadly, however, out of the four episodes of season one, only about two actually know what they want to say. For lack of a better word, Chelsea Does feels like a mixed bag.
On a positive note, this series can be not only enjoyable for the regular viewer, but can also be really interesting with almost every topic it addresses. By far, the season’s strongest chapter is episode three’s dive into American racism. This is where Handler’s personality shines best, especially when interviewing people such as a pro-segregationist who believes “white people have it harder than anyone else,” and a Mexican border guard who compares letting illegal aliens into the country with “someone coming into my home and letting them take my furniture.” She’s able to not let her beliefs take hold of the moment and just lets each individual explain their way of thought and lifestyle. It may be cringe-worthy to hear a white family say, “my ancestors passed down stories of how slaves were just a part of the family,” or “there may have been one or two abusers, but for the most part, slaves were treated very well,” but it’s only after these events that Chelsea expresses her disbelief in their ignorance. Until then, all the viewer can do is sit there and watch the beliefs laid before them and interpret them however they choose to do so. This is exactly what a documentary series should not only be, but needs to be in order to stick into one’s memory, and when this show does it well, they do it really well.
Additionally, while not without its flaws, the season’s second best episode probes into the lifestyle and on-goings of Silicon Valley. Easily, this is the funniest episode the series has to offer, since Handler isn’t afraid to mock her own shortcomings in the tech department. Likewise, the quote unquote “Netflix inception,” where Handler explores the Netflix headquarters and starts taping up posters of herself on numerous walls, is a funny little nod to the irony of it all. It doesn’t stop there though, as she’s introduced to technology many of us have probably never even heard of. For example, she gets to test out a robotics brain exercise where, once a head band has been placed around her forehead, she is able to make a helicopter fly with her mind. Again, this is a really interesting topic of discussion, and something just about anyone should be interested in learning about. It manages to serve just the right amount of humor along with the facts, so long as you see the satire in a woman who publicly acknowledges how little she knows about smartphones operating a helicopter with her mind.
Nonetheless, those were, without a doubt, the season’s greatest episodes. Within them lies content that anyone could find something to latch on to, such as to experience a new technology or learn a little more about your country. Episode one, where Chelsea addresses marriage, and episode four, where Chelsea experiments with drug use, are easily the show’s weakest installments. It is within these two episodes that the flaws in this experimental series are most apparent because they entirely depend on who you are as a person. Episode one only really delves into Chelsea’s personal struggles with relationships, instead of going into something like marriage equality. If you are the celebrity gossip type who loves learning about their love lives, you’ll like this episode just fine. Yet, if you’re just a regular viewer trying to find an interesting topic to watch, it’ll feel like a mediocre start than anything else. Handler’s stories on relationships just aren’t interesting nor funny enough to keep the episode rolling, although her elderly father’s take on marriage does add a bit of humor to the otherwise stale experience. Still, with Chelsea being in the forefront of this series, you’d think she’d have more to offer on the topic of marriage with her usual brand of humor, but it just ends up feeling lost in the mix, making episode one the most feeble of the four.
Finally, there’s the issue of the season’s final topic: drug use. What should be an engaging look into how much drugs are playing a part in global culture and how society’s perception of certain substances is changing feels more like half an episode of Handler having an excuse to get high. While there is an interesting interview with Willie Nelson, there doesn’t seem to be much more than that as far as topics of discussion into drug culture. Three quarters of the episode is being built up to a journey to Peru where Handler plans on experimenting with ayahuasca, a controversial drug said to give you one of the most visual out-of-body experiences imaginable. When they do end up taking the drug, the viewer may find watching the experience interesting enough, but only if they can sit through watching people vomit and cry over the strength of the substance. Either way, it’s certainly not for everyone.
Most of these installments feel way too long, overstuffed with round-table scenes where Handler talks to her friends and coworkers, and unnecessary therapy scenes where Handler plainly talks about whatever crosses her mind to an uninterested psychologist. These would work if they were at all funny, but more often than not, these scenes just come off as filler, stretching the episode to the one hour and fifteen minute mark. If most of these scenes had been scrapped, the show could easily fit between the half hour to forty-five minute mark and feel a lot smoother at the same time.
Yet, when it’s all said and done, Chelsea Does may be a mixed bag, but it’s one of the more interesting mixed bags out there. Within it are plenty of problems with its approach and execution, but behind those nitpicks lies some genuinely interesting stories to hear. Handler may not be at her funniest, but the people she brings on to interview can be both hilarious and heartbreaking. Some of Chelsea’s friends on the show may not be necessary, but such interviews with the founders of AshleyMadison.com and recovering drug addicts help buffer the stale scenes. These positives alone will make the overall experience a decent one and should leave a good chunk of people interested in a second season. At the end of the day, Chelsea Does isn’t a documentary designed for everyone, but if you do manage to find something fascinating between the flagrant flaws, you’ll leave this season with a pleasant enough experience in memory.