June 9, 2011

THE SKED PILOT REPORT: NBC’s “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.

ARE YOU THERE, VODKA?  IT’S ME, CHELSEA –  Midseason on NBC:  If Nothing Else Is On…

A few years before Louis C.K. started his strangely brilliant FX series, he attempted a much more conceptual show on HBO.  Lucky Louie was deliberately shot to resemble an old-fashioned multi-camera, taped-before-a-live-studio-audience sitcom as much as possible, but the material was nonstop raunch and X-rated language; the dichotomy between the style and the content was supposed to be (but wasn’t) the joke.  In an extremely watered-down way, that’s how NBC’s midseason sitcom ARE YOU THERE, VODKA?  IT’S ME, CHELSEA feels, except this time it isn’t a deliberate creative choice, it’s a massive creative disconnect.

Inspired, of course, by Chelsea Handler’s bestselling book, Are You There also feels like a hard-R movie after it’s been edited down to be shown on airplanes.  You can sort of get the idea that the hijinks are supposed to be outrageous, but what you’re actually watching is more like middle-aged yuppies struggling to look cool.

Our heroine Chelsea (Laura Prepon) is an unapologetically hard-drinking waitress in a sports bar who, in the opening minutes of the pilot, gets a DUI and, once she’s in the local jail, plants a kiss on the holding cell’s resident butch lesbian–so we get her party girl credentials.  Once she’s out, though, she’s a lot more talk than action, and the talk is barely PG-13.   Instead, she’s been given all the accoutrements of an ordinary sitcom lead:  two friends, one of color and thus tough-talking (Natalie Morales), the other virginal and thus a naive idiot (Lauren Lapkus), two sidekicks, one Filipino (Jo Koy), the other a little person (Mark Povinelli)–so diversity is covered–plus a lovably goofy dad. (Lenny Clarke)  Combined with the standard, static multi-camera look (here’s the bar, here’s the oversized apartment) and a hyperactive/sweetened laugh track, there’s nothing remotely shocking or even notable about the show.  (Probably not coincidentally, the writer/creators are Dottie Dartland Zicklin and Julie Larson, who’ve been in the sitcom game since The Drew Carey Show and Dharma and Greg, not exactly revolutionary examples of the genre.) 

There are intermittent glimpses of a sharper, more interesting show here.  When Chelsea Handler herself shows up briefly as Prepon’s bitchy sister, for a minute or so comic sparks fly between the two, and Prepon herself uses her deadpan effectively when the material doesn’t make her push too hard.  Lenny Clarke, from Rescue Me, seems to have free-floating vaudeville routines going on in his head; he doesn’t really connect with anyone else, but he’s fun to watch.  More often, though, the show is content to belabor the obvious:  the pilot is mostly about Chelsea’s decision to date a guy despite his red “clown hair,” and that just means endless jokes about the horrors of red pubic hair–which is a good enough hook for comedy as anything else (I bet Louis C.K. could do a half-hour of stand-up about it), but here’s it’s all an exercise in euphemisms that are less than funny.

Are You There is overeager to convince us that something daring is happening on screen, when in fact the show is like Sex and the City if it had neither sex nor a city.  Unless the show gets an injection of nerve or finds a new, imaginative angle on its story, Vodka may be the only one there to watch.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."