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'Are You There, Chelsea?' review: Will the real Chelsea Handler please relax

By Curt Wagner

RedEye

4:42 PM CST, January 10, 2012

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Talk about a control freak. Chelsea Handler, the late-night TV host whose comic memoirs have been turned into "Are You There, Chelsea?" (7:30 p.m. Jan. 11, NBC; 2 stars), can't step out of the limelight in the new sitcom.

"That '70s Show" alum Laura Prepon plays Chelsea, the bed-hopping, boozy cocktail waitress inspired by Handler. Chelsea works at a sports bar with bestie Olivia (Ali Wong) and charming bartender Rick (Jake McDorman, so likable), whom Chelsea once tried to bed, but as their recurring taunt goes, neither "wanted to be the bottom."

As the series begins, Chelsea has been busted for a DUI, which surprisingly no one in her inner circle seems to find troubling, including her dad (a wasted Lenny Clarke of "Rescue Me"). Chelsea considers herself lucky to have found a loopy new roomie (Evanston native Lauren Lapkus) and an apartment within easy walking distance of her job, which also happens to be her favorite place to drink.

Prepon is somewhat appealing as Chelsea, but executive producer Handler seems hell-bent on keeping her in the "somewhat" category. The real Chelsea dons the worst Daria wig ever and co-stars as her born-again older sister, Sloane. She gets most of the most biting zingers, even if they don't make sense coming from a character billed as a religious do-gooder.

In the second episode sent for review, she's happy to be at the movies without her newborn daughter. Chelsea asks if she misses the baby. "God no!" Sloane says. "These are tears of joy. I'm just so happy no one here is going to be attacking my nipples."

Cue the laugh track. That is a funny line, but the trying-hard-to-be-"Bridesmaids" jokes are hit ("You're a virgin? Everywhere?") or miss (any mention of "lady wood"). Adapted by producers Julie Larson and Dottie Dartland Zicklin, "Are You There, Chelsea?" has lost the "...Vodka? It's Me..." from the title of her book. It's also lost much of Handler's wit in its tired set-up/joke formula.

If the writers relax their death grip on that formula and Handler stops choking the proceedings, "Are You There, Chelsea?" might be worth another look. Maybe a shot of vodka is in order.