“Are You There, Chelsea?” doesn’t woo us, even with Laura Prepon as its star

If you’re a fan of Chelsea Handler, you might expect to love Are You There, Chelsea?, a new NBC sitcom based on Handler’s best-selling books about her 20-something years. Laura Prepon plays Chelsea, which is an added bonus, right? Well even Laura Prepon’s deep voice, self-professed tomboyish ways and sassy wit can’t save the show, which is all about drinking, chasing guys for sex and more drinking.

In the pilot episode, Chelsea finds herself in jail for a DUI and she tries to “make nice” with a lesbian bully (played by Dot Jones in a role we’ve seen her in many times before) by kissing her. The bully then tells Chelsea, “I’ll be in your bunk after lights out” and Chelsea is frightened enough to pray, and she’s subsequently released on bail by her sister, Sloane, played by Chelsea Handler. (Yes, Chelsea plays her own older sister.)

When I spoke to Laura Prepon at the NBC TCA party last week, she said she doesn’t think lesbians should be offended by the scenes with Dot, which also includes the bully showing up at the sports bar Chelsea works at and Chelsea trying to hide out from her.

“Look, I think if a guy was sitting in my position — she was scary in that scene!” Prepon said. “I think a guy would be like ‘Oh s–t, I’m going to get beat up right now!’ She was supposed to be kind of daunting. It was a portrayal of when Chelsea got a DUI and was in jail with all these freaks and Chelsea was freaking out. And I’m just so fortunate that I got to do this one with Dot because I love her.”

That could be so, but unfortunately, this is a scenario we’ve seen played out so many times, it’s tired. I don’t think any gay women will find it funny, even if you love Dot Jones as much as Laura does. She raved about the guest star.

“Dot Jones is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met,” she said. “You don’t even know, she’s incredible. Oh my god, she’s adorable.”

Dot expressed a similar love of working with Laura and meeting Chelsea on set, but she said it does get a little tired playing the same role over and over again. “This is my 20th year acting and I feel like I’ve been in an orange jumpsuit — even though I wasn’t in an orange jumpsuit for this — I’ve probably played a prisoner probably 25 times, if not more,” she told me at the Fox TCA party. “For me, it wasn’t about that. I felt honored. It’s not about the huge work; it’s these people trust you, no matter what they’re writing, that they could just call you in and have you do it. And that role you can kind of phone in after doing 800 times but it was awesome.”

The Glee actress said she was called in to do the role and was happy to do it because she had worked with the director before on Dharma & Greg and on Roseanne, no doubt playing a similar character both times. And when it came to kissing Laura: “We were laughing so hard. She’s so damn funny.”

And Dot is funny, but it’s just unfortunate her role is as some menacing gay woman who seems to be stalking Chelsea. Seeing how Chelsea Handler, in real life, seems to be very friendly with lesbians and gays of all kinds, I wondered if the Chelsea on the show might have any dalliances with women, especially considering how much she drinks and that’s another stereotype they could surely have tackled: The “barsexual.”

“I’m sure she has and I’m sure she might,” Laura said. “Honestly, I don’t know if it’ll be reflected or not since we just finished the first season and I’m not sure what’s in store for the second season. But on the show we definitely push the boundaries.”

They might push boundaries with how forward Chelsea is; how self-assured she is when it comes to men, sex and keeping up with any guy who threatens to drink her under the table. But I’m not so sure that is as funny as it is sad.

Are You There, Chelsea? premieres tonight on NBC at 8:30/7:30c.

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