‘Chelsea Does’ is a four-part documentary series on Netflix starring Chelsea Handler that looks at four topics: marriage, Silicon Valley (technology), racism and drugs. While the series is at all times entertaining I’m not sure what else it is supposed to be. The series jumps back and forth between being humorous and being informative and never really finds a home in either domain. While this can work to its advantage i.e. switching to being informative when there is a lack of humorous material and vice versa, it can also undermine any progress in either direction.
The first program is on marriage and long-term relationships and it is an episode where the dichotomy functions as a strength. Chelsea is a skeptic of marriage and so approaches her inquiry as an outspoken critic. She asks concise and irreverent questions of married couples and of long-term partners that are both informative and funny and which serve to illustrate the institution of marriage and long-term relationships in its different forms. Interestingly, Chelsea also discusses her own feelings on the topic with a psychologist on camera, which in turn gives the audience better understanding of the host and therefore makes the audience more attached to her, making us more invested in her questions and the answers that she receives. This allows Chelsea the creative freedom to branch out, to interview children on the subject and even to visit a BDSM household, where the master and his two slaves (yes, they identify as slaves) live together. Chelsea also has a very intriguing conversation with the founder of Ashley Madison, who is happily and monogamously married, about infidelity. This is one of the stronger episodes because it is very entertaining and provides some interesting insight into a topic.
Chelsea Does Silicon Valley, however, is not the same. Since Creator’s Commune only publishes online I know that you are reading this with some kind of electronic device. This means that you are more capable of handling technology than Chelsea Handler is, and that you will likely find her struggle with technology boring. To watch this episode is to watch an uninteresting uphill battle that many, if not every, viewer of the Netflix-only show will have already conquered. The episode is briefly interesting when it looks into the darker side of social media, and features Rebecca Black of the song Friday fame, but this segment is very short and therefore unsubstantial. Overall, this episode is worth skipping.
Chelsea Does Racism, on the other hand, is absolutely worth watching and is the best episode of the series. The episode begins, as all episodes do, with Chelsea sitting around a table with some friends discussing the topic of the episode. But it then moves on to an interview with the Reverend Al Sharpton and then a round table with representatives from the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League and the like to discuss racism and representations of people through stereotypes, even positive ones.
To further explore the issue Chelsea then travels to the southern United States. There she has very illuminating conversations with locals about the history of the region. One resident, who is white and who claims to be a longtime resident descended from a long line of southerners, claims that slaves were kindly treated and that she doesn’t know of any bad stories about slavery. In asking these kinds of questions Chelsea Does provides insight into a superficial understanding of racism and the history of the United States, into a racism that has not been properly addressed or redressed and a dichotomy of opinion and understanding about the subject. And it doesn’t end there.
A segment entitled ‘How Far Have We Come’ shows the footage of Walter ‘Lamar’ Scott being shot and killed while he was unarmed by police officer Michael Slager in Charleston, North Carolina. This is followed by an interview with the family of Mr. Scott, with the father explaining how he was once arbitrarily arrested and spent the night in jail and with the mother feeling sorry for the police officer. This segment serves to drive home the direness of the situation. But when the screen cuts to black with the script explaining that two weeks after the interview a white supremacist killed nine people in a church, you are shocked. When it cuts to President Obama’s famous speech at that same church, and when he sings Amazing Grace over a montage of news stories about black men being killed by police, you get chills. It is a meaningful tribute to a horrendous problem that still plagues the United States.
The episode continues with an interview with a segregationist who wants the United States to ‘voluntarily segregate’ and who wouldn’t allow his daughter back into the newly formed white community if she and a black man became pregnant. There is then a brief foray into Islamophobia before an interview with former President and Prime Minister of Israel Shimon Peres about anti-Semitism. In an unexpected way Chelsea Does offers a substantial, informative and entertaining evaluation of a very important subject.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the final episode Chelsea Does Drugs. The episode is the epitome of the editing and format that plagues this series. It is often the case that any substantive progress on a topic that is made by a serious segment is undermined by quickly jumping to a segment designed for comedy, and this episode is rife with such editing.
This episode features a brief discussion about drugs with Willie Nelson and a brief segment on shamanism, both of which amount to nothing. It also features a very short segment on the war on drugs, which makes you think that the episode is about to become as substantive as the racism episode was, but the brevity of the segment dashes those hopes. The bulk of the episode is dedicated to Chelsea and two friends preparing and then taking ayahuasca, a psychotropic drug in Peru. While it is interesting, it lacks the depth and importance that made the previous episode so good. Making a mediocre episode worse is the fact that the previous episode had shown that this series could take a substantive look at major issues. This episode then leaves you wanting much more.
Chelsea Does is a very mixed bag. While very entertaining in the marriage episode and very meaningful in the racism episode, it is inconsequential with the drugs episode and forgettable with the technology episode. In short, two of the episodes are worth watching. Caught in between being a superficial yet always entertaining look at various topics and a serious and meaningful documentary series, Chelsea Does is a show that doesn’t know what it wants to be. I hope that the next season will be a better outing for a series with so much potential.
Chelsea Does is now streaming on Netflix