Whenever Chelsea Handler is on screen in the new NBC comedy "Are You There, Chelsea?," in which she plays not the title character but her sister Sloan, we see the hint of the better sitcom it wants to become.
Handler, the dry, sparky host of E!'s late-night "Chelsea Lately" and the author of a trio of bestselling humor books, including the one that partially lent the series its title — "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea" — is not an actress, per se. But when she plays a part — improvising on the Oxygen prank show "Girls Behaving Badly" or on the original Web version of "In the Motherhood" — she is original and real. If Handler is known for being provocative — the title of her first book was "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands" — she is celebrated because she is clever and funny and comes across as real.
Broad-shouldered Laura Prepon, who spent eight seasons on "That '70s Show," plays Chelsea instead. (Handler, whose talk show has been renewed through 2014, has declared herself too busy to play herself; Sloane is a recurring, not a regular, role.) Though she has been assembled, by Dottie Zicklin and Julie Ann Larson, who have "Dharma & Greg" in their shared past, from Handler's own writings, sitcom-Chelsea is not presented, professionally, as a version of her original — not an aspiring comedian, writer, TV star or a person with any clear ambition beyond drinking and sleeping around and hanging out in the New Jersey sports bar where she works, and drinks, and picks up men.
Handler, whose blond hair Prepon appropriates, wears a brown wig to play Sloane, whom Chelsea describes as her "judgy super-Christian sister," though neither the script nor Handler makes a joke of her. Indeed, apart from Chelsea's hunky-nice boss (Jake McDorman), she's the one character with any sort of perspective, or a perceptible third dimension. (The cast is filled out by best friend Ali Wong; cheap dad Lenny Clarke; new roommate Lauren Lapkus, a reliably funny gangly naif; and bar back Mark Povinelli, who, like Handler's talk-show sidekick Chuy Bravo, is a little person.
We are, you may have noticed, or heard, in a TV season characterized by shows driven by strong female characters, though the history of television comedy is hung on a long line of unconventional women. Still, this is not exactly Mary Richards' search for love. "Are You There, Chelsea?" takes the intemperate habits that were long the province of the crazy sidekick and gives them to the lead. The flip side of this emancipation — ewomancipation? — is comedy that seems to celebrate binge drinking and its attendant unintended consequences.
"Chelsea" begins, weakly, with its star in jail for DUI; the main development in the pilot is when she rents a room in an apartment within staggering distance of her job. If these attributes were transferred to a male character, you'd get some hopeless loser, or Charlie Sheen. This is a funny idea of progress, but it is a kind of progress all the same.
Prepon, who does a good job without ever making this seem like the place she ought to be, is at her best in her scenes with Handler — she becomes grounded, and rounded; you get a sense of people who have a history and, despite their barbed relationship, care about one another. (On her talk show, where her guests are often younger than she is, Handler can also come across as something of a big-sisterly, if twisted-sisterly, voice of experience.)
Much of the rest of what I've seen settles for shooting off rounds of bad and better jokes at the Gatling-gun pace of three-camera comedy. But there is room to hope.