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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
ARE YOU THERE VODKA? IT'S ME, CHELSEA (NBC)
(written by Dottie Dartland Zicklin & Julie Larson; directed by Gail Mancuso; TRT: 20:35)
The network's description: "Inspired by the best-selling book from comedienne/talk show host Chelsea Handler ("Chelsea Lately"), the new comedy "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea," follows the exploits of twentysomething bartender Chelsea (Laura Prepon, "That '70s Show") a strong-willed force of nature who is determined to live life to the fullest and make no apologies. Her friends are along for the ride but they all know it is Chelsea's way or the highway. Mark (Jo Koy, "Chelsea Lately") is a charming bartender whose wit makes him the perfect foil for Chelsea while Shoniqua (Angel Laketa Moore, "ER") is a smart and sassy fellow waitress who looks out for Chelsea's best interests. Close friend and fellow bartender Todd (Mark Povinelli, "Water for Elephants") has a wry sense of humor that keeps her in check.
Also starring are Natalie Morales (NBC's "Parks and Recreation") as Ivory, Chelsea's feisty best friend; Lauren Lapkus ("The Middle") as Dee Dee, Chelsea's sheltered, shy roommate, and Lenny Clarke ("Rescue Me") as Chelsea's dad, Melvin. Handler has a recurring role as Chelsea's sister Sloan, a happily married new mom who has little in common with her carefree sister. "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea" is a production of Warner Bros. Television in association with Werner Entertainment and Borderline Amazing Productions. Dottie Dartland Zicklin ("Dharma & Greg") and Julie Larson ("The Drew Carey Show") are creators and executive producers. Handler serves as executive producer along with Tom Werner ("That '70s Show"), Mike Clements ("The Life & Times of Tim") and Tom Brunelle ("Chelsea Lately")."
What did they leave out? That about covers it.
The plot in a nutshell: When times are darkest for sports bar waitress Chelsea (Laura Prepon), she turns to a higher power: vodka. And so, after being arrested for driving under the influence and facing the unwanted advances of her cellmate ("Glee's" Dot-Marie Jones), Chelsea promises to said savior that if she gets out of this particular jam, she'll finally clean up her act. Sure enough, "vodka" delivers and now Chelsea faces the prospect of being a better person. First on the agenda is finding a new apartment, as with her license suspended she'll need one within walking distance to her job. Her co-worker/verbal sparring partner Mark (Jo Koy) reluctantly suggests moving into his building as one of the tenants - the socially-challenged Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus) - is looking for roommates.
Next up: being less superficial when it comes to her choice in men as the latest cute guy to enter her life ("Greek's" Jake McDorman) has - gasp! - red hair ("Does he talk or honk a really big rubber horn?" she quips at first sight). Previously a dealbreaker (because red-headed men are gross!), Chelsea vows to her best friend Ivory (Natalie Morales) and fellow gal pal/co-worker Shoniqua (Angel Laketa Moore) to see it through. And last but not least, Chelsea's sister Sloane (the real Chelsea Handler) is set to give birth at any moment, a development which may for once actually inspire some kind words on Chelsea's part.
What works: There's some potential we'll circle back to in a second but it's hard to escape that...
What doesn't: ...Laura Prepon isn't Chelsea Handler, plain and simple. It's an Achilles' heel that permeates practically every aspect of the show as Prepon's delivery can't match Handler's dry, uncensored persona as so much of the humor hinges on Chelsea being able to say rude, insulting and selfish things but remaining likeable while doing it. Whether it's the horrors of dating red-haired men, making fun of Mark's "spring roll"-esque manhood, protecting barback Todd (Mark Povinelli) after a customer calls him "little man," quipping that confetti came out of her "Pikachu" the first time she had sex or calling her pregnant sister "fatty," Chelsea's observations as told through Prepon's lens end up coming across as at best weirdly off base and at worst undeservedly mean.
It doesn't help that the show does little to aid her cause as, for instance, McDorman is saddled with the most unfortunate wig possible because apparently every carrot-topped actor was unavailable this past pilot season. Said choice waters down the purported edge of the proceedings even further, giving it a cartoonish flair that makes Chelsea's attitude all the more ridiculous and unfounded, not to mention another step further away from Handler's own voice. She's essentially making fun of a Halloween costume rather than having a true opinion (Ivory: "Just admit it Chelsea: you're afraid the carpet's going to match the drapes." Chelsea: "Oh I know it's going to match. It'll be a circus tent with one pole.").
As for the rest of the cast, "Chelsea Lately" staple Koy and Lenny Clarke as Chelsea's uncensored dad Melvin valiantly try to bring some fun to the table while the usually-awesome Morales is left to parrot Chelsea's limp observations and Lapkus's Dee Dee doesn't appear to be from the planet Earth (among her "quirks": a solid 30 seconds are spent watching her pretend to be a cat). At the end of the day, Chelsea theoretically could be as ridiculous and unfounded or as weird and mean as she wants...
The bottom line: ...if it was Handler actually saying them.