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TELEVISION REVIEW

Softer, gentler ‘Chelsea’ not quite there yet

From left: Laura Prepon, Chelsea Handler, and Lenny Clarke in the new NBC sitcom “Are You There, Chelsea?’’ From left: Laura Prepon, Chelsea Handler, and Lenny Clarke in the new NBC sitcom “Are You There, Chelsea?’’ (Michael Desmond/NBC)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / January 11, 2012
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When comic/talk show host Chelsea Handler was in her 20s, she enjoyed cocktails and the company of men in bulk. She turned some of those stories, and others from her life, into several bestsellers, including “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.’’

NBC has in turn taken inspiration from those books for this sitcom, which now bears the alcohol-neutered title of “Are You There, Chelsea?’’ Laura Prepon (“That ’70s Show’’) plays a version of Handler, a vivacious and bawdy cocktail waitress in a New Jersey sports bar who prays to vodka for guidance. (Like God, Prepon reasons in a voice over, vodka is “invisible’’ and has a hand in “unexplained pregnancies.’’) Handler will recur as her own uptight sister, here named Sloane.

The show, which airs tonight at 8:30 on Channel 7, opens with Chelsea in jail for drunk driving. She prays to vodka for assistance - though it seems this is what got her in trouble - and is bailed out by a very pregnant Sloane. Since Chelsea can’t drive, she takes it as a positive sign from God (er, vodka) that she and Olivia (Ali Wong) - her fierce protector, best friend since childhood, and fellow cocktail waitress - are able to find a new apartment within walking distance of the bar. The snazzy apartment (which Chelsea proclaims gives her “lady wood’’) comes furnished with a virginal roommate named Dee Dee, played with appealing loose-limbed goofiness by Lauren Lapkus. The other bar employees include sexy bartender Rick (Jake McDorman) and barback Todd (Mark Povinelli), who happens to be a little person. The establishment is frequented by Chelsea and Sloane’s clueless-but-well-meaning dad, veteran Boston comic Lenny Clarke, who will hopefully be given more to do.

Knowing that the show is based on her life, there’s something odd about watching Handler (in a distractingly terrible wig) play the shrewish, but still sassy, new mom opposite Prepon. The bigger problem with “Chelsea,’’ however, is that Handler’s exploits and her signature biting tonearen’t really broadcast network material. So Prepon, with her far sunnier disposition, plays a softer, gentler version of Handler, but one that still manages to blow off her pregnant sister’s needs while obsessing over ways to one-up her.

Prepon manages to give Chelsea’s raunchy lines and irritating actions - including the brush-off of that opening DUI - more zing and charm than the material merits. She may make Chelsea more likable for prime time, but the whole affair is less cuttingly comic than Handler actually is. For Handler’s biggest fans, there may not be enough Chelsea in “Chelsea.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA?

Starring: Laura Prepon,

Chelsea Handler, Ali Wong, Lenny Clarke

On: NBC (Channel 7)

Time: Tonight, 8:30 p.m.