Witnessing Chelsea Handler's awkward pursuit of intelligence regarding her grandparents' Nazi ties on TLC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" made for a strange, crowded hour of television that left us uncomfortable and emotionally jet-lagged.
Nazi history is serious, and funny lady Chelsea is somber! Pause. Nazi history is wacky stuff for Chelsea to riff on! Hey, TLC: Pick. A. Tone.
It starts out OK, with Chelsea talking about being Jewish and German and having many siblings and being raised Jewish. Chelsea maintains a wry perspective on her Jewish heritage, making fun of her background (and all backgrounds) on her E! talk show "Chelsea Lately" and in her comedic memoirs.
In the book "Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me," for example, one of her "Chelsea Lately" writers notes that it's not a "productive morning in the writers' room" if Chelsea hasn't "made a 9/11 or Holocaust joke (and I'm talking about the Jewish Holocaust, not the Armenian Holocaust)." She will joke about anything, really, and it's unclear whether she's holding back here for personal or professional reasons.
We see Chelsea all grown up, at play with her dogs, and we briefly meet one of her brothers. Her grandfather, who fought for Germany in WWII, had a green book with a swastika on top — yes, a swastika — and her grandmother kept memoirs that remain untranslated. Seriously with the memoirs, Handlers? Anyway, suddenly...
Suddenly, meaning "Whoa, jarring." You have to tread lightly when you talk swastikas, and now Chelsea's in Germany learning that her grandfather worked for a very enthusiastic Nazi. There's a half-baked lesson on Hitler's genius job-creating skills... and subsequent racism and hatred. It's just too tone-deaf. You can't dissect the cultural impact of Adolf "I exterminated Jewish people" Hitler in a tiny segment.
Chelsea looks strained during a stilted conversation about the odds of her grandfather being a hater. How could she not? This isn't chit-chat about vodka and one-night stands; this is, you know, HITLER. Slow. It. Down. This isn't "The Amazing Race to the Concentration Camp," TLC. Shame on you for rushing a girl as she tries to process her roots. Ever hear of violins? This would be the time to play 'em.
Historians are pretty sure that her grandfather probably wasn't a full-blown Nazi. Given his unremarkable record as a solider and evident disinterest in his swastika book, it seems that he kept his mouth shut and went with the flow for the sake of his family. Chelsea is bemused by his noble reticence, given that she is famous for what she calls "a big mouth." Ah, levity.
But not for long. The Americans storm the beaches of Southern France, and Chelsea's grandfather is taken overseas to America as a POW. The historian reminds Chelsea that back then, the Nazis warned soldiers that Americans would castrate them and use their bodies for science projects. Chelsea remarks what a long and horrifying boat ride that must have been for her grandfather. Yep.
She's all smiles, though, upon seeing a picture of her granddad one month into his time in Iowa. He looks fuller in the face, happier. (Producers: Can we see the photo too? Why cut so fast?) And no wonder. POWs were well-fed and and encouraged to have active private lives. Chelsea even spots her grandfather in the orchestra pit of a musical production in the POW camp.
Hitler put us in a bad mood, and we have to complain: "WDYTYA" needs more humanity — photographs of the elders, participant living relatives — and fewer rushed, generic quickie "educational" sidebars.
After talking about wretched conditions in Germany pre-Hitler, Chelsea remarks: "You can almost see why people got behind Hitler and supported him. I mean you can't really blame them." Take a hint, TLC. That's your cue to delve into her grandparents' day-to-day life. Show us their life instead of steamrolling forward.
We get it when Chelsea deadpans upon returning to the States, "From the south of France to Iowa, I'm such a lucky girl." We feel ya! That was a bumpy, poorly navigated ride and we're queasy.
"Who Do You Think You Are?" airs Tuesdays at 9 PM on TLC.
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- Chelsea Handler