Face Off Face Off

Knock knock. Who's there? Chelsea. Chelsea who?

No, make that Chelsea why? The answer to the question posed in NBC's squalid new sitcom Are You There, Chelsea? (8:30/7:30c) is "not really." Based on late-night spitfire Chelsea Handler's potty-mouthed party-girl memoirs — but dropping the Vodka from the title because that might be, you know, offensive — this smutty but toothless misfire puzzlingly reduces Handler to a supporting role: that of a mousy, whiny born-again sister to the fictional Chelsea, played by That '70s Show's Laura Prepon with a one-note husky-voiced crassness that grows stale long before the first scene (in a women's jail cell) ends with Glee's Dot Marie Jones leering at Chelsea. Which is maybe the only sexual advance Chelsea spurns. As long as she can be on top. Which she mentions a lot.

The smarmy and incessant innuendo is more deafening than the laugh track, and yet no matter how low it stoops, it still lacks the zing and bite of Handler's cable antics. In a calendar year of so-far-dreadful new network comedies that has included ABC's Work It and moves on to CBS' ineptly offensive Rob on Thursday, Chelsea has the distinction of being the one that should come with a shot of penicillin.

The only upside: It's a good fit with the equally puerile Whitney, and by forming an easy-to-ignore block on Wednesday, frees up NBC's Thursday lineup for the return of 30 Rock (though at the expense of Community, sorry to say). Anyone with taste or self-regard will be watching ABC's Wednesday comedies anyway (more on that later), so if we're lucky, before long when we look for Chelsea on the schedule (though why would we?), it simply won't be there.

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NOT JUST ANOTHER PRETTY FACE: The transformations on Syfy's fascinating competition show Face Off (10/9c) aren't your usual TV makeovers. Unless, I suppose, you always dreamed of being turned into a movie monster. This addictive series, returning for a second season, is like Work of Art using the body as a canvas for the most macabre extremes of imagination. Contestants are a funky group of artists skilled in special-effects make-up, creature creation and sculpture, body painting and the like. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, likewise the horrific and fantastic visions they execute in each challenge, as we watch the process unfold from design and sketches to sculpting and molds to application to final touch-ups.

The opening round, introduced by the appealing host McKenzie Westmore, takes the players from the Universal Studios backlot (home of many a legendary monster) to Hollywood Boulevard, with the elimination "Spotlight" challenge involving the reinterpretation of a movie and literary classic: The Wizard of Oz. Namely, the scarecrow, tin man, cowardly lion and wicked witch. Icons of the highest order, and as they say on shows like American Idol, the goal is to make them their own. And they do, with decidedly mixed results — the tin man seems to really stump them — but scarecrows are notoriously scary objects, and in the hands of these craftspeople, they become something so fearsome in visage it would send Dorothy Gale back to Kansas in a heartbeat.

Other big news for reality fans: Tonight is the "restaurant wars" episode of Bravo's Top Chef: Texas (10/9c). What are the odds meat will be on the menu?

WHERE THE FUNNY IS: If it's Wednesday, it must be on ABC, kicking off with another inspired episode of The Middle (8/7c), in which we find the Hecks returning from the funeral of ancient Aunt Ginny — the episode is dedicated to Frances Bay, who passed away last September at 92 — with an extended scene of family banter in the car that ranks among the show's finest and funniest. When Frankie explains the concept of bereavement food, that "you're not supposed to cook" when you're sad, Brick pipes up, "Are you sad all the time, mom?" Score. Frankie really is sad, though, when she stops to think about how quickly time passes and how the family rarely stops to acknowledge the major milestones. One such milestone occurs later in the episode, as Poor Sue (Eden Sher) becomes aware she may have an admirer on the wrestling team. An actual boyfriend? Aunt Ginny would be so proud.

Suburgatory (8:30/7:30c) welcomes Cougar Town's much-missed Dan Byrd, who's killing time like the rest of us until ABC finally schedules the blasted show already. He plays an undercover narc at school befriended by Tessa, who assumes he's gay — which still doesn't stop sad-sack Lisa from crushing on him. And Tessa's not the only one in her family jumping to conclusions, as George assumes Dallas' invitation to design her boutique is yet another form of seduction. (The way she eats a banana, who can blame him?)

In the episodes not made available for preview, Modern Family (9/8c) puts Mitchell and Cam one step closer to their next adoption, as they meet with prospective birth mothers and try to keep their cool (good luck with that); and there's a guest-star alert on Happy Endings (9:31/8:31c), as Dave's dad (Michael McKean) shows up with his new girlfriend, who happens to be Penny's mom (Megan Mullally).

GOING APE: "Why Wonder Woman?" That's the question posed on NBC's Harry's Law (9/8c) as an emotionally unstable client (Smallville's Erica Durance) is accused of barbaric vigilantism after she assaults abusive husbands while wearing the classic superhero drag. Why indeed. This qualifies as a classic in-joke, referring to Law creator David E. Kelley's failed attempt to revive Wonder Woman for NBC, one of the most notorious unaired pilots in years. (It truly is a sight to behold.) The episode's other subplot involves a high-functioning runaway zoo ape on whose behalf Harry (Kathy Bates) tries to argue the issue of "personhood." Hey, he's at least as believable as any of the ridiculous human animals on this show, with its cloying mix of the painfully earnest and the quirkily precious. The maudlin storytelling made me want to rebel like Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

I'm more intrigued by tonight's scenario for NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (10/9c), seemingly inspired by the interactive off-Broadway phenom Sleep No More (also featured recently on Gossip Girl). The crime du jour involves a rape that occurs mid-performance, with the audience (in masks) believing it's part of the show. Fisher Stevens guests as the play's director, who probably wasn't aiming for that level of realism.

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