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The Two Charlie Sheens

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Yesterday and very early this morning, Charlie Sheen continued not going away. The sitcom star / cautionary tale / performance artist started a Twitter account yesterday afternoon; as of this writing, he’s pushing 800,000 followers. And to listen to Sheen, you’ve just got to know that he take the word “followers” literally; that steadily rising count of rubberneckers (and I’m one) no doubt reads to him like a standing ovation.

Last night, ABC finally aired his 20/20 interview, recorded way back in the remember-him-when days of last weekend. Since then, he’s been making the rounds of numerous outlets (CNN, Howard Stern, TMZ, NBC), appearances that, in retrospect, actually seem like an effort to dial back his persona compared to the looming ABC interview, which—I’ll spare you the ubiquitous details—was truly and epically unhinged.

Then, this morning, he was back on TV again.

Overnight, Sheen’s two young sons—the parts of this story keeping viewer’s schadenfreude in check—were taken from his home by police, in response to a restraining order by his ex-wife. At around 4:30 on a dark L.A. morning, there was Sheen, sitting in glaring light in front of his house, with his lawyer and a Today show reporter.

This was a more restrained Sheen, who for now set aside “loving violently” and “fighting violently” to ask that “cooler and smarter and leveler heads” prevail. (Though it seemed he was comparing said heads to his ex-wife’s and not his own.) And while there was some talk in the interview about the motivations for the restraining order—disturbing allegations of threats—NBC, which now seems to have most favored network status with Sheen, mostly let him spin the story his way, Meredith Vieira closing the interview by inviting him to, sympathetically, send a TV message to the kids.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few days about whether the media should just ignore the Sheen story, but I don’t think it should. (There’s a lot of middle ground between shunning the story and leading with it, though.) I would settle for not coddling Sheen, however, even if it means losing access. What disturbs me about some of the interviews so far is not that they exist, but that they let Sheen spool out his pop-Nietzschean megalomania and/or calmed-down damage control with little challenge. Thus he’s been able to send a second, alternative Charlie Sheen onto Piers Morgan and Today—still bizarre but at least cogent—to balance out the crazypants Sheen we saw just recently on Good Morning America and, well, Today.

And let’s be fair; it’s not as if the Today show et al. are entirely foisting Sheen on an unwilling public—see, again, those almost 800,000 Twitter followers. Oh, I’m sorry—in roughly ten minutes of typing, it’s now gone up to 807,000. There’s obviously a big tongue-in-cheek/trainwreck factor here, and yet it’s a little disconcerting how quickly “Winning” has become America’s new catchphrase. Yes, it’s used ironically; and also it’s not, since people are using it in pretty much the sense that Sheen does.

Immediately after its Sheen interview, Today had on a “media analyst” who argued that Sheen may have just made himself far more human and sympathetic in his audience’s eyes by being seen as a hurt father. But to the extent that Charlie Sheen as a father is any of our business, it’s the job of Today, and everyone else, not to lose sight of why exactly Sheen was losing his kids in the first place.

This whole story is at a strange inflection point. Maybe we’re all exhausted with Sheen, or will soon be. Maybe it will end with some horrible flameout. But it’s not impossible to imagine a situation where Sheen undergoes some mini-p.r. rehabilitation, makes some token gesture of contrition and enables CBS somehow to bring back Two and a Half Men, by popular demand, or, at least, “popular demand.”

In which case… um, winning? Ugh. This scenario still seems like a long shot. On the other hand, as I type this last sentence, Charlie Sheen is past 813,000 followers.

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