During the Great Charlie Sheen War of 2011, there was a lot of attention on Two and a Half Men as a business — how much it cost, how much it made, how many it employed — and not as much on it as a TV show. Watching its long-delayed return with new star Ashton Kutcher, I was reminded again of what a really dark, cynical sitcom it could be. During the years Sheen starred on the show, it’s willingness to go bleak and revel in his character’s amorality was a big source of its comedy, and it disposed of Charlie Harper much the way it let him live. It turned up the dark, killing him, burning him and essentially saying, “There’s the urn — don’t let it hit you on your way out.”
It was a sort of counterpart to the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen that also aired on Monday night, but less loving.
The episode began, as widely reported/speculated, with a funeral scene, which established that essentially no one but Alan (Jon Cryer) had the barest emotional connection to Charlie. The testimonials were dominated by his past conquests, who despised Charlie yet for some reason showed up to the funeral anyway, to list the STDs he left as his legacy.
To be fair, this was not really out of character for the show, but it was a tricky act. The split between Sheen and producer Chuck Lorre was bitter, and a comedy writer is rarely going to resist the chance to get the last word — in this case, by having Sheen’s character hit by a train (“His body just exploded, like a balloon full of meat”), and then his ashes spilled by a surprised Alan (a gag Rescue Me did better in its finale).
But the risk is that, in showily killing Charlie off and desecrating his cremains, the episode could have seemed to be flipping off longtime fans, who, after all, are longtime fans precisely because they liked Charlie — Sheen and Harper, to the extent they can be separated — or at least liked watching him. (I’m not a regular viewer, so I’ll let those fans decide how they took the send-off.) So the episode allowed itself a bit of a sincere moment, as Alan sat down with his brother’s urn (“Just like old times, huh? I’m talking, and you’re in a bottle, ignoring me”) and thanked Charlie for taking him in.
Still, the send-off largely lacked the sentiment of South Park when it killed off Chef after Isaac Hayes publicly broke with the show. In that case, the producers killed off Chef showily and made his character into a pedophile, but all in the context of sending the meta message that the Hayes who dissed their show was not the Hayes they knew. But for Alan’s goodbye, the message felt more like: the Charlie you knew was the Charlie we knew, and good riddance to him.
Then it was time to integrate Kutcher, playing lovelorn Internet billionaire Walden Schmidt. I’ve liked Kutcher as a comic actor since That ’70s Show, and I liked his performance here. I’m not convinced, though, that that performance makes sense for this show. From Kelso on, Kutcher has had a certain comic personality — essentially sweet, even when he was punking someone — that doesn’t translate to the gin-soaked nihilism of Charlieworld. His first episode solved that issue by essentially making him disoriented from his suicidal depression. After a night at the bar with Alan, he ended up doing something that Charlie might have — going off for a threesome with two women while Alan went on to make margaritas — but he seemed less uncaring about Alan than simply dazed and unaware.
But the episode also established that Walden is smart — or at least he says he is — so I don’t see how often the show can get him into Charlie-esque situations by putting him in an emotional fog. (Though it’s possible, I guess, that the show could replace Charlie’s aggressive darkness with Walden’s depressive darkness.) Two and a Half Men seems to have decided that Walden is not the sharp-edged social shark that Charlie was. (He’s a hugger! A naked hugger! With a gigantic penis!) But that character does not necessarily fit into Men‘s brand of comedy, nor am I sure that,
after nine years in its ninth year, Men is particularly interested in changing. It’s far too early to judge Kutcher’s success after half an episode, of course. But while the premiere was titled “Nice to Meet You, Walden Schmidt,” I’m not sure how much niceness Two and a Half Men really wants to accommodate.
Niceness was not much of a commodity at the Roast of Charlie Sheen, but that, of course, is part of the business. The show, whether intended this way or not, was part of Sheen’s recent rehab (image, that is, not the other kind) in which he displayed contrition, sportsmanship and at least an hour and a half of relative stability in exchange for restarting his career. (He’s currently peddling a sitcom.)
And while the jokes were as barbed as you’d expect at a roast, they focused — like much of the post-Charlie-meltdown humor — on the partying, screwing and drugging Charlie, as opposed to the terrifying-to-women Charlie. (There were exceptions, including Seth MacFarlane’s intro: “You’ve seen him on TV, you’ve seen him in movies, and if you’re a prostitute, you’ve seen him point a gun in your face.”)
If it hurt, there is apparently some consolation: the Hollywood press on Tuesday was reporting that Sheen is close to a settlement with Two and a Half Men‘s studio, Warner Bros., that will earn him around $25 million. [Update: Two and a Half Men pulled in nearly 28 million viewers on Monday night, one of the biggest sitcom audiences in years.] The Charlie Sheen meltdown may be over, but it’s still paying off all around.