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TV Tonight: Anger Management

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Prashant Gupta/FX Network

Sheen and Kenney in a scene from Anger Management's second episode.

Anger Management is about a former baseball player whose career was ended by anger issues and who in turn became a therapist. Anger Management is about the motley group of ragers and court-remanded cases who meet for group sessions in his office. Anger Management is about a divorced man trying to maintain his relationship with his daughter and stay on reasonable terms with his ex-wife.

But really, Anger Management is about Charlie Sheen getting a new TV show, and it acknowledges that off the bat. “You can’t fire me, I quit,” Charlie Goodson (Sheen) declares into the camera. “You want to replace me with some other guy, go ahead! It won’t be the same! You think I’m losing! I’m not! I’m–anyway, you get the idea…” he says.

Goodson, it turns out, is demonstrating a “bopping bag” that his patients can use to “express your anger in a healthy way.” But everything about the show, from the opening to the premise to the promo materials–Sheen walking away from a flaming train wreck, captioned, “A hostile makeover”–tells us this show is on the air because of, not in spite of, Sheen’s public meltdown, to give FX a transfusion of tigerblood. (And FX, of course, has rerun rights to Two and a Half Men, which will introduce Anger Management’s debut with a 12-hour marathon.)

There will be plenty of argument about why Sheen is in another TV show, but at least Anger Management reminds us of one reason: that he’s a gifted sitcom actor with sharp timing and delivery. Whatever effect his personal life has had on him–craggy and gaunt, he looks much more than a year older than last we saw him in primetime–he can still give an effortless reaction shot and put sarcastic backspin on a line. And the show, produced by Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show) gives Sheen strong backup, including Brett Butler as a sardonic bartender pal, and Selma Blair as Charlie’s hookup buddy and therapist. (Yes, Charlie has his own therapist: this is like the wacky-comedy version of In Treatment.)

Except for having a middle-aged male protagonist, Anger Management doesn’t have a lot in common with FX’s other genre-bending comedy series. (Wilfred and the fantastic third season of Louie return the same night.) It’s much more like a raunchy CBS comedy, a la Two Broke Girls, or Sheen’s old Two and a Half Men. Which is to say it’s sometimes broadly funny and sometimes broadly bad.

Of the two episodes sent to critics, both airing tonight, the first is much better. It introduces Charlie with his motley group of patients–a passive-aggressive gay man, a grumpy and homophobic Vietnam Vet, a hot chick on court-ordered therapy. (“I asked for a female therapist!” “Really? The criminal court system’s usually so accommodating! Next time go through their concierge.”)

The group is there mostly to offer multiple targets for anti-p.c., rage-based humor. (Charlie makes the vet contribute to a “Queer Jar” for using the epithet so many times that, Charlie says, “You’re going to give the Gay Men’s Health Choir a hell of a holiday party.”) But they also establish Charlie as the least-angry-bird in the menagerie, struggling over his impulses–meta alert–to control his outbursts and keep things professional. It doesn’t exactly aim deep; Charlie even counsels a second group, in a prison, with all the cellmate-stabbing and prison-sex gags you’d predict. But it promises a competent, zinger-based, dark-ish comedy with some kind of character grounding: a flawed guy trying to keep it together.

The second, “Charlie and the Slumpbuster,” however, suggests a much meaner, less funny show. A new woman (Kerri Kenney) shows up in Charlie’s group, it turns out under a pretense: back in Charlie’s minor-league days, he slept with her because of the superstition that a ballplayer can break a slump by having sex with the ugliest woman he can find. Charlie dates her again, out of guilt and to restore her confidence–but pretty much the entire joke is based on the audience’s horror at Charlie being forced to date a less-than-hottie. It’s not just mean-spirited but cheap, a way to make the putdown more comfortable to laugh at. (Ironically, one standout aspect of Helford’s underrated Drew Carey Show was that, even though it had plenty of insult humor, it deliberately avoided targeting Drew’s rival Mimi with obvious and easy fat jokes, and she gave as good as she got.)

When Anger Management tries to have it both ways with its character—and when that character, like Charlie Harper, so blatantly plays off Sheen’s persona—it’s impossible to ignore how Sheen and FX are also trying to have it both ways here. FX is not just hiring an actor with a history of drug and violence-against-women issues, but using a wink-wink marketing campaign to leverage that history into ratings. Sheen is not just getting paid to rehabilitate his image on TV, he gets to play-act, through his character, at growing, learning and mastering his impulses, whether or not he does anything about them in real life. (Charlie Harper, after all, was gleefully unrepentant; Charlie Goodson is supposed to be learning from his past.) Sheen has a right to work and FX has a right to hire him, but that’s what this is—business. But if Anger Management scores good ratings, just wait for the “America to Charlie: All Is Forgiven!” headlines.

Now, maybe you don’t think Sheen has anything he needs to be forgiven for. Maybe you don’t think its your job to reward or punish actors with your TV viewing. Maybe you just want to know if Anger Management is a good show. Fair enough: there’s enough in the first episode to suggest that Anger Management could be a decent cynical comedy if it wanted to. And there’s enough in the second episode to suggest it doesn’t really want to. In comedy as in therapy, and as with anger issues both fictional and real-life, you can’t fix your problems if you don’t want to admit you have any.

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