Confirming something that I suspect most Americans thought had already happened, Warner Bros. Television announced that it is immediately terminating Charlie Sheen from Two and a Half Men, following the actor’s stints in and out of rehab, restraining orders, allegations of violence and rambling weeklong media bender.
The decision means a likely bonanza for Sheen’s legal warlocks, as Sheen has promised, almost with relish, a wrongful-termination lawsuit, claiming that his contract was breached. It means a possible revenue hit for Warner and CBS. [Disclosure: Time Warner is TIME’s parent company.]
But it does not, for the moment, mean an end to Sheen’s Constitutionally Incapable of Shutting Up About My Television Career Tour. Over the weekend, Sheen did a live webcast from his home, a.k.a. Sober Valley Lodge, and he’s already given a statement to TMZ (“This is very good news“). Nor does it necessarily mean that, next fall, there will not be new episodes of Two and a Half Men on your TV schedule.
After all, Warner could have just announced that the show was done (it didn’t). It still has money to make selling the show to CBS and to syndication, and CBS still has ad money to make off it. Firing Sheen quells rumors that they might take him back, while leaving open replacing him with — John Stamos? Emilio Estevez? Some guy with a pulse? A large stuffed bear? Does it really matter? The show may have been built around Sheen’s persona, but I’m not sure it, CBS or Warner are that concerned with its artistic integrity, and there are still millions to be made off another year or two of an aging show limping along with a replacement,* even if some Sheen fans are alienated — the reruns alone have been doing just fine.
*(Or no replacement! Q: Why call it Two and a Half Men if no one replaces one of them? A: Eh, just watch your TV. Problem solved!)
Another alternative: CBS pulls the plug and replaces Two and a Half Men with another sitcom next season. This might not be the financial blow you’d assume. Nine-year-old TV hits with huge stars — you may have heard that Sheen is the highest-paid sitcom star in prime time once or twice last week — are expensive to make. (See 24, no longer with us.) Yes, the show is worth a lot of ad money to CBS, but it’s not as if that money just disappears: a replacement show would also sell ads — for less, but it would be cheaper to produce. And the fact is — thanks, ironically, to Men — CBS has developed a strong stable of sitcoms from which to launch new ones.
It’s obviously riskier than simply keeping an old hit on the air, of course, or else networks would cancel old shows willy-nilly. But if a new show does well enough, it could be a wash or better for CBS in the long run. (Warner, which is in the gravy phase of selling an established hit into syndication, probably has even more motive to keep Men on the air than CBS.)
Why didn’t Warner or CBS step in much sooner, after the reports of Sheen’s partying and court cases? First: see “millions,” above. Second, while I don’t buy the Piers Morgan line that this is all about some rapscallion being punished by Puritans for partying — said “partying” includes multiple allegations by different women of violence, including strangling — I recognize that Sheen’s bosses couldn’t convict him of crimes that the legal system didn’t. (And I’ll agree with Morgan that CBS is not obligated to save Sheen from himself.)
But by becoming so publicly vitriolic toward the people he worked with (especially producer Chuck Lorre) and by making his unhinged behavior so unignorable, Sheen created a situation in which it was hard to imagine him working with them again.
As it is, it looks as if this case is headed for the courts, assuming cooler heads don’t prevail. And keep in mind, one of those heads is Charlie Sheen’s.