(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about—serialized dramas and single-camera comedies—are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff watches the first new episode of Two And A Half Men since February and the first to star Ashton Kutcher.)
Jaime Weinman, who’s one of my favorite TV critics, has always maintained that one of the big reasons Two And A Half Men grew so popular was because the storylines had actual stakes. Where other sitcoms told stories about minor domestic disputes that got blown out of proportion, Two And A Half Men told stories about rampant debauchery, depression, and families falling apart. Compared to something like Modern Family—a very popular show in its own right—the series is dealing in life and death territory. I don’t know if Weinman is right—I suspect if he is, most viewers don’t even realize this fact, preferring the show for those reasons subconsciously—but I do think he (and his theorized viewers) might have had a field day with “Nice To Meet You, Walden Schmidt,” a veritable cornucopia of death, depression, and domestic trauma.
As just about everybody’s known for ages, Charlie Sheen’s departing character, Charlie Harper, was written off via the oldest trick in the book: getting killed offscreen in such a fashion that his demolished corpse required a closed casket. Rather than being shot down into the Sea of Japan, however, Charlie fell—or was shoved—in front of a speeding train in Paris, causing him to explode like a “balloon full of meat.” Ha ha. Anyway, after the funeral all of the characters attend at the beginning, the character is cremated, solely so his remains can be accidentally scattered across the floor of his house, as you knew they must. In the meantime, his mother tries to sell his beach house, with prospective buyers including John Stamos (who once had a one-night fling with Charlie, a threesome that turned into a twosome) and Dharma and Greg. (I suppose I should say “Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson,” but, no, the two were actually playing Dharma and Greg, so that’s just easier.) Then after the closest thing the episode has to sentiment in Jon Cryer’s Alan addressing the urn containing his brother, Ashton Kutcher’s Walden Schmidt turns up, drenched, after trying to drown himself in the ocean and finding it too cold. Alan decides that Walden needs a pick-me-up and takes him out drinking, Walden hooks up with two hot chicks, and we’re in for another season of crazy, wacky times.
Outside of a couple of things—like the fact that Walden’s depressed because his wife Bridget (who will eventually be played by—sigh—Judy Greer) left him, despite him being an Internet billionaire—that story is pretty much all that happens in the episode. Granted, plot has never been important to Two And A Half Men, which mostly just comes up with wacky ideas for scenes, then strings dirty one-liners through those scenes, in the grand tradition of Chuck Lorre sitcoms since time immemorial. Lorre, who’s probably done more to give the multi-camera sitcom a bad name among the Internet generation, thanks to his avoidance of anything resembling a well-constructed plot and a love of lowest common denominator smut, has never been one to let bygones be bygones, and, thusly, he and his writers turned this season premiere—what could possibly be the most watched episode of Two And A Half Men ever—into a dismal way to lob spitballs at the departed Sheen, a chance to drag his character (and by extension, Sheen himself, who was heavily associated with the character) through the mud.
Can this sort of thing be funny? Of course. The South Park guys got a lot of great material out of Isaac Hayes’ departure, turning the last days of Chef in the titular town into a weird, weird way to work out grudges against both Hayes and the Church of Scientology. But that episode of television, unlike this one, was actually funny, a scathing attack on an incident that had hurt the feelings of two guys with a widely watched television show. You can feel Lorre and the other producers (including co-creator Lee Aronsohn, who’s another of four writers credited on the script) straining to achieve this kind of wildly pissed off but still hilarious tone, but they never get there, which makes the whole thing feel that much more strained. It becomes a vicious circle, and the Charlie bashing goes on forever. First, there’s a lengthy funeral sequence, with lots of Charlie’s old girlfriends (and Martin Mull!) dropping by to hurl witty insults that aren’t horribly witty (mostly just kicking the guy’s corpse for fun and profit). Then there’s a scene where the regular cast members sit around the house Charlie and Alan lived in and take even more of a dump on Charlie. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Sheen.
In fact, you know all of that stuff I said up above about how Lorre’s poor reputation on the Internet stems from his failure to construct good plots and his love of lowest-common-denominator smut? Yeah, forget I said that. Because, really, that extends only to this show. Lorre’s best works—from the second season of The Big Bang Theory to some of the earlier seasons of his ’90s shows—are all shows where the snark and anger is undercut by a leavening sweetness. Some creators can work dark; Lorre has a tendency to chase himself even further into the cave when that’s the case. Of course, Lorre, who’s worked with Roseanne, Brett Butler, Cybill Shepherd, and now Sheen, has a unique talent for getting involved with stars who are going to push his buttons (and vice versa). This, again, feeds into the vicious circle, where shows get more and more mean-spirited, more and more vituperative, harder and harder to take. (There’s a reason Dharma and Greg popped by tonight: Until Big Bang Theory, the show those two starred on was Lorre’s most successful that wasn’t also plagued by battles between the star and the producer.)
Again, Two And A Half Men is a dark, dirty, smutty show. It thrives on horrible jokes that are in poor taste and leave you laughing in shock, amazed that the show would go there. (Weinman has also called it the dirtiest show on network television, and he’s almost certainly right.) I can’t call myself a fan of this show, but I’ve seen enough of it over the years to realize that when it nails a punchline, it can really nail a punchline. They may be few and far between, but the cast knows a good line when it hears one, and the writers have pared this down to an efficient one-liner delivery system. Everybody’s a lowest-common-denominator type—Angus T. Jones’ Jake (the “half man,” for those of you keeping track at home) spends much of the post-funeral scene farting tonight—but the show pursues those types aggressively and relentlessly. It gets its teeth into this material and won’t let go until that material is bloodied and shredded.
All of this is to say that Ashton Kutcher is going to be a horrible fit on this show.
I mean, yes, I’m basing this on one episode. And the series could, conceivably, come up with a way to use him that’s better than what feels like a randier riff on his Kelso character from That ’70s Show. But the problem is that television—particularly comedic television—often reduces people to a thing they can do, then asks them to do that thing over and over again. This episode asks Kutcher to play three different ideas all at once, and not a one of them registers. He’s not horribly believable as a sad sack. (He looks like Ashton Kutcher and he’s got over a billion dollars? C’mon. No way he could be that sad.) He does better as kind of a dumb guy who doesn’t realize how attractive he is, but, again, that’s a Kelso riff. And he’s also pretty bad at playing the second coming of Charlie, a guy who stumbles ass-backward into being a playboy. Oh, also, he apparently has a huge penis, something that gets joke after joke tossed in its direction. (His testicles also get jokes.)
The problem here is that Lorre and company seem to be trying to retroactively fit a sweeter temperament into the middle of his most successful show in its ninth season, even though that show became famous for its aggressively cynical material. Walden isn’t the playboy guy; he’s the guy who’s sad his wife left him, even though he’s got enough money to land any woman in the world. It’s sort of weird to have him pop up in the middle of this show, as if he’s always been there (even though he hasn’t). Will he be allowing Jake and Alan to stay on? Presumably so, and he’ll presumably develop relationships with the other characters as well, but there’s no good indication of just what he brings to the show in this episode, other than a chance to take a break from “Ha, ha, Charlie Sheen’s an asshole and let’s piss on his grave” jokes in favor of “Ashton Kutcher: Big Penis” jokes.
It’s always tricky to replace a character on a long-running sitcom, particularly a lead character. To my mind, only Cheers has managed the trick, and that was a show with such a strong ensemble that it could get by with the writers taking a little time to figure out just who Rebecca Howe was and just what Kirstie Alley could play the most humorously. (Plus, it was only a show in its sixth season. That’s old for a TV show, but it’s no season nine, as Men has entered.) Cheers managed the trick by keeping Diane’s basic function—the love interest who stays just out of reach—and replacing it with a whole new character. The problem is that Charlie Harper’s function was never horribly well defined. He was just a guy who sat around and tossed out horrible one-liners. So that means that Walden Schmidt feels a little desperate, a little too much like a show that prided itself on pushing people away as much as possible—a show that started with a funeral chorus of the theme song guys singing “Men” to the tune of the funeral march, for God’s sake—trying its darnedest to get people to like it. God willing, it’s not going to work out.