After a well-publicized split with Chuck Lorre and the hit sitcom Two And A Half Men and a subsequent multimedia assault in the midst of what appeared to be a split with reality, Charlie Sheen returns to television with tonight’s Anger Management on FX. Erik Adams and Todd VanDerWerff have seen the first two episodes. Here they talk over the series’ good points and bad, and decide which outweighs the other.
Todd VanDerWerff: What’s most surprising about Anger Management is that there’s a competent sitcom hiding somewhere inside of it. Don’t get me wrong: This show is largely awful. But that’s for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the content of the scripts, which have some well-constructed jokes that made me smile a time or two. Where other shows might try to coast on star Charlie Sheen’s “charm,” creator Bruce Helford (a longtime sitcom vet, whose most famous creation is The Drew Carey Show) shows that he and this writing staff still know how to craft solid setups and punchlines. (In between all of the offensive storylines and Sheen hero-worship, at least.) I was able to admire the joke construction—though not exactly laugh out loud—while everything else was falling apart around it. Make no mistake: The biggest problem with this show is Sheen, but not for the reasons anyone would think.
The major complaint against Anger Management before a single frame had been filmed was that it starred Sheen, whose bad-boy image had escalated from drug abuse to serious domestic-violence allegations. The idea of trying to be cheeky about this, of making Sheen the star of a series about a therapist who leads anger-management sessions and has anger problems himself, was repugnant to many, myself included.
Yet as the episode got started, I was willing to go with this. The idea of a series set around an anger-management group is a good one, even if it’s derivative, and the members of Sheen’s group include some fine actors, including the great Barry Corbin. Giving Sheen a teenage daughter is a fairly predictable way totry to “soften” him, but it almost works in practice, as does casting Shawnee Smith as his ex-wife. She gives as good as she gets, and I briefly found myself fantasy-casting a2006 version of this show that starred Robert Downey Jr., with all of the other actors in the same role. (At the very least, this would guarantee Daniela Bobadilla, the actress playing the teenage daughter, wouldn’t be a 19-year-old playing what appears to be 13.)
The problems with Sheen, however, extend from the fact that all involved are very much aware this is a comeback project for him and, worse, an image-rehabilitation project. The show never shakes the sense that it’s a court-mandated sitcom, that some judge somewhere ordered Sheen to come up with a show where he could work out his issues live and on screen before viewers. There’s a moment of real and dark despair in tonight’s pilot, in which Sheen picks up a household object and threatens another man with it, and it fizzles out, simply because all involved seem aware that making Sheen an actual figure of menace would play too much into the image problems he’s had. So the “angry” aspect of the character is mostly neutered, which leaves Sheen wandering around and being what counts for a fount of wisdom on TV. Since Sheen excels at playing over-the-top bad boys, it’s a curious choice, and one that makes the show feel borderline somnambulant.
There’s a gritty, incredibly dark little single-camera comedy hidden in this series. Yet the current version brightens everything (thanks to being filmed cheaply and quickly in multi-camera style), and it clashes with the central story of a man trying to get his demons under control. I’m usually a proponent of the multi-cam style, but it’s just all wrong for this project, and it leaves the characters in a place where they can’t express real emotion, lest things get too real, too quickly. The show also has far too much premise: Sheen’s character (also named Charlie) has two anger-management groups to supervise, anger issues of his own, an ex-wife, a daughter, a best friend, a bartender he talks to, and a fellow therapist he’s also sleeping with, all of whom seem to exist in entirely different series from one another. And that’s before adding on the show’s offensive elements, like the fact that all of its women are gross stereotypes (outside of, occasionally, Smith) or the way it treats two gay characters in Charlie’s prison anger-management group.
Wait? Didn’t I say there were some things I sort of grudgingly liked about this? I may have talked myself out of that. Erik, was I wrong?
Erik Adams: I don’t think you’re wrong to have glimpsed some potential, Todd. Watching the two episodes of Anger Management FX submitted to critics, it occurred to me that there’s a lot of comedy to mine from the rage, frustration, and resentment presumably felt by the show’s characters. We also agree on another count: No one on this show—Charlie’s clients, his ex-wife, the bartender (played by Sheen’s cohort in The Anti-Chuck Lorre League, Brett Butler), or even Charlie himself—really expresses the emotion alluded to in the title. Oh, sure, they talk about it, but that’s the danger of setting a show around a therapy group: There’s a lot of talking about the obstacles these characters face in day-to-day life, but precious little material where they actually encounter those obstacles. Anger Management is a series based around anger, not so much in it.
That makes the sitcom an odd fit for FX, which carved a Thursday-night niche for itself with the legitimately maladjusted characters of Louie, Archer, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Wilfred. In its early goings, Anger Management simply plays at that type of dysfunction: The pilot introduces Charlie’s daughter, Sam, by way of her own personal anxiety, but it’s done cheaply and coarsely and dropped much to quickly. And even with the pilot’s tendency to tell rather than show, it’s difficult to glean why Derek Richardson’s timid, affable Nolan is a member of Charlie’s main therapy group—aside from providing a target at which Noureen DeWulf can stare heavily mascaraed daggers.
But character problems and performance hiccups can be ironed out over the course of the show’s potential 100-episode windfall. (Though I’m surprised to see you cite the Sheen-Smith dynamic as one Anger Management’s bright spots, since to my eyes and ears, Smith’s performance lacks the edge necessary to give their tête-à-tête life.) What will be harder for Helford and his writers to fix over the course of those additional 90 episodes—which are predicated on the success of the show’s first 10 episodes—are the pacing and tonal issues of the pilot and “Charlie And The Slumpbuster,” which both have a lumpy, draggy quality that makes their running time feel much longer than 22 minutes. It doesn’t help that there’s so much information packed into the première: A decent comedy pilot shouldn’t be afraid to plunge viewers into the deep end, but the first episode of Anger Management plunges our heads underwater again and again and again.
Then again, those characteristics could be chalked up to the unorthodox manner in which Anger Management is being produced. Though there’s a huge segment of the television audience awaiting Sheen’s return to the air (out of sincerity and the rubbernecking impulse played up in FX’s ad campaign for the show), the series is a tremendous gamble for the people bankrolling it. There’s no time for Anger Management to find itself, which results in the frantic way the series lays out all of its cards in the first 22 minutes. This thing needs to be an immediate hit, so it immediately hits us with everything it has.
We’ve gone over some of that “everything,” but haven’t dug into what could prove to be Anger Management’s most engaging element: Charlie’s relationship with fellow therapist/no-strings-attached paramour Kate, as played by Selma Blair. These two have a lot of the spark-and-venom that goes missing from Charlie’s scenes with Smith’s character, and their arrangement is the source of the pilot’s cleverest turns. Do you feel the same, Todd, or is this just more vaguely comedic water over the dam?
TV: I have to admit that I found the whole Kate storyline too predictable to really enjoy. There’s a final twist in which everything returns to the status quo that had me groaning, and then she’s utterly wasted in the second episode, which ends up not bothering with much of the supporting cast as established in the pilot (a very strange choice, likely driven by budgetary measures—but if that’s the case, why have so many actors in the pilot to begin with?). I like what Selma Blair’s trying to do with the character, I guess, but I’m more or less tired of the smart, acid-tongued woman who just can’t wait to hop into bed with someone like Charlie. At the very least, Charlie’s ex-wife has a certain world-weary irritation that’s slightly charming. Kate doesn’t even have that.
The glimmers of hope I saw here and there remain just that: glimmers. They’re almost always stomped out by the show’s desire to race on to something else. And, honestly, they might just be functions of the way the pilot needs to get all of its cards out on the table. The second episode, which hunkers down and focuses more on the core cast and their problems, is significantly worse than the pilot. There are still a handful of well-constructed jokes—though, again, jokes I didn’t laugh at—but the story, about a formerly fat woman Charlie meets at a pie-eating contest then sleeps with in an attempt to break a slump he went through as a minor-league baseball player (yes, that’s really in there), is plodding, lumpy, and horrifically off-point about the guest character.
I’d like to cut everybody involved with the show some slack, since they’re working under insanely restrictive conditions, but every time the show tries to do something to save itself from its own awfulness, it carries a feeling of too little, too late. To return to the second episode, Charlie ends up in a fake relationship with the woman, using her for entirely different reasons than he used her to end his slump, but when the show tries to point out how awful this is and humanize the character, it’s already loaded her up with every lonely-woman cliché it can think of, right down to the multiple cats. Anger Management has never met an easy joke about women or minorities it didn’t like, and that makes it harder to swallow the moments where it wants to be sincere about anything.
Am I wrong to read the show as largely horrific when it comes to women? I’d say even the Kate character can’t overcome the show’s inability to write a semi-realistic female, but your mileage may vary, Erik.
EA: Oh, Kate’s definitely the type of woman who exists only in the group mind of a sitcom writers’ room: She melts at the protagonist’s touch, reads his mind, doesn’t balk at declarations like, “I promise I will never love you—forever,” has no problem with him seeing other women, and ribs Charlie like she’s “one of the guys.” Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Charlie and Kate’s volleys come across like something approaching a success: She’s written like a man, but played by a woman. She’s the Secret Deodorant of sitcom characters.
Then again, of the other, similarly imaginary females populating these two episodes, she’s the one whom I’d be most willing to visit on a weekly basis. What bugs me about Jennifer, Charlie’s ex-wife, is how perpetually, drolly amused the character is with her former spouse. Television could certainly use a divorced couple that isn’t trying to claw each other’s eyes out at every turn, but it doesn’t help to redeem Sheen’s character to have her react with a wry “It’s a living”-style smirk when revisiting her ex’s infidelities. DeWulf’s Lacey would be Charlie’s date in the second episode if she weren’t one of his anger-management clients; she’s our requisite man-eater who’s also here to fill the quota of “women be crazy” punchlines. The titular “slumpbuster” is a tremendous misuse of The State’s Kerri Kenney-Silver, a funny actress visibly straining against thankless material.
Ultimately, Anger Management’s biggest failure lies in its inability to extricate itself from the context of Sheen’s Year Of The Tiger Blood. There’s one explicit allusion to the star’s turbulent 2011 in tonight’s première, but the whole enterprise gives off the “Ain’t I a stinker?” vibe that powered Sheen through his public implosion and rebirth as a chocolate-milk-swilling, “goddess”-worshipping, barnstorming folk hero. (Meanwhile, the flimsy female characterization coupled with Sheen’s own troubled past with women leave a disturbing aftertaste.) Most egregiously, after all he went through to leave Two And A Half Men, these two episodes suggest that Sheen didn’t even jump ship for a better program.
Anger Management isn’t being forged under ideal conditions, but, were it not for its lead actor, it could put its premise, its ensemble, and one of the four or five individual sitcoms buried in the jumble of the pilot to better use. Instead, Sheen’s public persona underlines the show’s human ugliness and undermines its sentimental moments; meanwhile, it grants Charlie Sheen’s bad behavior a free pass by painting Charlie Goodson’s difficult recovery in broadly comedic strokes. In the therapy world, I think they’d call that “enabling.”