(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, Leonard Pierce looks at TV's top scripted comedy, Two and a Half Men. Next week, Noel Murray will examine its top scripted drama, NCIS.)
Shows like Two And A Half Men seem to serve as an example of the tunnel vision (or should I say snobbery?) of which critics are capable. We're so deeply immersed in the shows that deliver what we're looking for in a quality show that we become blind to what everyone else is actually watching. We're hyper-attuned to the ins and outs of shows that are hanging on by a thread in the ratings, while a juggernaut that's been watched by millions of people for seven seasons barely registers with us. Whenever we're confronted with this sort of disconnect between what we like and what the rest of the world obviously prefers, we undergo a sort of existential panic: Are we really that out of touch with popular tastes? Or do these shows really fucking suck?
Since its debut in 2003, Two And A Half Men hasn't even been on my radar. I've caught bits and pieces of the ends of episodes while waiting for something else to come on, but that's been the extent of my exposure to the most popular comedy on television. Of course, the quality of those bits and pieces of the ends of episodes have been bad enough to make me actively avoid tuning in. But the fact remains that the show, for me, is mostly the vehicle through which Charlie Sheen is able to realize his dreams of becoming one of Hollywood's biggest scumbags.
So I'm heading into a review of one of the biggest shows on TV with precious little knowledge of it. Embarrassingly, I didn't even know what it was about. I knew it was about two grown men raising a kid, and I knew from the aggravatingly catchy theme song that its humor largely derived from manly-man dude humor (which I've always found incredibly cheap and insulting, which may account for my lack of interest in the show). But—and here's that critical bubble for you—I didn't even know the basic premise, the situation of this particular situation comedy. So, in the unfortunate circumstance that you're like me, here it is: The two men of the title are Charlie Sheen as Charlie Harper, a freewheeling bachelor, successful jingle writer, and typical sitcom dude, and Jon Cryer as Alan Harper, his brother, a divorced chiropractor and "sensitive guy." The half-man is Alan's son Jake, a doughy tween cipher whose future is being shaped by the divergent influences of these two knuckle-fucks.
It seems like a serviceable enough idea for a sitcom, perfectly designed for the kind of viewer who goes for this sort of thing and doesn't want to have to spend an hour figuring out the nuances of the jokes on a half-hour sitcom. I can't and won't deny charges of having very specific tastes in entertainment; I dislike the loaded words "snobbery" and "elitism," but I like what I like. I don't take these things personally, though; it doesn't offend me when a show I find boring or predictable tops the ratings, while a show I think is clever and original struggles. That's the way things are, and you can't talk people into liking something they don't like. I also have no aversion to traditional sitcom formula; not every show can be Arrested Development, and some of my very favorite comedies, from Get Smart to WKRP In Cincinnati to Newhart, have been more or less straightforward, multi-camera, CBS sitcoms. Though what little I'd seen of Two And A Half Men didn't inspire me, I could see it being worthwhile, as long as it was well-written and not grossly offensive.
Therein, of course, lies the problem. Not knowing much about why people did like this show means I also didn't know why people didn't like it. While we were planning these reviews, my editor opined that it's "a fairly well-constructed show, but it's a mercilessly mean-spirited one." That didn't necessarily bother me; mean-spirited can be funny if it's not done half-assed. More problematic, as I looked into it, was the widely held belief that the show was mercilessly sexist, and the common complaint that it relied on cheap, predictable jokes (which usually go hand in hand with gender-stereotype humor). The title of tonight's episode—"The Crazy Bitch Gazette"—didn't do much to lift those worries.
There was reason to be hopeful; Don Reo, a veteran of some excellent TV comedies, is a producer on the show, and the original story was co-written by old school pro Eddie Gorodetsky. Once the episode began, though, it immediately began overplaying its hand. Now isn't the time or place to restart the debate over whether or not the laugh track (or the use of a live, studio audience) should be consigned to the trash bin of TV history (short answer: yes), but it's pretty depressing that at this stage of the game, 60 years into sitcom history, it's still being used so awkwardly. Especially on a show with this level of mass appeal, I understand the need to punch up its impact, but throwing the laugh track in front of non-jokes like "We used to date" and "Add to cart" is just wearying. Also a bit frustrating—and one reason, I think, in an era where audiences expect better performances out of their television, that single-camera sitcoms are gaining traction—is the way the cast oversells every joke with overblown facial expressions. Cryer, in particular, is capable of solid acting, but you certainly wouldn't know it from his mugging here.
The plot of "The Crazy Bitch Gazette" involves Charlie getting seriously involved with his dermatologist Michelle, who's accepting of all of his various flaws and foibles—except his inability to rid himself of ex-girlfriend/neighbor/stalker Rose (Melanie Lynskey). Rose claims to be getting married, which shocks Charlie into the realization that he might not truly be over her. Of course, we learn, even if he doesn't), that she really is a crazy bitch after all, who's staging her marriage to fashion industry bigwig Manfred Quinn ("Manny Quin"—get it?) just to drive him nuts. (The episode begins with a date between Charlie and Michelle that turns into an awkward dinner with his brother and mother. It's reminiscent of similar situations in comedy-of-humiliation sitcoms, like the "Dinner Party" episode of The Office, but for that premise to work, everyone has to appear to have a stake in things going well. If no one takes the stakes seriously, the joke fizzles like a wet firecracker.)
There's actually something to be said for Two And Half Men, if "The Crazy Bitch Gazette" is anything like a typical episode. (I'm betting it's not, though, if for no other reason than the half-man is on screen for all of ten seconds, just enough time to remind viewers that he looks like he's in his early 20s.) It really does have a solid sitcom construction; its pace is light and breezy—it hardly even seems to fill up 22 minutes— and mixed in with all the unfunny stuff and the jokes you can see coming all the way from the Pacific Ocean, there are some pretty solid lines. It's very easy to see why it would hit home as undemanding, comfort-food comedy for millions of viewers.
But it's also easy to see why critics choose to give it a miss. At a time when there are dozens of worthwhile shows on television, Two And A Half Men delivers nothing we haven't seen before. Even what it does well, other shows do better, without all the tedious baggage. Perhaps most unusual for a show that is such a ratings blockbuster, it doesn't seem very confident in itself: Every joke is oversold, and far too often, another line of dialogue is wasted in explaining the previous joke, which is time that could be spent telling a new joke. Characters like Berta the housekeeper and Evelyn, Charlie and Alan's mother, are without even a shade of originality; they could have been drawn from central casting 35 years ago. Shows like this are sometimes called 'fast food entertainment', and it's easy to see why: like a junky drive-through burger reduces a meal to a mere nutritional operation, Two And A Half Men converts comedy into a stripped-down entertainment delivery process that's forgotten five minutes after its over. There's nothing wrong with that; everybody fills up on junk from time to time. It's just not something you want to make into a habit.
- "On the list of things I expect to kill me, mercury poisoning ranks well behind liver failure, getting struck by lightning, and heart attack during sex."
- "And here comes the poorest shmuck I know."
- "The last time I met one of Charlie's dates, I was picking glitter off my skin for a week."
- "Not that every woman Charlie dates is a stripper. I couldn't picture you stripping, for example. I mean, I can picture it …"
- "I'm not sure how to get home from this side of the house."