Charlie drinks too much, hooks up with a never-ending procession of women, and dismisses his reprobate life with shrugging one-liners. The fact that ”Charlie” can apply to both Charlie Harper, the decadent songwriter on Two and a Half Men, and the Sheen who plays him only makes the success of this sitcom more intriguing.
To watch Two and a Half Men in the wake of just the latest real-life Sheen scandal — his October trashing of a New York hotel room during an alleged drug-and-sex bout as his ex-wife and kids slept down the hall — can be a jarring experience. So many lines in this sitcom, a hit since its 2003 premiere, could come straight from a Charlie Sheen interview. ”My baggage is extra icky,” Charlie Harper said in a recent episode. ”That’s actually a quote from a former girlfriend.” In another edition, Charlie’s long-suffering brother, Alan (the amusingly dry Jon Cryer), puts a helmet on his drunk sibling, saying he’s ”childproofing” him. This, after getting a big studio-audience laugh just for saying to Charlie, ”You’ve got a drinking problem.”
The soused ladies’ man is, of course, a staple of comedy: From William Powell in the 1930s Thin Man movies to Dudley Moore in 1981’s Arthur, the wisecracking drunk exuded a certain charm. The evolution of Two and a Half Men suggests that this sort of character is eternally appealing, even in these days of socially correct sobriety. When the series started, the laughs were pretty evenly distributed among Cryer’s neurotic loser Alan; his What, me worry? son, Jake (the stolid Angus T. Jones); and wily Charlie.
But as the seasons have gone by, Cryer, Jones, and costars Holland Taylor (as the brothers’ mother) and Conchata Ferrell (as their housekeeper) have more and more often simply been reacting to whatever scrape Charlie’s wild ways have gotten him into. No one on the show seems to put anything past Charlie. When he yells for Alan to come up to his bedroom immediately, Alan offers a quick prayer with a sigh: ”Please, God, don’t let there be a dead girl.” Har-har.
Take away the halfhour format and the studio giggles, and Two and a Half Men becomes the tragedy of a successful man brought low and made despicable by his compulsive behavior. It’s the old comedy-is-the- flip-side-of-tragedy trope. But with Sheen — who truly gives a fine performance, full of sly glances, artful double takes, and more subtle line readings than most of his costars — a subtext of danger laces the show with some suspense. You get the feeling that this week’s script could easily turn into next week’s tabloid headline. B?