Charlie Sheen

Why did FX order potentially 100 episodes of a sitcom starring an actor who disastrously flamed out in a media explosion of drugs, hookers, quasi-intelligible rants and legal action just six months ago?

As you know, FX just committed to 10 episodes of Sheen’s Anger Management, a sitcom loosely based on the 2003 film of the same title. If that first batch of episodes earn a certain rating, FX is obligated to buy 90 more. (It’s a go-big-or-go-home style of production deal pioneered by Tyler Perry with TBS comedies like Meet the Browns and House of Payne.) Quipped Time‘s James Poniewozik on Twitter: “I’d advise taping them all in like a week, just to be safe.”

Here’s why FX made a deal with the warlock:

1. The potential upside is huge. If Anger Management can bring a slice of Two and a Half Men numbers to FX, the show would be a game changer. FX’s top-rated comedy is It’s Always Sunny, which draws roughly 2 million viewers. Nobody expects Anger Management to get the CBS comedy’s 15 million viewers, but there’s a lot of territory between those two shows that would certainly be terrific for FX.

2. This is a new Charlie. Not behind the scenes — I don’t yet buy Sheen’s whole humble new media makeover. But his character on Anger Management is intriguingly different than Men‘s hedonistic and callous Charlie Harper, yet still plays off his own image. The character is described by insiders as contrite and self aware about his issues (in this case, anger issues); a man who’s worked hard to gain a measure of self control. He has a 13-year-old daughter and a female best friend who’s also a therapist. The character is like what Charlie Sheen wants to be, as one person familiar with the situation put it. That sort of lead character shading intrigued FX executives and seems on brand for a network that’s always embraced anti-heroes.

3. The ratings for those first 10 episodes? They need to be high. Sources won’t give an exact number, but in order to trigger the remaining 90, FX’s deal with producers require Anger Management to give a very strong initial performance. If the agreed-upon threshold isn’t met, then the comedy becomes just like any other show — and FX can choose to negotiate a short additional order or walk away. The high bar gives a fair amount of insurance that AM can only get the full order if it proves to be a hit.

4. Two and a Half Men: Repeats of Sheen’s previous sitcom are a very solid draw on FX (averaging 800,000 adults 18-49). Adding Anger Management gives FX a potential vehicle for cross-promotion, rejuvenating its investment in Men and helping provide a platform to push AM. “A rising tide…” etc.

5. It’s a total gamble and FX knows it. There doesn’t seem to be illusions on FX’s side about what they’re getting into. Sheen may be contrite and sober for the moment, but he’s still a self-confessed hard drug user with a history of cycling between periods of keeping-it-together professionalism and tabloid-headline mayhem. The network isn’t responsible for insuring the actor (the network is not producing the show, just distributing it — another key point), yet there are a million other ways the actor can cause FX a major headache (all it takes is Sheen turning on his webcam to ruin your whole day). But as one FX insider put it: Every network series order contains a strong element of risk. Terriers, American Horror Story, Dirt, Sons of Anarchy — all risks. Betting on Sheen has a huge plus (he’s TV’s biggest comedy draw of 2010!) and a epic minus (he’s TV’s biggest disaster of 2011!). But taking risks on programming is part of FX’s image. And the sense seems to be: Since every show is a gamble anyway, why not play with the high rollers? So to speak.

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