Two and a Half Men and the rise and fall of the mean sitcom.

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March 28 2011 7:04 AM

Play Nice

The rise—and fall?—of the mean sitcom.

Still from Modern Family. Click image to expand.
Modern Family

In the days after Charlie Sheen's spectacular implosion, CBS kept saying that his hit series, Two and a Half Men, would soldier on. But that's seeming less and less likely. For one thing, it's hard to imagine the show without Sheen. Few actors can match his smugness, his snarl, his blanket disdain for fellow human beings.

If Two and a Half Men does die, let's hope a TV trend goes with it: the half-hour of meanness. That's Two and a Half Men in a nutshell: a family show in which the central family value is contempt. Charlie Harper (Sheen), a rich, oversexed jingle writer, bankrolls his broke younger brother Alan (Jon Cryer) while constantly putting him down. Alan swipes back lamely. Alan's son calls his father a loser and his uncle a lush. Occasionally, Charlie and Alan's mother drops by and hurls insults at all two and a half of them.

Clearly, people like this sort of thing. For most of its eight seasons, Two and a Half Men has been the nation's top-rated comedy, and if Sheen hadn't self-destructed, there would have been no reason to change the formula.

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But Two and a Half Men finds its future uncertain at a time when Americans finally seem to have maxed out on bullying (states are passing laws to stop it), on cruel awards-show hosts (Ricky Gervais is done emceeing the Golden Globes) and even on some of the most extreme political chatter (Glenn Beck's ratings are down on Fox). Perhaps it's little surprise that viewers are also embracing a new trend in TV comedy: the sitcom about people who are nice to each other.

That's what Christopher Lloyd and his producing partner, Steven Levitan, were aiming for when they developed the ABC hit Modern Family. The show, which premiered in 2009, won last year's Emmy for best comedy. Episodes routinely end with a sweet voice-over or a heartwarming moment. "We didn't want to be cynical, we didn't want to be snarky." Lloyd told me. "[A] word that we used a lot was nourishing."

The concept of nourishing the soul—like a fable or worse, an After-School Special—is anathema to a series like Two and a Half Men, which might bring a character to the brink of showing sincere emotion, but always pulls back at the last moment in favor of a barb. The emotional bait-and-switch was also a hallmark of shows like Arrested Development and Extras. In recent years, "what had happened in comedy was that for some reason it was a race for who could say the most outrageous thing," says Lloyd. "There was never going to be any sentiment."

Sitcoms have always had the potential for meanness, largely thanks to the laugh track, once a TV staple that now survives largely on CBS, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel. It demands a rhythm of setup-joke-repeat, which lends itself to wisecracks and grouchy catchphrases. ("One of these days, Alice ...") On multicamera shows, characters who supposedly adore each other still spend a lot of time putting each other down. If your real friends ever talked to you the way the characters on Friends did, you'd probably stop calling them back.

But in the past, plenty of characters who mocked each other still wound up hugging in the end. Workplace comedies were often built on mutual affection, epitomized by the gang from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which ended its run, famously, with a group hug).Family comedies, from The Brady Bunch to Diff'rent Strokes, offered tidy moral lessons.

Indeed, the truly cynical sitcoms of more recent memory might have been a reaction to the glut of family shows that flourished in the '80s, force-feeding viewers wisdom from the likes of Nell Carter and Charlotte Rae. Fox's Married with Children, which premiered in 1987, turned family dysfunction into a sort of contact sport. Seinfeld debuted three years later with a proud absence of redeeming characters or uplifting story lines. Creator Larry David's mantra was "no hugging, no learning," and that approach spread steadily across networks and formats.

Some series bought into David's philosophy more than others. Frasier, another Christopher Lloyd production, had its share of sentimental moments, and the '90s did give us Mad About You. But much of the critically-acclaimed TV comedy from the '90s through the mid-2000s fixated on the nastier sides of human nature—and saw affection, redemption, and contrition as signs of comic weakness. Family Guy, with its matricidal baby, became a hit. Arrested Development, with its Ron Howard voice-over, brought Opie over to the dark side. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphiabasked in its characters' detestability. Flight of the Conchordsgave us brilliant music parodies and the nonstop humiliation of the band members, who never seemed to like each other much.