In CBS's sitcom Two and a Half Men (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET), Charlie Sheen plays Charlie Harper, a dissipated L.A. jingle writer whose hedonistic life is disrupted when his uptight brother, Alan, moves into Charlie's swinging Malibu beach house. Like the Odd Couple's Felix Unger, Alan has been dumped by his wife, Judith, but the show's creators have updated the scenario by making Judith a lesbian and by saddling Alan (and by extension, Charlie) with an emotionally wounded 10-year old son, Jake. If this wasn't enough "situation" for a half-hour comedy, the show occasionally throws in the brothers' castrating mother, Evelyn; a cranky, truth-telling housekeeper named Berta; and their wacky neighbor Rose, a sweet young thing who mistook her one-night stand with Charlie for true love and who now stalks the already put-upon bachelor with unbounded devotion and loopy non sequiturs. With all this setup, it's amazing Two and a Half Men has any room to deliver its punch lines.
Despite its overloaded premise, Two and a Half Men is the most successful new comedy this year—the hit no one is talking about—at least judging by its Nielsen ratings. On Monday, Dec. 7, 13 percent of the American televisions in use were tuned to Two and a Half Men. Over 10 million people watch the show every week, and I don't know a single one of them. Two and a Half Men's apparent popularity stirs within me the same curious feelings as does the fact that NASCAR reportedly has 75 million fans. Wonderful, but who are they? Everybody Loves Raymond and CSI: Miami certainly deserve some credit, but as NBC's Coupling proved, being in the hammock between two hits (in that case, Will & Grace and ER) doesn't guarantee success.
If there is another answer as to why Two and a Half Men is thriving it probably lies with Charlie Sheen, who gives a solid performance as a party boy who doesn't so much find pleasure in his wanton ways as the comfort of routine. When the estranged brothers awkwardly reunite in the first episode, Alan tries to make small talk by asking what's new, and Charlie responds with the facts of his life. "Well, Alan, there's not much to say," says Sheen, who has his father Martin's fine, sandpapery voice. "I make a lot of money for doing very little work. I sleep with beautiful women who don't ask me about my feelings. I drive a Jag. I live at the beach. Sometimes, in the middle of the day, for no reason at all, I like to make myself a big pitcher of margaritas and take a nap out on the sun deck." Sheen delivers these lines as if he were just awakened from that margarita-induced midday nap—from the sound of it, he can barely be bothered to live the good life, much less gloat about it.
As for tempting fate by adding a kid to the mix, Two and a Half Men sidesteps the usual pitfalls of having him be overly cute or precocious. Jake Harper isn't as ingenious a creation as King of the Hill's Bobby Hill, but he is more genuinely childlike than most TV kids. Jake is pudgy and strange, an enthusiastic singer of his uncle's jingles but also prone to sulk and whine and display a child's rigid sense of order. Naturally he worships his fun-loving uncle, but Charlie resists his role as surrogate parent, especially when it interferes with one of his hangovers, and some of the show's best moments play like TV versions of a W.C. Fields' routine. When Charlie says the word "ass," Jake tells him he has to put a dollar in the swear jar. "Here," says Charlie, handing Jake a crisp bill. "Here's a twenty. That should cover me until lunch." Later, when Charlie needs to punish Jake for trashing the guest room, Charlie goes out and buys Jake an X-Box expressly to withhold it from him. "It's not fair!" Jake says. "You know what this is?" Charlie says, rubbing his thumb and forefinger in his nephew's face. "The world's smallest violin."
This last bit is emblematic of the way in which Two and a Half Men blows its inspired moments with stock jokes and easy outs. In the Thanksgiving episode, Charlie tries to prevent an old girlfriend from getting married. "She's about to marry some guy just because he loves her and wants to settle down," he protests. "Oh, I get it," says Alan. "You're Satan." When I hear jokes like this I want to change the channel and never come back. As with its lead-in Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men is at its most refreshing when it's at its meanest—when it plays with the idea that none of the characters really like each other. If the show's creators could truly embrace its dark side, Two and a Half Men has the potential to be a great show. Until then it's professional and competent, but not inspired. Call it Good Enough TV.