The other day, perusing TMZ over a hazelnut Frappuccino, I chanced to learn that Charlie Sheen continues to suffer problems with his pleasure receptors. Get well, Charlie, I thought—and then realized that I had thus spent more time contemplating Sheen's elaborate indiscretions that I have watching his current sitcom, Two and a Half Men (CBS, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET). That is, I'd somehow developed the vague notion that the show's creator, Chuck Lorre, had a certain rude cunning to his imagination, and I'd seen enough clips of the program to grow confident I would not laugh at it even if Lorre held me down and tickled me. Yet I had not watched a full episode. My own ignorance appalled me. A TV critic is obliged to keep on top of things, to put some imagination into analyzing Mainstream American Cultural Artifacts.
I called a guy and after making me wait forever he delivered to my bachelor pad a nice bag of mix for "P.J.'s Famous Pancakes." Then I called up Krystal, and she came over with a friend. I think the friend's name was Natasha. That is, she told me her real name at some point, and either her real name or her working name was Natasha, and I don't remember which, but she was a willowy Russian. I fired up a recent Two and a Half Men episode, and we had ourselves a viewing party.
Charlie Sheen plays a boorish jingle writer named Charlie Harper. The synonymy of actor and character points to an essential part of the show's dynamic. The audience is encouraged to conflate the aura of the bad-boy performer and the rank essence of the part, which calls for Sheen to deliver many low-grade jokes about his nut sack and such. The show's 15 million weekly viewers aren't tuning in to watch Charlie Sheen act but to watch Charlie Sheen be—and possibly, also, to examine his fascinating pallor. "Is crazy," said Natasha, "how his face is greasy but also ashen at the same time."
Jon Cryer plays Charlie Harper's brother, Alan, a chiropractor whose hetero-meatheadness is tempered by the flittiness and fussiness that are sitcom shorthand for sexual ambiguity. (Alan is the father to the half-a-man of the title, a kid named Jake, played by actor Angus T. Jones as a smug dunce.) The episode we had running on my 65" flat screen found Alan struggling between the dictates of conscience and the lust for capital. He'd been defrauding his friends and family in a Ponzi scheme. Though not Catholic, he puttered into confession to recite some extraordinarily tired lines to a priest who kept talking about how full his bladder was: "I just drank a huge Arnold Palmer, so could you get to it?"
I stretched over to the side table to pick up my Gabler edition of Ulysses so that I could steal some ideas for a critical riff on transubstantiation tied to the scene's lame communion jokes. ("That's the body and blood of our savior!" "You guys ever think about putting that in supermarkets, like a Lunchable?") But Krystal was cutting lines on its cover parallel to the stems of the J's in "James Joyce." That wouldn't do. I suggested that she instead use the back of a random DVD, which turned out to be a review copy of a PBS documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The episode's B plot, another weak glance at the theme of deception, found Charlie trysting Rose (played by Melanie Lynskey, who deserves better). The woman has been pursuing the hero with the fervor of a stalker. The writers intend her to be cutesy and wacky, but I sniffed at their air of contempt for her cartoonish desperation. In order to gain Charlie's romantic attentions, Rose has constructed an inanely elaborate lie about being newly married—a ruse complete with a mannequin husband—thus giving the old dog something to slobber over. The only thing Charlie wants more than to steal time with Rose is to get wasted while stealing time with Rose: "Just think about it, okay—a romantic weekend with nothing for us to do but make love and be together. And, you know, drink." Somewhere, sitcom tipplers from Norm Peterson to Homer Simpson were crying in their beer at the meagerness of the characterization.
One of my partners for the evening, Natasha I think, ground her teeth at the show's casual crudity: "You know what happens to pretty slender fellas in jail?" "Yeah, they usually hang themselves after their first shower." The contrast between the unfunny action and the laborious laugh track was leaving me feeling hollowed out, and Krystal could tell. "You OK, Sweetie?" she asked. "You want a Valium?"