If there is a surprise in the Mayday coverage of the past weeks, in fact, it is not Sheen's flamboyant megalomania. It's the public proof that all the Nietzschean chants of self-importance are, actually, pretty shrewd assessments of his audience rapport. Where we might expect to witness a disturbing public breakdown, we've instead been entering, gratefully, into an entertainment pact.
The terms of that pact predate Sheen's recent sound-bite foundry. They predate even the Internet culture that has sustained him. Reality-show stars audition, are performers. Often, what they're acting out is a subculture with a quirky entertainment value. (This is surely the appeal of Sheen's bitchin' lexicon, passion for "commerce," and omnivorous moneybags consumption—all of which cast him as a relic of the striver '80s.) But they're also performing something that is scarcer in commercial entertainment: spontaneity.
The culture critic Michael Hirschorn has written about reality TV as a genre rooted in the space between journalistic documentary and scripted programming, cherry-picking the best elements of each. "Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter," he argues, "reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact." Producers have been unsqueamish in playing up that opportunity: Over the past decade, reality TV has gotten more exercising to watch while becoming more complexly unreal. When that guy chef and that gal chef hooked up on Top Chefwith the camera looming voyeuristically at a safe distance (and despite having lovers back home), what part of the encounter was real, with actual emotional fallout in these people's lives, and what part was performed? The warm feeling we get from watching reality TV is moral exculpation, the conviction that we need not feel full human empathy for these "real" situations, because, after all, they are produced by shrewd people for entertainment. The genre's central act is to show human pain and then persuade us that we still have disbelief to suspend.
"They look at me and say, 'I can't process it.' Well, no, you never will. Just stop trying. Sit back and enjoy the show," Sheen told his viewers last week—another way of saying, Don't let yourself care too much. This is the unctuous voice of reality entertainment, and Sheen's outlandish, vérité-style dispatches take their cues from that model of public interaction. It's a shield for him, of course, making every excess seem like craft. (In a recent New York Times piece, Anna Holmes eloquently traced a parallel between the gender dynamics of reality TV and Sheen's self-exculpation for his history menacing women.) But it's shielding us, too. Sheen is having a crackup. He may well be mentally ill. Where we should feel a humane urge to temper his self-humiliation and protect the family members reliant on him, we're instead egging him on, feeding his overkill. If there's a real tragedy in Sheen's career, it's the meeting of a life that flows too easily into performance and a style of mainstream entertainment that turns public dissolution into an aesthetic. It's a grim situation for the actor and his world but, really, worse for all the rest of us. When millions of viewers can request Twitter updates but can't recall what to feel about a human being coming apart, no one wins.