Friday, September 3, 2010
In defense of Two and a Half Men
I can feel the bullet wounds already.
Somewhere between the time Two and a Half Men became the highest-rated sitcom in America and to the time Two and a Half Men remained the highest-rated sitcom in America, it has become cool to hate the show.
In a recent bout of depression, I finally watched a rerun in its entirety. I pretty much live on syndication. And it wasn't too bad. In fact, I watched other episodes and they weren't completely horrible either. I don't even remember why I hated it so much in the first place other than the fact that, while channel-surfing, it seemed really stupid. I am about to swallow my words.
Let's acknowledge what most of the Internet (15 to 35 year olds) and I agree about this show: It's not brilliant, it's not groundbreaking, it's not special, it's probably aimed at ordinary, middle-aged men and 10 year boys (your parents and your baby nephew), it's surprising that it's the number one sitcom in America, and it has more cheap potty humor than it should have.
But here's what we disagree on: I find it rather endearing, entertaining, full of potential, and occasionally, very funny. Shoot me, please.
I don't understand how anyone can fault the actors in the show because they are not the problem. The Emmys seem to agree with me.
Sheen was painfully bland in his Golden Globe-winning (?!) performance as Michael J. Fox's replacement in Spin City, but in his own vehicle, he is a reliable lead. His acting style epitomizes the title of Jason Alexander's book in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, Acting Without Acting. Having said that, Sheen does a very good, effortless job of playing himself, minus the more controversial aspects of his real-life self. Comedians have been playing caricatures of themselves for years and while Sheen is not a comedian, he is pretty funny in the show by being a self-centered, often drunk, irresponsible, lazy bastard, commitment-phobe jingle writer with some sort of questionable heart.
Considering all the negative reaction to Jon Cryer's Supporting Actor Emmy win last year (and nomination this year), I wonder: Has anyone actually seen Jon Cryer's performance in Two and a Half Men? Cryer, as Alan, Charlie's divorced chiropractic brother, is technically co-lead, but submitting himself in the supporting category is basically a stroke of genius. While the point of being a "supporting actor" is to impress the audience with limited screen time, Sheen will always be seen as the real "star" of the show. Especially since Cryer's paycheck is almost half of Sheen's.
So back to my original question: Is the quality of Cryer's performance really so much worse than Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), Kevin Dillon (Entourage), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), and Rainn Wilson (The Office)? I've seen all the performances except for Dillon's in Entourage, and Cryer's doesn't pale so much in comparison. While Harris was widely considered to be robbed that year, and yes, Harris is a fine actor, but his performance doesn't strike me as so much more superior than the performances of his fellow nominees. Harris now has two Emmys, anyway.
However, Cryer's performance conveys all the anguish of a desperate, self-pitying, middle-aged loser trying to cope with the dating scene and the antics of his playboy brother. A George Costanza with morals.
Angus T. Jones as Alan's son, Jake, is very good. In the earlier seasons, Jake is pretty much there to be confused about the sexual double entendres, but he watches and learns. Is that appropriate? Well, Jones' parents seem to approve. Jones is much more natural than most Disney child stars and has chemistry with all the actors in the show, except that as he ages, he seems to lack an essential father-son rapport with Cryer. As Jake ages, his dialogue is dumbed down to miserable potty humor, but Jones manages to surprisingly deliver his lines with an odd deadbeat charm.
This show has often been criticized by many for its portrayal of women. Yes, the women who comes in and out of Charlie's life are often shown as bimbos. Guess what? Bimbos exist. And there are also men who objectify women. Charlie is one of those men. And these women voluntarily, willingly sleep with Charlie. Those kind of women also exist and those kind of men certainly don't mind.
But the other regular female characters on this show are far from being bimobs. Yes, they are flawed, but again, who isn't?
Judith (Marin Hinkle), Alan's ex-wife, is probably the most unsympathetic recurring female character. Judith divorces Alan because she's questioning her sexuality and after the divorce, she makes Alan pay for everything because she doesn't seem to have a job. But besides her obvious bitchiness, she does seem like a good mother who cares about what is best for her son.
Evelyn (Holland Taylor), Charlie and Alan's promiscuous mother, is a strong, independent woman. Evelyn's dominance of the Harper household--after her husband's suicide--is probably what sways her sons to weaker, more docile women. It makes sense. Taylor's multiple Emmy nominations are due to the fact that she's a masterful scene stealer. Her false attempts to spend time with her grandson, only to roll her eyes at an episode SpongeBob SquarePants and proclaim that "Life's too short" is the stuff comedic wonders are made of.
Berta (Conchata Ferrell), Charlie's housekeeper, is also a strong, independent woman who is able to get the job done and keep the family in place. And some people believe Berta's character is demeaning because she's a unpleasant, overweight maid. While she's not a young hot thing, she's sensible and cuts all the bullshit. Ferrell adds a dose of magic to even the simplest line readings. Even to something as simple as "Bite me."
I am particularly impressed with Melanie Lynskey's performance as Rose, Charlie's stalker and Jake's occasional babysitter. While Rose is probably one of the most manipulative, disturbing characters that has ever graced television, I don't think I can ever hate her. Lynskey plays her with such innocence, sweetness, sharpness, and wonderful comedic timing that it's a surprise that the writers never bothered to expand her role. Every time she is on screen, she brings the best out of all the actors. Lynskey (and this show) manages to make a stalker work as a character and a potential love interest.
The story lines for the episodes has often been criticized as being "unoriginal," "repetitive," and "formulaic." Here are some sample story lines:
- Charlie meets up with an old flame, only to find out that she has undergone a sex change (and is now Chris O'Donnell). They agree to be friends. When the ex-girlfriend--now a man--meets Evelyn, they end up dating. Charlie and Alan need to decide how to break the news to their mother.
- Chelsea, Charlie's girlfriend then fiancee, sets Alan up on a blind date. Charlie and Alan soon realize at the restaurant that Alan's blind date is Rose. Rose proceeds to pretend that she doesn't know the men and Charlie and Alan play along.
- At first, Rose's father (Martin Sheen) seems like an authoritative man. When he becomes too attached to Evelyn, Rose comes in and deals with her father, who seems to show the same mental instabilities that Rose possess.
These are arguably solid sitcom story lines. Sure, these story lines aren't complex or clever, but they're mildly creative, simple, and fun.
The jokes are a different story. Some of the jokes are sometimes just tasteless, many are predictable. There is a conversation in the season seven finale where Jake describes what he does to his butt and compares it to a hot dog; Sheen's disgusted reaction looks extraordinarily genuine.
Creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn are above that kind of humor. I know that because the story lines are occasionally creative, the dialogue is occasionally witty and sharp, and I see random bursts of brilliance in this show all over the place. But its good qualities are not being embraced or harvested. It's like CBS comes in and tells Lorre and Aronsohn that the show is a big hit with a particular demographic--the mainstream blue collar/middle-aged men and 10 year old boys--and as condescending douchebags, they convince Lorre and Aronsohn to add in a penis joke here and a fart joke there. Because apparently, the mainstream cannot live without those.
But I don't know what 10 year boys like. Maybe 10 year boys do like fart jokes. I don't know.
The thing about Two and a Half Men is that it's one of the few network sitcoms right now that's not "cute." It doesn't aspire to be cute, unlike Lorre and Aronsohn's other project, The Big Bang Theory. Two and a Half Men appeals to the beer-drinking, working class forty-something and the sons of those beer-drinking, working class forty-somethings. That's a large part of America, if ratings prove anything.
Still, it breaks my heart seeing all the potential go to waste. This is a show that could be about a goofy, modern family unit that could only exist in sitcom-verse--the matriarch, the polar opposite brothers, the son of an unconventional family, the ex-wife, the ex-wife's husband, the maid, the stalker, the occasional new girlfriend, etc. While the show isn't clever, it certainly has a clever set of characters.
There are sitcoms that are as good as they ever going to get. This show could be so much more than the cheap, disposable humor wasteland it sometimes is. Take away all the potty humor and here's a show with tons of potential. Yeah, I like this show for what it could be more than what it is. But haters can hate. And I know there are a lot of you guys out there.