22 September 2011

Because it was on TV: The Strange Sitcom Reality of Two and a Half Men

I never watch Two and a Half Men. It mostly features simplistic joke and plot structure that fits into Sitcom Tropes far too easily and a general lack of depth or insight into character or story development. Naturally though my interest was peaked last Monday when the star of such landmark films as Valentine's Day (2009) and No Strings Attached (2011), Ashton Kutcher was set to debut in place of the Great Charlie Sheen.

I've been interested in Fictional Realities before but watching this show really got me thinking about the show's Real World. I don't mean to judge what would happen if shows took place in real life (That's for Robot Chicken to sort out), but I am intrigued by how things operate within the confines of a specific Reality. For example, in Superman's Reality, people can fly and giant monsters arrive once a week to attack the same city. That's a very distinct example but the reality of Sitcoms are more subtle. Actually if any of you watched the Emmy Awards this Sunday (apparently none of you did), the Opening Jane Lynch Musical Number touched on this concept. Around 2:18 she walks into a Sitcom full of its own Reality (more specifically a CBS Sitcom Reality, that is). So what defines this and why the hell should we be talking about it?

Unbelievably, his most lasting legacy
is those shirts
What struck me about Two and a Half Men was its opening scene. Charle Harper (Sheen) is dead and it's mostly played for laughs. Now, many Sitcoms equally as cringe-worthy as this have had characters pass on and treated it with much more respect. This happens more often than not when the actor actually dies, as was the case of John Ritter on 8 Simple Rules or Phil Hartman on News Radio. Even on Sheen's old show, Spin City when Michael J. Fox departed to deal with his worsening Parkinson's Disease his character was given a strong, heartfelt goodbye. As recently as last season's The Office which featured Steve Carrell's leave had some very sentimental moments. So why was Charlie Harper's death so simultaneously ridiculous, hysterical and quickly forgotten?

1) The Nature of Charlie Sheen's Departure. This wasn't a long time coming, or a sudden, sympathetic leave. Charlie Sheen, in his own words, told his boss to "fuck off" and was kicked off the show after being the Highest-paid Television Actor Ever. Not only that, after his pink slip he went on a glorious tour both through New Media and live Stand-Up stops so in case anyone was out there still believing that he wasn't crazy they could come around. There's no sympathy here, no reason to give Sheen's Character any decent burial or long afterthought. Ashton is rushed in as soon as possible (literally immediately after some kind words by Alan Harper (Jon Cryer) Ashton appears and startles him, causing him to spill Charlie's ashes everywhere, unceremoniously. He is later sucked into a dustbuster and not mentioned again - true symbolism of Ashton's supplanting Sheen).

Anyone else hope this is all just an
elaborate Punk'D on Charle Sheen?
2) The Nature of the Show's Reality. More to the point of this article, Two and a Half Men just isn't a place for these kinds of intimate moments. There's room for Real Drama on The Office or even How I Met Your Mother, but not here. Those shows have a foot in reality much further than Two and a Half Men does. Even its former lead-in program, Everybody Loves Raymond had room for real emotion, anger and character development in each episode. Two and a Half Men is far more concerned with goofiness, a floating, humming reality of irreverence and stupidity. It's not to say it's not funny, there were certainly some laugh out loud moments Monday Night, but that's all it strives to be. No character within the Reality of the show has any actual feelings or sentiment. Even at death there are jokes to be made. A Funeral like Charlie Harper's exists comfortably within the preceding confines of the show because of its reality. If Steve Carrell had left The Office like Charlie Sheen left Two and a Half Men and the writers decided that Michael Scott had been hit by a train and exploded (like a "balloon full of meat") the Funeral would have a drastically different tone, which is based on that Show's Fictional Reality. Two and a Half Men gets away with it because the characters within the reality accept the absurd as such.

So what's next? Charlie Sheen is off to bigger and worse things, if his last six months are any indication. As for Two and a Half Men, that reality works. It had one of the biggest premieres in recent memory and surely isn't worried about leaving anytime soon, even if they eventually need to change the title to just Three Men, which is really the most basic title for a show ever.

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