I’m long on record of being a fan of this show and thought it was better than a lot of people gave it credit for. I watched sporadically after Charlie Sheen left and thought the middle two seasons did some nice work with Alan and Walden, but overall thought they never had a bead on who Walden really was and they turned Alan into a horrible mess of a person who could never catch a break and suddenly became the worst gay stereotype without actually being gay.
I watched the finale last night though with great interest and loved it. It was weird and creepy and funny and meta and everything I wish the show would have been after Charlie left. And on that note, I wanted to dig up this piece I wrote right after Charlie left in which I make the case that he was the ultimate noir character.
The Tragic (And Entirely Appropriate) Death Of Charlie Harper
Let me tell you a story about a guy. He’s an aging California boozehound with a lot of money and no visible source of income. His bed is a rotisserie of ever-rotating women, many of dubious reputation (*cough*strippers and whores*cough*), and his family includes a divorced alcoholic mother with a sexual appetite to rival (and occasionally overlap) her son’s and a brother with a failed career, several failed marriages, and an idiot son who freeloads with him at the boozehound’s house. Ultimately our man-whore boozehound is killed by a deranged stalker he acquired during an ill-fated one-night stand and unwisely cultivated as a de-facto life partner. Sounds like stock players from the Jim Thompson Theatre Company, doesn’t it? But it’s really the cast of America’s most popular sitcom, Two and a Half Men.
Spun off from the life of star Charlie Sheen (a noir trope himself), Two and a Half Men wallowed in the hedonism and coldness of its lead character for eight scotch- and lube-soaked seasons before the real Charlie’s behavior forced a day of reckoning with the creator of the fake Charlie. Under a different set of circumstances, Charlie Sheen could have cleaned himself up off-camera while still mocking his bad behavior publicly. This scenario would have resulted, I believe, in keeping Charlie Harper alive longer than would have been appropriate for the character. There was flirtation with this sort of out-of-character development toward the end of last season when the show became nearly unwatchable as Charlie Harper got monogamous, got engaged, and got very, very, oh-so-very boring. Given two or three more seasons, which would have been guaranteed provided Sheen didn’t melt down, the show’s creators would have given in to the weight of clichéd expectations and ended the show with one of those happy, bring-it-all-together endings sitcoms are famous for.
Instead, Charlie Sheen pissed off Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men, and CBS, the network who broadcasted the show, so thoroughly that just firing Sheen wasn’t enough. Had Sheen gone off to melt down privately, he still probably would have been written out of the show, but the vitriol needed to generate an appropriate end for Charlie Harper wouldn’t have been present, and we would have been left with some lame-ass exit from the Big Book of Stock Sitcom Replacements. But the fates, the gods, and Charlie Sheen himself created the perfect atmosphere for the perfect ending, and true Charlie Harper fans like me are better for the experience. There’s no room for enterprising academics to propose a less disturbing ending for our hero. Under no scenario will we see an ill-advised reunion where we find he was never really dead, or where he wakes up in bed with Bob Newhart, or winds up in the shower with Patrick Duffy.
I can’t help but wonder though why audiences who will put up with this sort of weekly debauchery from a lead character would be put off by an ending that gave the character his just due at the end. Does a man who has ruined so many lives and tormented so many people without so much as a nick in his conscience really deserve happily-ever-after? Maybe the bigger question is why mass audiences who crave happy endings put up with a character like Charlie Harper in the first place? Let’s compare him to another one of my favorite characters on television, Hank Moody from Californication. Hank is generally regarded as a perverted degenerate, but the thing he struggles with even more than sex and drinking is finding the right balance with his family. He loves his daughter and has some sort of love-like feelings for his ex-wife but always manages to screw it up when he gets close to happiness. Charlie, on the other hand, hates his mother, hates his brother, and reserves his most emotional moments for his one-night stand stalker. But it’s Hank that’s seen as the worse character. People like my mother, who would never be caught dead watching Californication, love Two and a Half Men. Are fart jokes and slapstick comedy enough to take the edge off of a reprehensible character?
Well, sitcom history would tell us yes. Going back to Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners and Archie Bunker on All In The Family to Al Bundy on Married with Children, racists, abusers, idiots, and ne’er-do–wells who would meet certain violent ends in noir fiction are lauded as social reformers and pop culture icons just because their stories are told with jokes and sight gags. Satire has always been a go-to medium for wicked social commentary, but in the case of a mass medium like the network sitcom, does it really count as satire if most of the viewers don’t get the joke? I think it can, but the problem you run into with larger audiences is that there is less room for risk and you almost always end up with a watered-down ending that pisses everyone off.
Two recent examples are the finales for Seinfeld and The Sopranos. The Seinfeld one was, in my opinion, the more successful ending because it stayed true to the characters. There were no epiphanies and no life-altering character changes. When they left their isolated world where they weren’t the center of attention, they were punished. The Sopranos ending was more problematic because the creators tried to have it both ways. Everyone knew what a scumbag Tony Soprano was and they knew what he deserved, but the writers couldn’t come right out and whack him. They had to imply it with gimmicky camera cuts and Journey songs. Both were unpopular, which makes the situation that presented itself for Charlie Harper and Two and a Half Men so perfect.
I suppose there’s always the chance Charlie Sheen cleans up his act and reconciles with Chuck Lorre during some kind of twelve-step program down the road, but I’ve read enough noir novels and seen enough TMZ to know how miniscule that possibility is. Hell, I’m still waiting for Robert Downey, Jr. to finally crack again so we can get a proper ending for The Singing Detective.