A Bit of Self-Loathing
It’s easy to root for FX. In the last five years, the youth-oriented cable network has more than once bested HBO and AMC in the quality programming department, but still, its early reputation as Spike TV’s smarter older brother hobbles it in the hustle for prestige. FX’s signature shows—Sons of Anarchy, Justified, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—have yet to generate buzz on the level of Game of Thrones or Girls, but they are undeniable critical hits and (cable) ratings blockbusters. FX’s roster currently boasts three superlative comedies: the scary-smart Louie, the cleverly crass Archer, and the metaphysical Wilfred. With the debut of the new Charlie Sheen sitcom, Anger Management, however, FX has fumbled—and it has fumbled hard.
Nominally based on the Adam Sandler film of the same name, Anger Management has to juggle a lot of balls. It has to capitalize on Sheen’s cartoonish machismo (which was on ample display during his massively over-covered breakdown last year), without alienating audiences. It has to rehabilitate Sheen’s image from that of a debaucherous and delusional wife-beater and anti-Semite, while still profiting from his “edge.” Most of all, it needs to make fun of Sheen’s larger-than-life, more-decadent-than-thou antics, to laugh at him, and have him laugh with us.
The show does exactly none of these things.
Developed by Bruce Helford (who previously created TV vehicles for Drew Carey, Norm Macdonald, Wanda Sykes, and George Lopez, with wildly mixed results), Anger Management does its best to duplicate Two and a Half Men while avoiding a copyright infringement lawsuit by Chuck Lorre. Like his character on Men (named Charlie), Sheen’s alter ego here (also named Charlie) is a self-indulgent, misogynistic divorced dad in need of a family. Anger Charlie is also a little more dangerous and a lot more mawkish than Men Charlie. A reformed rage-monster and a psychotherapist, he is devoted to helping others with their anger issues after his temper destroyed his chances at a major league baseball career. He has a 13-year-old daughter Emma (Daniela Bobadilla) he’d like to protect from the world, and whose respect he’d like to earn. There’s a hint of self-loathing to the character, but not enough to redeem him or his tediously offensive jokes.
The pilot begins with Sheen looking directly into the camera and saying with supreme bluster, “You can’t fire me! I quit! You think you can replace me with some other guy? Go ahead. It won’t be the same.” Yes, it’s a message he’s sending to Lorre—or maybe a just message he wants to be seen sending to Lorre. (One suspects that Sheen’s actual messages to his former boss contained more references to his grandiose, human-animal-hybrid cosmology.)
But the tension quickly deflates. It turns out that Charlie (the character) is actually talking to a life-sized balloon as part of the group therapy he’s leading in his home office. Much of the nastiness in the first episode—homophobic jokes, flaring tempers, sadistic gags—is diffused into his zany, over-the-top patients, among them a Vietnam vet, a passive-aggressive gay man, a Lorena Bobbitt wannabe, and a simp turned on by angry women. All of this is a blatant ploy to make Charlie/Sheen look stable by comparison.
The B story has Charlie almost relapsing into violence (against a douchebag who deserves a beat-down, as the show repeatedly normalizes Sheen as much as possible), and going back into therapy. He not so wisely chooses to seek medical help from his best friend (with benefits) Kate, played by Selma Blair, who is essentially a female Charlie. As if to deflect criticisms of misogyny, Anger Management features two age-appropriate (!) tough-cookie love interests, Kate and Charlie’s ex-wife Jennifer (Shawnee Smith). It’s fun to watch these women give Charlie a hard time, but it also seems wildly improbable that these intelligent, spirited women would have anything to do with Charlie, let alone become the two most important people in his life.
The second episode of the show is less concerned with redemption (and Sheen’s PR rehab) than with laughing at ugly women. Or, one ugly woman in particular, Mel (Kerri Kenney), with whom Charlie had sex when he was a minor league player on the road to improve his batting average. (Yeah, it doesn’t make sense when you hear it on screen, either.) When she reappears in his life, Charlie uses Mel again—this time, by telling Emma that he’s dating Mel to prove that he’s not just a shallow skirt-chaser.
But Sheen is, by all media accounts, a shallow skirt-chaser, and it’s disappointing to see FX putting their tiger-blooded Adonis in a family-values sitcom that would’ve been passé in Archie Bunker’s time. A long time ago, when he was an up-and-coming actor, Sheen earned praise for his dramatic performances, and it would have been vastly more interesting and entertaining to see him as one of those unlikeable but compelling anti-heroes who dot the television landscape today, perhaps in a show similar to Showtime’s Californication. Instead, the network has risked its own reputation for cutting-edge, genre-busting shows by churning out a sitcom whose main joke is how derivative, unfunny, and unconvincing it is.