Now that the new TV season has arrived, it’s time for the annual wondering: why, out of the hundreds of shows pitched to networks, some made it and some didn’t. Some of the new additions are, as they say, “no-brainers.” Whoopi Goldberg wants to do a sitcom, sign her up. Hot hiphopper Eve is a perfect fit for UPN. And with the runaway success of the CSIs and the Law & Order franchise, both feeding America’s hunger for solvable mysteries, then Cold Case seems like a safe bet. And Joan of Arcadia, in which a girl talks to God, stands out among the annual blitz of shows about pretty and angst-ridden teenagers.
But what does one make of CBS’s Two and a Half Men? Certainly its premise is nothing new, just a lazy remix of The Odd Couple and Bachelor Father or perhaps A Family Affair. In this version, after his wife throws him out, neurotic dad Alan (Jon Cryer) moves in with his sloppy bachelor brother Charlie (Charlie Sheen), dragging with him his cute, precocious son Jake (Angus T. Jones). There’s nothing in this setup or casting to explain how Two and a Half Men garnered a first-rate timeslot, right after the brilliant Everybody Loves Raymond on Monday nights. I mean, was anyone clamoring for a new Charlie Sheen sitcom? If his short-term replacement of Michael J. Fox on Spin City heralded the arrival of a great comedic talent, where the hell was I?
Perhaps the producers’ pedigrees gave the series a leg up. Men was created by Chuck Lorre, who had previously created Dharma & Greg, which remained at the top of its game right up until ABC’s unceremonious axing of it last season. Admittedly, Dharma & Greg didn’t come with the freshest premise, but it offered enough inventive elements — the one-day courtship idea, the uber-hippie parents, the wholly original human that was Dharma — to rev up an old idea.
By contrast, Two and a Half Men, after only one episode, already feels like Full House Redux: cool and crazy Uncle Charlie uses his nephew as a “chick magnet,” Jake plays cards with Charlie’s seedy poker buddies, and — you guessed it — the little tyke cleans up. I’d bet money that soon we’ll be seeing Uncle Charlie, the bungling bachelor, burn a TV dinner. If you watch it on a black and white TV and squint you might mistake Two and a Half Men for Love That Bob.
But at least Bob Cummings’ energy kept you engaged. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Sheen’s somnambulant performance. While I wouldn’t expect him to bring anything approximating Andy Dick’s manic energy to the role, a little enthusiasm would be nice. If Uncle Charlie is supposed to be a boy in a man’s body, how about exhibiting some youthful exuberance? Sadly, as well, Sheen’s newly paunchy appearance makes it a little hard to believe him as the “ladies’ man” he’s reputed to be. In the premiere, one woman was all over him in his bedroom, another was stalking him, and a couple more hit on him in the grocery store. Such ostensible popularity with the opposite sex suggests a charisma and physicality that isn’t borne out in Sheen’s character or performance.
Cryer fares better as the obsessive-compulsive chiropractor. In fact, he pulls off “boyish” better than Sheen, acting fussy like Little Lord Fauntleroy, terrified of getting his suit (or hands) dirty. Unfortunately, this meager success only underlines the show’s basic casting problems. I don’t know if it’s because he still looks relatively “youthful” or because he’s still locked in our collective mind as Ducky Dale from Pretty in Pink, but Cryer (who’s 38 years old and a father in real life) is only occasionally believable as a dad. He and Jones look like actors who met a couple of weeks ago at auditions, not like a parent and child.
It’s actually a little hard to figure, among the series’ three boy-men protagonists, which is the half-man of the title? And who, if any, is going to become a grownup? In the first episode, Jake wins at poker when playing with his uncle’s pals, and appears to be coping much better with his parents’ separation than his dad. All three boys are dealing with the requisite meddling mother, Judith (Holland Taylor, who replaced Blythe Danner). No one can pull off snooty and comedic at the same time like Taylor can, as demonstrated in her long list of supporting credits (from Bosom Buddies to The Practice to Legally Blonde). But she can play this sort of role in her sleep (indeed, she could follow Sheen’s lead if she wanted to). Judith certainly isn’t showing us anything we haven’t seen before. And that pretty much sums up the series: Two and a Half Men could sure use one or two fresh ideas.