With Ashton Kutcher aboard, 'Two and a Half Men' Leaves the Dark Side
Although it makes sense as a headline — "Ashton Kutcher Replaces Charlie Sheen on 'Two and a Half Men' " — the word “replace” doesn’t really work in a sentence that includes the names “Ashton Kutcher” and “Charlie Sheen.” Yes, they are both male, brunet and actors, and now, apparently, will have both starred in "Two and a Half Men," but the similarities end there.
Sheen, even before he famously imploded, brought to the screen a maelstrom of dark matter — cynical anger, lacertating humor and a hedonism that often seemed misogynist but was probably just misanthropic — he didn't think much of anybody. Shoulders tensed, teeth gritted, Sheen’s Charlie Harper was the personification of a frown, relaxing only when he threw caution not so much to as directly in the face of the wind. Take that, you [expletive deleted] wind!
Kutcher, years younger and yards taller, is a Sheen frown turned upside down. Still called "fresh-faced" in his 30s, Kutcher is like a Great Dane puppy, long-legged and lovable, bound to get into trouble, well, mischief, but not really capable of doing irreparable damage or hurting anyone’s feelings. Even if his new character has similar playboy and/or slacker self-obsessed tendencies, Kutcher can’t help but be essentially good-hearted, a shift that will not just change the tenor and intent of “Two and a Half Men,” it may just renounce it.
Wildly successful, “Two and a Half Men” had many critics, who found its humor coarse, crude and mean. According to conventional wisdom, the Harper character was modeled, albeit in a kinder, less felonious way, after Sheen. But as creator Chuck Lorre has made clear by firing Sheen, “Two and a Half Men” was not Sheen’s show, it was Lorre’s show. Lorre’s version of what would happen if a narcissistic boy-man was forced to share his life with his wishy-washy brother (Jon Cryer) and his young son, Lorre’s (apparently very accurate) idea of what many Americans would consider “funny.”
Indeed, when the feud between Sheen and creator Lorre became public, Roseanne Barr sided with Sheen, saying that Lorre, before he was fired from “Roseanne,” had forced the actor to utter some of the worst jokes ever written. (Actually she used much more colorful language, but that was her point.)
So what does it mean that Lorre is apparently “retooling” his show to make Cryer the central role, with the undeniably family-friendly Kutcher as the new antagonist? That times have changed, for one thing.
In the years since “Two and a Half Men” has been on the air, network comedy, which at one point was not led by but defined by “Two and a Half Men,” has experienced a renaissance in number and lightheartedness.
“The Middle,” “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Community” as well as Lorre’s other shows, "The Big Bang Theory” and “Mike and Molly,” are all essentially joyful comedies that celebrate human triumphs as much as they gently acknowledge human foibles. Even “The Office,” which began as a darkish (though much lighter than its British progenitor) satire, is now a weekly celebration of human friendship.
“Two and a Half Men” was many things, but it was never joyful. By the end, an increasingly haggard Sheen spat out jokes while Lorre used his end notes to make cracks about his own star. By bringing in Kutcher, Lorre and the network appear to be acknowledging the zero sum game of their own dark vision.
A child’s love alone cannot heal a broken alcoholic uncle any more than high ratings and piles of money can heal a broken alcoholic actor. Kutcher may or may not be able to save the show, but he should make one thing very clear to its creator and former star: This particular joke is on them.
— Mary McNamara
Photo: Ashton Kutcher. Photo credit: Hermann J. Knippertz.