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Nussbaum: Reconsidering Two and a Half Men

Sheen with Jane Lynch, who plays his therapist.

Like NCIS, Two and a Half Men attracts ratings but not much analysis — it’s one of those network tentpoles that baffle or bore critics. But when I used the show as a punch line last month, one commenter took issue: He loved the series, found it affirming as a man, and resented my slam. And I had to admit that though I’ve watched the show, I hadn’t done so recently. So I watched.

Okay, I only watched four episodes (all that were available online), plus a bunch of excerpts on YouTube, and then another half an episode while I was at a pizzeria, and then I used Wikipedia to catch up on the plot. But I plan to watch more, just so I can have a solid, nuanced, informed basis for my contempt. Because, oh Lord, did I hate the show. I hated it so much it was almost like loving it. And honestly, I was surprised. I mean, it’s not as if I can’t get it up for a good dick joke: I enjoyed The Hangover, I liked early Californication, I loved Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. To me, misogynist doesn’t mean unfunny. If it’s honest enough, spiky enough, original enough, funny gets the trump card.

But Two and a Half Men wasn’t dirty ha-ha, it was dirty depressing. The poor brother (Jon Cryer) masturbates compulsively to Mariachi music; the rich brother (Charlie Sheen) binges on porn and strippers, with side trips into serious relationships that don’t work because of his “baggage.” That’s an okay premise, so I tried to open my heart, to squint and see these dudes as a beach-house Oscar and Felix, or maybe a sex-changed Patsy and Edie from Ab Fab, or possibly porn versions of the children’s book characters Frog and Toad. Instead, the show felt much more like the brilliant and wrenching seventies movie Carnal Knowledge — that dark buddy flick about a priapic monster (Jack Nicholson) and a whining softy (Art Garfunkel). Except for the fact that the “knowledge” bit had been surgically removed.

The punch lines were pure borscht-belt self-loathing, à la “The hideous growth on your foot is you.” Or gross-out gags, like an elderly mother disgusting her sons by ranting about lubricant: “One can masturbate to keep things flowing.” But since the comic beats were so much simpler and more predictable than the rhythms of many modern sitcoms, including smutty ones like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the show's slapstick felt like it was happening underwater.

Weirder, I could see that this was one of those series that — like I Love Lucy, like Seinfeld, like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Everybody Loves Raymond and The Dick Van Dyke Show and 30 Rock — was intended to mine energy from its star’s real-life reputation. Except that generally, such shows take a self-deprecating slant. (The fictional Lucy is a needy, untalented nobody; the fictional Seinfeld nowhere as rich as the real one.) On Two and a Half Men, those polarities are reversed. If only because he’s not actually a violent addict who has fathered two sets of twins, Charlie seems like a more benign figure than the real Sheen. So instead of demonstrating the star’s ability to make fun of himself, Two and a Half Men feels unnervingly like propaganda with an angry backwash.

Which is not to say that the show doesn’t poke fun at Charlie (and by extension, Sheen). The character is surrounded by people who laugh at how many hookers he hires, how selfish he is. But after a while, it becomes apparent that those critics (his mom, his brother, his nephew, his maid) are basically carping losers. Certainly, they don’t get laid as much as him or have as much money. To truly love the show, it seems important to believe that below his surface obnoxiousness, Charlie is in fact the magnetic bad boy he believes himself to be, the type any man would envy and any women would enjoy, at least for a night — that he’s smarter than those around him. Those aspects of him that are truly gross? Well, they’re his mother’s fault.

There are other cocky sitcom womanizers on television. Jeff, the protagonist of the brilliant Community, is the most layered of the bunch, with a legitimate case to make for his lawyerly cynicism. Barney on How I Met Your Mother is the most perversely endearing. And then there’s every role ever played by David Spade, who isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see why people find him funny. In comparison, Charlie feels like a one-note Cheshire cat, fading into a furious smirk.

This is probably because, despite the sitcom’s surprising psychological elements — Charlie sees a shrink played by Jane Lynch — the character’s lurid ideas about men and women are ratified by everything we see. A parade of actresses strut in to play an array of castrating bitches, crazy bitches, and strippers/jailbait. In another show, this would be dark satire, since Charlie lives in the type of California in which the trophy girlfriends console the dried-up older women by saying things like, “If it makes you feel any better, I feel like throwing up every time he touches me.” (That particular plot climaxes with the bimbo and Charlie’s mom hooking up in the shower.) But here, what we see is what we get. And then, every once in a while, a hot cipher — one of Charlie’s love interests — arrives to be charmed despite herself.

I did like Melanie Lynskey as Rose, Charlie's seven-season stalker. Rose may be crazy, but as the Road Runner to Charlie’s horny Coyote, she provides some tat to his smirky tit. If it weren’t for her, watching Two and a Half Men would mean soaking endlessly in a dank fantasy dreamscape, a sensory-deprivation tank in which, when Charlie informs a busty nurse that he “got a penis enlargement the minute she walked in,” she simply beams and says, “Thank you.”

Photo: CBS