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brand strategy

Why We’re Disappointed in FX for Picking Up the Charlie Sheen Sitcom

Ever since The Shield debuted in 2002, FX has become synonymous with quality male-oriented programming. And so many devotees of the network — loyal fans of such shows as Louie, Justified, and Damages — were concerned, unnerved, and even outraged by yesterday's announcement that this summer their trusted network would be airing Charlie Sheen's return to TV in the sitcom Anger Management, based on the 2003 Jack Nicholson–Adam Sandler film of the same name. From a capitalist perspective, it is unfair to tut-tut. It's a good business decision: Sheen's return to TV will undoubtedly have at least an initial huge tune-in. FX is a company; they can’t be faulted for going after such a big potential audience. It's naïve to expect that TV networks will behave morally, as if they’re people, and to leave a sweetheart deal with Sheen on the table because his behavior has been erratic at best, illegal and brutal at worst. And yet, FX can only blame itself for its disappointed fans. Over the past nine years, they've worked hard and spent millions getting us to think of them as a specific kind of personality (or, if you want to use the term of art, a brand): rough but with integrity, brash but savvy. And when dumb, smart dumb. So FX can cash in if they want, but they shouldn’t expect us to like it.

In many ways, the network itself seems unable to give the idea a full embrace. The network is not producing the show, but rather is simply acquiring what's essentially a syndicated show. (Lionsgate, the company that also produces Mad Men, is Anger Management's producer.) This has a big financial upside, as they won't be responsible for the budget or the day-to-day headache that is Charlie Sheen in his less lucid moments; they'll simply pay for the right to air it, just like they do Sheen's Two and Half Men reruns. But it also means that they won't be branding it an "FX Original," as they do shows like Louie. It feels like it gives the option for full deniability.

In some ways a Charlie Sheen sitcom does fit the network. The network has been trying to beef up their comedy lineup; sitcoms are much cheaper to make than dramas, and though FX has had a few failures in that category (Testees) it has had some of its biggest successes as well: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the unimpeachable, shoestring Louie. Additionally, FX’s programming skews edgy and male and is intended to attract that audience: Charlie Sheen is nothing if not an edgy male, and a real life antihero to boot. If he didn’t already exist, FX could have made a show about a character just like him.

But in another way Charlie Sheen doesn’t fit in at all: He’s skeezy, lowbrow, a woman beater, and his TV shows are mediocre at best. FX will be happy to hear (you’d think) that this is not the FX brand at all. FX may have shows that brim over with raunchy jokes and crude misogynists, but they make a point about moral ambiguity. Like HBO, Showtime, and AMC, FX is in the business of making “quality entertainment,” a status that’s been burnished and bulwarked by the stellar creative rep of network chief John Landgraf. (Seriously, Google the guy; no showrunner has ever said anything but the nicest things about him.) FX may get away with airing reruns of a show as junky as Two and a Half Men, but in recent years it has never premiered a sitcom as yukka-yukka dumb as Anger Management purports to be. To be fair, nobody has seen the show yet; against all odds, pairing Sheen with an Adam Sandler concept may result in some unexpected chemical reaction that creates genius. (Or more likely, play like quasi-reality.) But when it comes to a network that its viewers have so much invested in, perception is everything. Testees was inane and probably as or more puerile than Anger Management will turn out to be, but it starred two unknown-in-the-U.S. Canadians, not a major celebrity who dominated the American news for a month for being a manic drug user and alleged woman beater.

Picking up Anger Management was a business decision, but FX doesn’t want us just to think about it as a business. It wants us to trust its taste, to feel an allegiance. If AMC can be deemed to be in crisis because it aired one show that wasn’t up to its lofty standards (The Killing) and had some backstage goings-on with its showrunners, FX deserves at least a bit of cold shoulder from its dedicated watchers for pimping itself out. Turnabout is fair play.

Photo: BRIAN LINDENSMITH/Patrick McMullan