This is a joke, right? A fake-out? A setup for a sucker punch? Can this really be all there is to Anger Management?
These thoughts buzzed in my brain as I watched the first two episodes of Charlie Sheen’s return to television, a faux-edgy sitcom so unimaginative and dull that it makes Two and a Half Men look like a beacon of artistic integrity. That Anger Management would air in the same two-hour block as FX’s innovative Louie — which I’ll praise in a moment — seems downright perverse, like hanging a Degas next to a Dumpster. It’s a shame, really. Sheen has sunk so low in the public’s estimation that he could have taken serious artistic risks, failed miserably, and still have won points for trying.
The venue is FX, which built its brand on shows about working-class alpha males flaming out (Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, Justified) and middle-class doofuses stumbling toward dignity (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Wilfred, Louie). The star is Sheen, whose long history of carousing, substance abuse, and domestic violence morphed into hellish performance art last year. After getting fired from Two and a Half Men — not for threatening to stab his wife during a Christmas altercation, mind you, but for publicly insulting his boss, showrunner Chuck Lorre, which in America is the greater crime — Sheen pocketed a fortune and became an icon of nihilistic hedonism. He staged a “Violent Torpedo of Truth” tour and appeared in a Fiat commercial that celebrated him as rakish antihero. No modern celebrity has been so handsomely rewarded for being a douchebag.
Anger Management — about a divorced ex-ballplayer who ruined his career and marriage with rage, then reinvented himself as a therapist — is less a comedy than a low-cost, high-yield investment. Sheen has said this will be his last project before retiring from acting; under an innovative deal, if FX renews Anger Management after ten episodes, it is contractually required to order another 90, which means instant syndication money. No wonder the show is so unadventurous: Everyone’s afraid of killing the golden goose. Sheen’s Charlie Goodson is the mildest character he’s played in ages, a recovering rageaholic helping patients who haven’t attained his level of enlightenment. “Anger took away something I really loved, and I’m here to try to keep that from happening to you,” he tells a group that meets in the suburban house that he shares with his teenage daughter, Sam (Daniela Bodabilla).
He really means it, but the dialogue is so weak, the characters so thin, and Sheen’s performance so uncommitted that Anger Management sleepwalks across the screen. Its hero is the typical sitcom protagonist, the calm center in a constellation of eccentrics that includes Barry Corbin as a homophobic ’Nam vet and nineties tabloid fixture Brett Butler (Grace Under Fire) as a world-weary barkeep. Selma Blair is appealing as the hero’s sometime girlfriend, a therapist whom Charlie suckers into analyzing him, but she can’t make her nonsensical character cohere. The flat lighting and chintzy sets are depressingly old-school; the nonstop wisecracks directed at gays, overweight people, and women (disingenuously framed as “inappropriate” even as the laugh track guffaws) are Tabasco sauce poured on Wonder Bread.
Say what you will about Two and a Half Men: Blackhearted as it was, it had a comic vision and a certain mulish integrity. It was set in domestic hell, and Sheen’s character was its prince of darkness. Anger Management’s only vision is of money. I kept staring at it, expecting another shoe to drop. When Charlie blows his stack at his ex-wife’s new boyfriend and threatens to brain him with a lamp, I thought, Wouldn’t it be amazing if they took a page from The Shield and ended this pilot with an unspeakable act of violence that you never dreamed a hero would commit, then dealt with the consequences? Nope. Charlie puts the lamp down, and the laugh track roars.
After attaining nosebleed heights of vulgar self-regard, all Sheen had to do was look at himself halfway honestly to be given a chance at artistic, if not personal, redemption. The result might have been a surprisingly good complement to Louie, which returns for a third season.
The show’s writer-director-star, Louis C.K., who plays the show’s divorced stand-up-comedian hero, has become the Woody Allen of TV, so it makes sense that he’d hire Allen’s regular editor, Susan E. Morse, to cut the series. After flirting with schlemieldom in seasons one and two, the first five episodes of season three find the character going full putz. The result plays like a hybrid of Allen’s pre–Annie Hall movies and Philip Roth’s self-lacerating autobiographical fiction. It’s as if middle-aged ennui and extended mourning for a long-dead marriage have sparked a kind of reverse puberty in Louie. Stripped of confidence and romantic hope, he nurses a man-crush on a Miami lifeguard and ogles women like a mouth-breathing teenage geek. (His ex-wife, Tammy, seen on-camera for the first time, is played by African-American actress Susan Kelechi Watson; between that detail and Louie’s half-Mexican lineage, which also gets a workout this season, the show seems to take special pride in confounding labels.)
Despite Louie’s beaten-down aura, some fascinating ladies hitch rides on his gloom train, including Gaby Hoffmann as a girlfriend he can’t talk to and Melissa Leo as a bitter but randy date. The male-female relationships in the first five episodes verge on grotesqueness and even flirt with misogyny. C.K.’s subjective storytelling may explain the fun-house-mirror distortions, but you can still expect heated viewer arguments about whether the artist is being daringly dark and ugly or just being consumed (and maybe stunted) by solipsism. But they’re all mere preludes to Parker Posey’s dazzling guest stint in episodes four and five. I won’t describe her character in detail because her arc is a vertigo-inducing surprise; suffice it to say that the character is like nobody you’ve seen here or anywhere, and that Posey is so sad, sexy, and thrilling that she jolts the show and Louie out of its torpor. This show is the anti–Anger Management: bizarre, inventive, and bold.
This story appeared in the July 21, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.