‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“For me, that’s when the series jumped the shark.”
Crossovers are increasingly popular these days, with series going into production with the implicit mandate of inhabiting fluid connected universes. While television’s track record with crossovers has been hit or miss, there’s always room for less conventional approaches to the concept. In fact, sometimes the ridiculous, unbelievable nature of a crossover can be the entire point, which is precisely what went down with CBS’s Two and a Half Men and CSI in May of 2008.
Most shows just do a crossover where the worlds of their shows collide, or characters move between series. What happened here is almost a “creative crossover,” where it was more about the production teams swapping shows than trying to create a plot that incorporates both series. Hell, Charlie and company’s inclusion in CSI is tangential at best. That’s not what they’re interested in indulging here, which makes this all the more ambitious.
Coming right after the 2008 writers strike, not only were writers feeling hungry and rejuvenated, but they were also eager to be playing these sort of games and creating “events.” Something like this would seem even more appealing after being benched for so long. Who knows if it’d even have been proposed if everyone was sloughing away at the grind as per usual.
The idea for this experiment came from Two and a Half Men’s Chuck Lorre, who went to CSI’s executive producer, Carol Mendelsohn about orchestrating it. While the idea took some time to get approval, it still ended up miraculously coming together. Understandably there was some concern about keeping some control, with Mendelsohn and Lorre and Aronsohn all used to being in charge of how their shows operated. Accordingly, a truer collaboration was taken on, with Mendelsohn’s team handling the forensics and evidence details of the episodes, with Lorre and Aronsohn acting as punch-up crew and making sure the humor of Two and a Half Men was present. It was a pair-up that makes a lot of sense when you consider how insane such a behind-the-scenes switch was in the first place.
Admittedly, this sort of thing is pretty cool, and I wish we got to see more of it going down. Quite famously, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, big fans of Always Sunny of Philadelphia, were allowed to write the episode “Flowers for Charlie,” but it’s not as if Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day were given the privilege of penning a Game of Thrones entry. There’s even instances of celebrity writers jumping into programs, like when Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, or Ricky Gervais wrote Simpsons episodes, or the few Childrens Hospital episodes that Diablo Cody has scribed. This is not that. It’s a lot more intense. It’s interesting that this cross pollination seems to happen more between comedies and dramas, which seems like a bolder move than say, the showrunners of Rick and Morty and The Venture Bros. switching shows for an episode. Yet, I can somehow picture Aaron Sorkin writing a Silicon Valley entry.
Beginning with Two and a Half Men’s episode, “Fish in a Drawer,” that aired Monday of that week, there’s impressively an actual dead body in play. A corpse is found in Charlie’s bed, with the plot of the episode revolving around figuring out how this happened and who’s behind it. It’s one thing to inject a little more humor into a drama like CSI, but adding actual death into a sitcom is a reasonably risky move. Unsurprisingly, a crass show like Two and a Half Men is sort of the perfect territory to play with such an experiment, with the Grim Reaper’s presence on the show not managing to warp its sensibilities too drastically. Then again, this is also a show that killed off its main character out of spite, so what’s a little death between belly laughs?
Naturally, “Fish in a Drawer” features the obvious sort of pandering that crossovers so often indulge in, like how the interrogator at the police station is a clone of Catherine Willows from CSI. What’s more to the episode’s credit though is how Mendelsohn and co’s episode tries to tell itself through CSI’s typical structure, truly making this a hybrid and “crossover” between the two series. More in this vein, the entry uses CSI’s format of using forensic evidence and investigation to eventually figure out who the murderer is, it’s just happening in an absurd new context. Even CSI’s trademark visual style used for their flashback devices see incorporation into the episode as it tries to tell this story. The drama’s extreme zoom-ins on evidence, as well as the grainy video look for the death hypotheses, are present. There’s even a mash-up put together when it comes to the episode’s opening theme, combining CSI’s “Who Are You?” together with it, bizarrely. Jon Cryer stated that this “could be something people will discuss for the next 40 years,” which I have no doubt about, but probably not for the same reasons.
Three days later, CSI’s yin to Two and Half Men’s yang aired, with Chuck Lorre really swinging for the fences. This episode sees the murder du jour taking place within the world of television comedy, specifically the writers room of a Chuck Lorre-esqe approximate of a sitcom, Annabelle. “Two and a Half Deaths” makes no efforts to hide that Annabelle is pretty much the codename for Roseanne, a sitcom that Lorre worked on in the past and was eventually strong-armed out of by the series star, Roseanne Barr (something Lorre’s made a bit of a reputation on). If all of the obvious parallels weren’t shoved in your face hard enough, Tom Arnold even confirmed the theory on Adam Corolla’s podcast.
Here in the on-the-nose department, we see Charlie, Alan, and Jake all in the background of Hollywood, wearing the same outfits that they were wearing in “Fish in a Drawer,” to make the connection even more obvious. While Two and a Half Men has less stylistic touches for CSI to pull from, what it does cleverly do is put it within the same context and universe that Two and a Half Men operates, that being of a mega-hit network sitcom. The heavyhanded, melodramatic dialogue that the show specializes in is also in prime form by Lorre and Aronsohn (with lines like, “So the clot doesn’t thicken but the plot does,” or the painful, “What we have here is a failure to coagulate”). With all the sitcom and writing discussions that fill the episode, at one moment the pointed question is raised if they ever thought about asking the Two and a Half Men writers for help, at which point it’s met with the response, “Ugh! I’d rather sleep with Annabelle than write that crap!”
The episode is largely a big Chuck Lorre vanity project (I mean, maybe he pitched this entire project in the first place so he could just vent about Roseanne Barr for 45 minutes?), which if there’s any “trademark” of the CBS sitcom, it’d be that. He even fits in a sly dig about how both CSI and Two and a Half Men have never won an Emmy for “Best Series.” Elsewhere, we get self-aware lines like, “Beautiful people doing high-tech police work. There might be a series in this.” Half the stuff that goes on in this episode will just have you aghast for what got through. Let’s not forget that this is all coming from an episode that’s even titled, “Two and a Half Deaths” in the first place.
While this did well for both shows ratings-wise, and became the “event” that CBS was looking for, this sort of detour was not attempted again, by these programs or any of the rest of CBS’ slate. With the sort of mandate of forced event nights that were so dominant in the ‘90s, commanding this sort of thing to happen could yield some incredible results. While a lot of this would likely be a write off, you sometimes can’t stumble upon lightning in a bottle like this unless you color outside of the lines a little.
After all, like Grissom says – while holding a rubber chicken, no less – “Dying is easy, comedy’s hard.”