Why a Charlie Sheen Reality Show Is and Isn’t a TV Third Rail

Photo: Splash News/Splash News
Photo: Splash News/Splash News

As people have hypothesized about what Charlie Sheen’s showbiz options are after stubbing his acting career out in his ashtray, one of the first potential Plan Bs to come up is always “He could do a reality show!” After all, it’s the traditional next step for celebrities who have publicly self-immolated. But when this option has been raised, it’s usually quickly followed by conventional wisdom dismissing the notion: After all, wouldn’t a Sheen reality show be a nightmare for a producer? Would any network be willing to endure the backlash that would almost certainly come from being seen as an enabler of a deeply troubled man? And if they did, would they want to take the risk of working with someone who seems, to put it mildly, unstable? Vulture rang up several of our best sources in the unscripted business to get their take and discovered that in an era of Celebrity Rehab and Sister Wives, the answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes. Herewith, our sources refute all the arguments against a Charlie Sheen reality show … except one.

Argument 1: His erratic behavior would make any production uninsurable.
One senior reality producer we talked to concurs with this, comparing Sheen to Lindsay Lohan, whose endless run-ins with the law have made it tough for some movie productions to secure the necessary insurance guarantees that are virtually mandatory for even modestly budgeted movies. But then we talked to another producer, one who has had experience mounting reality shows centered around controversial celebs with sketchy backgrounds. “No way is insurability an issue,” he said. While it might be tough for the makers of a $50 million-plus movie to hire Sheen, a reality show would probably require an investment of no more than $5 million or so, the producer theorizes. “I don’t think he’s done anything that would make him uninsurable in a reality situation,” he says. “There’s nothing he’s done that wasn’t an issue for Danny Bonaduce [who starred in VH1’s Breaking Bonaduce]. Mike Tyson’s a convicted rapist, and he’s got his own reality show. There wouldn’t be an issue.”

Argument 2: You couldn’t find a top-level producer who would want to take on Sheen.
It’s true that someone with a great résumé of hits would be hard to recruit. The Real World creator Jonathan Murray tells Vulture that Sheen “would be very challenging to work with as a reality producer. I think he’d be going on quite a ride, and I think you’d probably lose a lot of control. There’s one thing reality producers want, and that’s control. I’m not sure we’d have much with him.” Our producer who’s dealt with risky talent in the past says Sheen just wouldn’t be worth the hassle for him, particularly given the way he’s turned on his former employers. “It would be a mind-numbing experience,” he says. “He falls into the life’s-too-short category for me.” Fine, so the top guns wouldn’t work with him. But you wouldn’t need an A-list producer like Top Chef’s Magical Elves team or The Bachelor’s Mike Fleiss to package this project. Network execs know that the key to the show would be just letting Charlie go. Right now he’s doing a reality show with a flipcam propped up on a table: It may be creepy and unhinged, but that would be what a network would want from this show, so why do they need a top-flight producer to try to steer him? There would no doubt be dozens of mid-level reality guys willing to take a chance trying to tame Sheen’s tiger blood, or at least to just chase after him and laugh nervously at his monologues.

Argument 3: No network would buy it.
Actually, this might be the easiest piece of the puzzle. “I don’t think anyone would hesitate to air it,” one top producer told us. In addition to the aforementioned train wreck that was Breaking Bonaduce, reality TV has already brought us the will-they-die-or-not drama of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab and A&E’s Intervention, as well as the enabling cameras of E!’s The Anna Nicole Show. As it is, reputable outlets such as Live Nation and Funny or Die have shown a willingness to do business with the Vatican Assassin. “Do I think TLC would do a show like this? No. But E! or VH1 would put it on in a heartbeat,” one wag told us. “You never see an A-list celeb like him talk like a tool. So there’s this knee-jerk reaction that he’s spiraled out of control. But I’d argue that there have been many celebrities who’ve been through worse.”

So a Sheen show is hardly impossible. Frankly, it’s even likely. But the bigger issue is how many people would watch it. While putting out a press release announcing the Sheen reality show would get a network tons of publicity, and maybe even a big opening-night audience, industry observers are highly skeptical The Charlie Sheen Duh-Winning Hour would be even a short-term success, let alone a long-term hit. “The reality audience is advanced these days: They want to see story, structure,” one producer says. “You’ve got to give them real TV, not just spectacle.” Some point to the Britney Spears–Kevin Federline 2005 reality show, Chaotic: It was supposed to be a fascinating look behind the curtain at fame and a high-profile tabloid marriage. Instead, it was a total snore watched by nobody. Likewise, Sheen lounging around Sober Valley Lodge with his goddesses would probably not be must-see TV. And while the actor showed he still has the ability to deliver lines with his Funny or Die cooking sketch, most of his Sheen’s Korner appearances were virtually unwatchable. “The question is, would he perform,” the producer says. “Would he show up and give you a TV show, or would he give you a pile of trash you can’t use? Soundbites can only take you so far.”

In the end, the biggest obstacle to a successful Charlie Sheen reality show might be the fact that we’ve sort of already seen that program. “I feel like he’s been doing a reality show for the past two weeks,” Murray says. “And quite honestly, I lost interest a while ago.” Another producer of major broadcast network reality hits is even more blunt: “The truth is, nothing [on a reality show] could be more real or soul-questioningly compelling than what is unfolding live before us on the Internet and TV. He doesn’t need a reality show. He needs a reality check.”

Related: Conan Scores the Jon Cryer Coup
10 Possible Charlie Sheen Replacements Who Might Get Us to Watch Two and a Half Men
Is Charlie Sheen Turning Into Saddam Hussein?
Four New Reveals From the Letter That Fired Charlie Sheen
The Argument You’re Having With Yourself About Charlie Sheen
The 15 Funniest Charlie Sheen Clickables: Laugh While You Still Can!
The Media Betting on Charlie Sheen Dying Soon

Why a Charlie Sheen Reality Show Is and Isn’t a TV Third Rail