How Charlie Sheen remains a TV superstar

The "Two and a Half Men" star is the golden goose as wife-beating drunk. And CBS needs the eggs

Published January 31, 2011 1:32PM (EST)

FILE - This Jan. 28, 2009 file photo shows Charlie Sheen in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File) (AP)
FILE - This Jan. 28, 2009 file photo shows Charlie Sheen in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File) (AP)

The scariest image on network TV is Charlie Sheen's smile. It's the smile of a bland American vampire -- an indestructible creature the locals have mistaken for a rakish new neighbor who's presumed to have a night job because he's never seen during daylight. Sheen's smile is chilling because there seems to be almost no real pleasure behind it. It's just a particular formation of muscle groups, a default position for the face, a counterweight to those dark, narrow, strangely dead eyes -- the eyes of an ancient, decadent aristocrat. I can picture lovely young neighbor girls talking about the new fellow's dark good looks while waiting for the school bus, agreeing  he's charming but that there's something a bit off about him, something they can never quite figure out -- until that afternoon when they decide to sneak into his hilltop estate in search of answers and ultimately wind their way down into the cellar, where they find a gilded coffin, and Charlie asleep in it, smiling.

How much is that smile worth? L.A. Times columnist Scott Collins has crunched the numbers:  "Sheen, the long-troubled star of 'Two and a Half Men,' checked himself into rehab again Friday, freezing production on TV's most-watched sitcom for the second year in a row. That's left CBS and Warner Bros., the studio that makes the show, scrambling to rejigger schedules and shield an asset whose ultimate value will ultimately top $1 billion." Sheen, the story says, is not just a drug and alcohol addict with an inclination to terrorize women, but "an indispensable component of that exceedingly rare type of TV smash, one so profitable it ends up funding years of overhead and often-fruitless program development. That is what has made him among the highest-paid actors in history, with a paycheck estimated at nearly $2 million per episode."

All of which means he can't be fired. He's the golden goose as wife-beating drunk. CBS needs the eggs.

Why dredge the details of this sick story yet again? It's not to condemn Sheen, who is, by any objective standard, a disturbed and despicable man. Fact is, when he's not getting arrested for throwing his wife, Brooke Mueller, around "like a rag doll," he's doing a superb job playing a sitcom character who's like a nonviolent, non-horrifying cartoon version of the real-life Charlie Sheen: a well-to-do jingle writer who lives in a Malibu beach house with his divorced brother (Jon Cryer) and nephew and gets into shenanigans with relatives and neighbors when he isn't boozing and whoring his way across Southern California the way other people shop for groceries or mow their lawns.

Series creators Lee Aronsohn and Chuck Lorre even named the character Charlie, either to make the connection official or to spare Sheen the burden of figuring out what character he's playing during table reads. The character combines aspects of several durable pop culture types -- the W.C. Fields-styled pickled misanthrope, the hypersexed 1970s bachelor stud, and politically incorrect man's-man Oscar Madison from "The Odd Couple" (with Cryer's Alan as Felix Unger). "I've never been that popular with husbands, fathers, boyfriends, sons, surly lesbian roommates," Charlie said in the episode that aired a couple of weeks ago -- an episode that started with him in a liquor store trying to choose the right bottle of booze, then exclaiming, "Oh, who am I kidding? I love you all!" and filling up his shopping cart. He might be the last regular character on TV whose alcoholism is treated as a character flaw rather than as a disease (he recently referred to liquor as "milk of amnesia"). And he's surely the only heterosexual male character on network TV -- maybe the only major character, period -- who can get cosmetic surgery, and have it be depicted not as evidence of deep insecurity, but as part of his upkeep regimen, his desire to stay in the game. (Sheen's character could be playboy megaproducer Robert Evans' ageless fantasy image of himself -- a Robert Evans who doesn't look like a melted orange fig.)

Sheen is still very funny in the part -- a testament to the comic talent inside the tabloid goon. I find him much more tolerable than David Duchovny, who plays a similar character on Showtime's "Californication," probably because the CBS series knows that the Charlie character has nearly given up on life. He's not laboring under the delusion that he's a misunderstood genius who's worth the trouble he puts everyone through; he knows he's a prolific hack who's attractive to large numbers of women precisely because he's a shallow burnout, a sex toy with a pulse. (In another recent episode, Charlie jokingly insists that he cares about the youth of America because "children are our future," and Alan snaps, "The only young people you care about are sliding down a pole to grab dollar bills out of your mouth." "Those aren't dollar bills," Charlie replies, "those are twenties.") The show is so hateful toward every character -- including Alan, a George Costanza-level shmuck whose son recently caught him dry-humping Charlie's bed while admiring himself on Charlie's sex-video screen -- that the bored amusement it displays toward Charlie is all of a piece.  On this comedic horror show, Charlie is the head vampire, surrounded by a ghoulish entourage of hustlers, reformed hustlers and goody-two-shoes doormats like Alan -- the proverbial wallflower at the orgy.

Is it disturbing or heartening that viewers have responded to Sheen's legal troubles by keeping the show in Nielsen's Top 20, even when it's not getting a rubbernecker's bump from Sheen's latest outrage? I vote heartening, weird as that might sound. Sheen is an actor hired to play the sort of role he's known for offscreen and on, a role similar to the one he played on ABC's "Spin City." Provided you can separate the work from the life (however intertwined they may be), it's possible to enjoy Sheen's adept, if slightly foggy, comic timing. The world has known for decades that Roman Polanski is a disturbed man, yet the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences keeps nominating him for directing Oscars -- because he's still exceptionally good at what he does, and because they realize his art is a dark one, and it must come from somewhere.  The minute we start boycotting artists based on their depraved personal lives, there won't be much art left to enjoy.

On top of all that, there's something grotesquely appropriate about Sheen's protected status at CBS. The grinning vampire is a poster boy for corporate business ethics, if indeed that's not a complete oxymoron. By making a purely bottom-line decision to keep employing Sheen -- judging the money it would lose from not having the sitcom for a few months versus the money it would make once Sheen returns -- CBS aligned itself with the American mainstream, the mentality that rewards economy-wrecking CEOs with gigantic salaries and golden parachutes, and that lets presidents commit war crimes without fear of criminal prosecution. The network is media kin to tanneries that dump toxins into local streams because it would cost too much to properly dispose of them and automakers who learn there's a flaw in a new car that could kill thousands of drivers, then decide it would cost less to pay out class-action damages than to recall the cars. The major difference -- the saving grace, really -- is that CBS' cold-blooded calculations don't directly injure anybody except a few people directly affected by Charlie Sheen's drunken viciousness -- and those co-workers who would rather not be associated with a wife-beating scumbag, but keep working on the show because they have kids in college and two or three mortgages to pay. "It is a strange world," Bram Stoker wrote in "Dracula," "... a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play."

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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