At what point does ‘Two and a Half Men’ try to work without Charlie Sheen?

Senior Television Writer
02.16.11 71 Comments

Here’s the one question I haven’t seen a satisfactory answer to in this whole mess involving Charlie Sheen and “Two and a Half Men” that seems to get messier by the day:

Why does no one at the show seem willing to consider the idea of seeing – either in the short or long term – if the show can work without Sheen?

I’ve mostly stayed out of this story, in part because so much of it is a tabloid thing (which isn’t what either HitFix or I are interested in), in part because I’m not a “Men” fan. But it’s the most popular comedy on television, and at this point the story is as much about the show – and the many people whose livelihood depend on it – being kept in limbo as it is about Sheen’s personal demons.

My friend Linda Holmes from NPR has been similarly reluctant to write about it, but yesterday, she found what I thought was the perfect way into the story. I strongly recommend going to read the whole thing, but the short version is that she broke down the facts of the situation so far (Sheen’s obvious, public, unapologetic problems with addiction; the amount of money the show makes for CBS, Warner Bros. and the many people who work on it; Sheen’s record of being able to show up for work through most of his episodes; and Sheen’s comments on Dan Patrick’s radio show in which he all but dared CBS and Warner Bros. to not let him go back to work). Then she said this all raises an impossible question:

It’s the question, “Is there any point at which you do not keep a guy in a high-profile job in family entertainment simply because using the considerable power of your television network to support the road he’s on is so irresponsible that it defeats the profit motive as well as the desire to keep everyone else on the show employed?”

The problem, of course, is money. This thing is enormously profitable, and as Linda puts it, “There’s just so much money. People do amazing things when there’s that much money.”

What the hell does “Men” producer Chuck Lorre do here? What does Warner Bros. do? If their big star is publicly insisting he can report for duty, if his team is planting stories on gossip websites about how he’s sober again and Lorre is keeping Sheen and all the cast and crew out of work, and yet if it’s clear from all of Sheen’s comments that these problems will crop up again, and likely very soon, what does anybody do?

Forget the profits the corporations make, or even the big money that Lorre, or Jon Cryer or co-creator Lee Aronsohn make per episode. This is a show that employs a lot of people, many of whom will be in big trouble if they miss more than one or two paychecks. For their sake, the show needs to go on. But if acceding to Sheen’s demands just enables his behavior, what’s he going to do next? How long can this reasonably continue before something bad happens to him or someone else?

Which again, makes me puzzled that no one seems willing to even acknowledge the possibility that the show could go on, even temporarily, without Sheen. 

Yes, Sheen is enormously popular with the show’s fans, who have barely blinked at the revelation that the guy who plays a hard-partying bad boy is, in real life, a hard-partying bad boy. But there are another 1 1/2 men in the title. Surely in the short term, an episode or two could be produced in which Charlie is out of town and Alan gets into more trouble than normal without his brother, or where Alan tries to woo back the Courtney Thorne-Smith character without Charlie to serve as a reluctant sounding board.

All the reports I’ve read suggest no one at CBS and Warner Bros. is willing to contemplate this. I suppose the fear is in offending Sheen, but at this point how much more volatile and/or insubordinate can he get? If you frame it publicly as “We love Charlie, and the show needs Charlie, but we also don’t want to keep the crew out of work and we think he needs more time off to get help,” then you potentially put him in a position where even the Sheen fans acknowledge their guy is in the wrong.

I’m not saying the show can or will work without Sheen, but why will no one even try? There was an episode or two of “Frasier” that had to drastically minimize Frasier’s presence while Kelsey Grammer dealt with various issues, and the show was able to stay afloat while that happened.

For that matter, I’m curious about whether the show could actually do more without Sheen than muddle through a few weeks.

Like I said, I’m not a fan, but my wife enjoys it, so it’s often on in our living room while I’m doing other things. And my impression has always been that Charlie’s role is primarily to comment on the things that Alan or Jake or the others are doing. Sometimes, plots will derive out of an action Charlie takes (say, the episode where he briefly becomes a kids’ music star, which I actually quite liked), but mostly when I watch, he’s reacting, not acting. And not to dismiss Sheen’s deadpan cool, which I’ve enjoyed going all the way back to his bit part in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but I think there are other people who could potentially do what he does. Just looking at the pool of Brat Pack and/or “Young Guns” alums, I could definitely imagine Christian Slater (assuming his new FOX show “Breaking In” doesn’t work) showing up as Alan’s long-lost cousin and playing a similar but not identical role in the series. Hell, given the amount of money that Sheen makes per episode – that at this point is built into the cost of making this juggernaut – why not shoot for the moon and see if $2 million per episode might be enough to entice someone like John Cusack away from the movie business?

I recognize that there’s a certain alchemy to creating any hit TV show – a formula that’s not easily replicated or changed. And I recognize that “Two and a Half Men” is the biggest comedy on TV, and how hard it is to make a big hit sitcom these days. So I can see everyone’s reluctance to try to fundamentally alter the show, either for a handful of episodes or long term.

This story keeps changing, seemingly by the minute. As I was writing this post, Sheen went on Patrick’s show again and said he’s now reporting back to work on March 1, has no problems with Lorre, etc., etc., etc. By tomorrow – hell, by dinnertime tonight – it may have been through six more twists and turns. And because everything seems so volatile, it just feels like somebody on a high level at this show has to start working on a Sheen-less contingency plan.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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