Talent and/or fame will get you second chances – and often third, fifth and ninth chances. Always and always and always. Whether in sports or entertainment, if your skill set is going to make the product better, or if your popularity is going to put more fannies in the seats, then it doesn’t matter how difficult you can be to work with, how many times you’ve been arrested, how often your face has been in the news for an embarrassing reason.
See Ron Artest. See Lindsay Lohan. See Dennis Rodman.
Or see Charlie Sheen, newly returned to television in “Anger Management,” a sitcom that debuts Thursday night at 9 on FX.
Sheen’s personal and professional misdeeds have been so well-chronicled that there’s no need to rehash them here. But the guy keeps working – and kept being employed on “Two and Half Men” through several problematic incidents until eventually they became too problematic even for a show that successful – because he has a big audience that likes him, and because he has repeatedly demonstrated a strong command of deadpan comedy.
That talent has been there throughout his career, from his bit part in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (“Drugs?”) through the “Major League” films (“I look like a banker in this”) to the tall task of succeeding Michael J. Fox on “Spin City” through eight seasons as Charlie Harper on “Two and a Half Men.” And the popularity was strong enough that people paid their own good money to see his live “Violent Torpedo of Truth” tour after CBS and Chuck Lorre finally said enough was enough.
So it’s not a surprise that Sheen is back on television only a little over a year after we last saw him play Charlie Harper. And “Anger Management” is exactly what you might expect as his comeback vehicle, in terms of style, content and self-awareness.
Despite the title, the show isn’t a sequel to or adaptation of the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson movie. It’s a traditional multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track, created by comedy veteran Bruce Helford (“The Drew Carey Show”), and seems designed to simultaneously feature everything people like about Sheen while addressing every complaint against him.
Sheen plays Charlie Goodson, a former minor league baseball player (shades of Ricky Vaughn) turned therapist who simultaneously runs a group for people with anger problems while needing counseling himself. All the strongest relationships in his life are with women – he gets along great with ex-wife Jen (Shawnee Smith), is constantly worrying about teenage daughter Sam (Daniela Bobadilla) and he tells all his troubles either to the local bartender (Brett Butler) or his best friend/sex buddy Kate (Selma Blair) – and though he dates lots of attractive women and gets into trouble, he’s always aware of the mistakes that he’s made and working to do better. (Just not so much better that it gets in the way of Charlie being Charlie.)
The show even opens with Sheen talking directly to the camera, shouting, “You can’t fire me! I quit!” and a bunch of other winks and nods to the end of his time on “Two and a Half Men.” (Hint: there’s a joke alluding to winning.)
The pilot’s not especially funny, but it would fit comfortably alongside half the CBS comedy lineup (assuming CBS would ever employ Sheen again), just as it would have been a comfortable fit next to “Drew Carey” or “The Norm Show” or any of Helford’s other series (“Norm,” “The George Lopez Show,” etc.). There are a bunch of professional comedy actors on hand (also including Barry Corbin from “Northern Exposure” as one of Charlie’s patients and Michael Boatman from “Spin City” as his neighbor), and from time to time they get a halfway decent line to deliver. When Charlie decides he needs Kate to be his therapist, for instance, she tells him that would bring an end to their friends with benefits arrangement, and he wryly asks, “Can’t we hang onto some of the benefits? COBRA plan, if you will.” It may not fit in with FX’s original comedy brand(*), but it matches up well with the network’s “Two and a Half Men” repeats.
(*) Technically, this isn’t an original FX production, but a syndicated show they acquired in a deal similar to the one TBS has with the Tyler Perry sitcoms: 10 episodes are ordered now, and if they hit a certain ratings threshold (which they almost certainly will), then 90 more are automatically ordered.
That said, the second episode (which airs immediately after the pilot, in what will be the show’s regular Thursday at 9:30 p.m. timeslot) does an impressive job of undoing nearly every bit of image rehab the pilot attempts.
In an episode entitled “Charlie and the Slumpbuster,” Keri Kenney from “Reno 911” guest stars as a crazy, unattractive woman Charlie once slept with in his baseball days to try to break a hitless streak, and virtually every joke in the episode is about how hilarious it is that Charlie Sheen is spending time with this troll. As hard as the pilot works to sell you Charlie (Goodson, if not Sheen) as a man who cares deeply about women and their feelings, “Slumpbuster” works twice as hard to distance itself from that attitude, even as it’s half-heartedly pretending that Charlie is on some level concerned about the ugly woman and what his daughter and ex think of him.
“Anger Management” is Charlie Sheen doing what Charlie Sheen does – on-screen. It’s not artful, it’s not elegant, and it makes a very weird lead-in to the “Wilfred”/”Louie” double feature in the 10 o’clock hour, but it will likely give his fans what they want. And if there are enough of them to trigger the order for the extra 90 episodes, then FX, Helford and everyone else will feel justified in taking another chance on the guy, despite what happened in the past.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org