Solace, in the form of big ratings and numerous awards nominations, comes in abundance to the cast and crew of CBS’ sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” cushioning the blows it has taken from a great many critics for 100 episodes and counting.
By and large, “Men” has made peace with never winning over the hearts of its journalistic antagonists. But if there’s one correction its principals wish they could make to the record, it’s that the series doesn’t aim low.
“You can’t mail this stuff in anymore,” says executive producer and co-creator Chuck Lorre. “The relationship with the audience is just too (delicate); the competition is too fierce. Every script has to have something with some value, or you’re not going to be in business very long. We all take the comedy business very seriously.”
From its inception, “Men” has sought more than just the easy laugh. That’s not to say the writers will look the other way when the easy laugh offers a come-hither wink, but there is a pursuit of something deeper than those who quickly dismissed the show realize.
“We deal with reality and psychology and divorce and child-raising,” executive producer and co-creator Lee Aronsohn says. “I think there are things we’re trying to express — certainly Chuck and I from the beginning have been wanting to say things about what it means to be a man in today’s world.”
“We touch on areas that speak to people and their lives and the things they might be going through,” series star Charlie Sheen adds, “and we do it in such a way that is not threatening. There is some poignancy and social relevance, but we also want the audience to forget their problems for a half an hour and chuckle.
“It has heart without being sappy. ‘The Odd Couple’ with a kid.”
Moving into its fifth season, “Men” has evolved rather organically. No major additions to the cast, no radical lifestyle changes for the core characters. Most storylines simply come from the new experiences that the main characters — self-absorbed lothario Charlie (Sheen), his nebbish, divorced brother Alan (Jon Cryer) and Alan’s once-tween, now-teen son Jake (Angus T. Jones) — encounter as they age.
Neither viewers nor voters have shown any fatigue with the program. “Men” finished the 2006-07 season as television’s most-watched comedy and has retained that title through the opening weeks of the new campaign. In addition, the show picked up seven Emmy noms this year — including nods for comedy series and performers Sheen, Cryer, Holland Taylor and Conchata Ferrell — boosting its four-season total to 23.
And yes, it is a consolation.
“It’s pretty cool. I’m not going to lie to you,” Sheen says. “It’s nice to be invited to the big dance. There is a punitive aspect to being successful … ‘Friends,’ ‘(Everybody Loves) Raymond,’ ‘Seinfeld’: ‘Well, we’re not going to throw trophies on the pot of gold.’
“But we’re doing the stuff that they’ve been doing since ‘I Love Lucy,’ ‘Good Times,’ ‘Happy Days,’ ‘The Jeffersons’ — brilliant television. ‘Barney Miller’ — the stuff that had an influence on me. I’m thrilled that there is still room for that familiar comfort viewing.”
So while the downbeat drumbeat from the critics continues — when they react to the program’s popularity with shock and “Aw!” — the people behind “Men” can’t avoid a sneaking suspicion that not everyone who knocks the show has given it a fair shake.
“I’ve got to admit,” Aronsohn says, “I’m sort of a masochist. I do read what’s written about the show. It sounds to me like a lot of the people that loathe the show have never actually seen the show, because it’s a four-camera show with a live audience, and it gets lumped in with a lot of other shows that are not the same.”
Adds Cryer: “There is a certain amount of defensiveness on the show, because we haven’t gotten the critical reaction that say ‘The Office’ has gotten. And the funny thing is that our writers love ‘The Office.’
“There is some frustration that the artistry has been lost by the critics. I’ve read a lot of terrific reviews for the show, (but) some people dismiss it because it’s old school and not groundbreaking. … The writers should get more critical love for it.”
Ultimately, winning that affection is not something that Lorre will allow himself to worry about — not at length, anyway.
“I’ve had my vulnerable moments,” Lorre says, “where I can be hurt by people not getting what we do. But in my better moments, I’m just grateful that we’ve found an audience and been able to grow an audience and do work that we’re proud of. And in the end, that’s got to be enough.”