Newly apologetic Charlie 2.0 much less interesting

Charlie Sheen tried to look contrite, even gracious as he wished the best to his former “Two and a Half Men” colleagues at Sunday’s Emmys.

Had he flipped to NBC at that very moment — where Michael Vick, who served prison time for his role in a brutal dogfighting ring, was passing for 242 yards against his old team, Atlanta — he probably needn’t have bothered.

Sadly, the newly apologetic Charlie 2.0 — who bore little resemblance even to the version featured on Monday’s pre-taped Comedy Central roast — appeared much less interesting than the one whose much-publicized meltdown mutated him into an ex-“Men” man. His belated attempt to mend fences reeked of a publicity stunt by Emmy organizers, providing the star a platform to pretty transparently announce (reading between the lines), “I’m insurable! It’s safe to hire me!”

Yet if Vick’s $100-million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles proves anything, it’s that bad behavior isn’t as deleterious to a career these days as it’s often perceived to be. Being fodder for latenight comics, in fact, is just another way of garnering attention amid a crowded media landscape — a shorthand means for marketing departments to knife through the clutter.

In this context, crisis really does yield opportunities, and explains why proven players are as hard to keep sidelined in entertainment as in sports. An entire sub-strata has emerged devoted to cashing in on such oddities, which began with VH1’s so-called “celebreality” block and spread to other channels.

The media have a way of conflating those “comebacks” into litmus tests regarding the public’s level of forgiveness, which is understandable, if wholly misguided.

Attempts to ascribe stars’ viability to “the public mood” no longer really applies, since a plethora of options has fragmented the marketplace into a horde of mini-publics. As such, Sheen or Vick can have sizable contingents — perhaps even majorities — who disapprove of them and still be attractive to cable networks that need only reach a few million viewers, or sports franchises whose loyal fans despise losing to the Redskins more than they hate someone murdering dogs.

As a consequence, pride might goeth before the fall, but said fall can have a softer-than-expected landing. And while it’s easy to fault Hollywood for doing business with awful people, let’s not completely spare a society — or at least profitable segments of it — that no longer differentiates between fame and notoriety.

Just think of all the celebrities now who are widely known but not particularly liked or admired, from the Hollywood Hills to the Jersey shore.

“That isn’t necessarily a bad thing” from a marketing perspective, said Henry Schafer, exec VP of the Q Scores Company, which measures attitudes toward personalities and brands by weighing their familiarity as well as positive or negative feelings toward them. “They stir emotions.”

Schafer noted there have always been widely known entertainment figures who simultaneously inspire lots of hostility — Howard Stern, Madonna, Roseanne Barr — but added, “It may seem like it’s more extreme now because of the explosion of reality shows.”

Indeed, unscripted television has almost certainly contributed to this climate, as networks regularly hop into bed with people of dubious character precisely because they know those attributes help them “pop” on TV — just as magazines and websites chronicle every aspect of their lived-under-the-microscope lives.

Comedy Central’s Sheen event nevertheless seemed to violate the fundamental spirit of roasts, which usually involve somebody ripe for ridicule but deserving of praise. There’s a key difference between “William Shatner, what a hammy actor” or “Pamela Anderson, look at that body” and “Charlie Sheen, hey, he lost custody of his kids and maybe abused women.”

What’s next, “That Mel Gibson — boy, he sure sounds anti-Semitic when he’s drinking, eh?”

Given that Sheen has once again become more famous for being a nonsense-spouting wild man than an actor, he actually might want to think twice, professionally speaking, about disembarking his “crazy train” just yet.

Then again, like so much in Hollywood, the rationale for hiring people with questionable backgrounds can point to roots in “The Godfather” — the part where Michael Corleone says, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?

Email brian.lowry@variety.com

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