Not to saddle “Two and a Half Men” with the entire weight of the ailing sitcom business, but as a returning sophomore that (unlike “Arrested Development”) can boast some genuine hit credentials, expectations are high — especially with the little matter of replacing “Everybody Loves Raymond” looming forebodingly on the horizon. Yet after producing some of last season’s funniest moments, year two begins on a rather muted note, with a showy bit of stunt casting that feels flat compared with previous highlights.
Perhaps sensing as much, CBS made two episodes available, with the second (to run at an unspecified date) coming closer to the biting wit that characterized much of the show’s first year.
Despite initial misgivings about Charlie Sheen, he remains perfectly cast as a womanizing composer whose carefree existence of sexual conquest and afternoon margaritas is upset by the arrival of his newly divorced brother Alan (Jon Cryer), with ingenuous son Jake (Angus T. Jones) in tow.
The opener again finds Charlie (Sheen) teaching Jake un-sitcomlike life lessons (in this case, the joy of gambling) while he and Alan wrestle with their relationship — namely, whether they are friends or merely brothers. The impetus comes when Charlie asks Alan to stay away during a planned night of male bonding — which sounds suspiciously like a support group — with Sean Penn, Elvis Costello and Harry Dean Stanton.
Just watching Stanton throw back Scotch and mutter inanities is certainly a hoot, but the episode still comes across as being somewhat forced in a “Hey, look who we could get!” fashion.
The subsequent half-hour provides a better mix, as Alan grapples with his ex-wife (Marin Hinkle) finding a boyfriend, while Charlie squares off with their domineering mother (the always-delicious Holland Taylor).
Thanks to the terrific chemistry among the central trio, the show gets by on charm even when not yielding big laughs. Moreover, series creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn and their staff bring to air a refreshingly jaundiced view of life and love, from the free-flow drinking that goes on in these episodes to Charlie’s neighbor/stalker Rose (Melanie Lynskey) — an absurd-sounding role on paper that somehow works.
Warner Bros. is already salivating over the prospect of cashing in on “Two and a Half Men” in syndication given the dearth of recent product whose reruns merit shelf-space on local TV stations. Some of the first-season episodes — such as Chris O’Donnell’s double entendre-laden turn as an ex-girlfriend turned guy — deserve to play until the sprockets come off.
Yet while the show still seems well positioned for a lengthy and profitable run until little Jake is shaving, maintaining those standards weekly won’t be easy, since the days of coasting to the finish line are long gone. And not to tack on any extra pressure, but if this great light hope stumbles, virtually everyone who’s currently writing set-ups/jokes or hopes to will feel the pain.