In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Woody Allen described comedy as “tragedy plus time.” “Two and a Half Men” didn’t have the luxury of the latter in replacing star Charlie Sheen, and — spoilers coming — wasted little time dispensing with the body in a sentiment-free pre-credit funeral, attended by many visions of trysts past. Despite having to do an enormous amount of business in a half-hour, the producers look to have handled an awkward situation about as well as they possibly could.
Having won the right to be one of the filthier comedies on TV — one that seldom lets warm and fuzzy get in the way of a sex joke — there was no way to be maudlin about Charlie Harper’s demise and maintain the tone of the series. So Charlie’s off-screen death is treated as one extended punch line — with the many women he bedded coming more to gloat than mourn. (The opening also features some amusing celebrity cameos — including one referencing an earlier Lorre series — adding a little extra value.
Amid all the hand-wringing about Sheen in the media, “Men’s” cast has consistently been underrated, and that was amply demonstrated Monday. Jon Cryer, as Charlie’s much-abused brother Alan, even had a surprisingly sweet if brief interlude addressing a can of ashes, expressing gratitude for having taken him and his son Jake (Angus T. Jones) in after Alan’s divorce.
The larger challenge, clearly, was to introduce a new landlord, with Alan unable to afford the upkeep on Charlie’s pricey Malibu home. Enter Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher), a high-tech billionaire who — despite being tall, dreamy and well-hung — lacks any social graces, having married the high-school sweetheart who just dumped him.
The tech-nerd-who-doesn’t-know-he’s-cool riff is fairly plausible, and allows Alan to become his de facto guide to the dating world — the underlying gag being that although Walden is “emotionally immature,” indeed almost childlike, Alan still remains the far less desirable commodity.
Is it a perfect solution? Hardly. But the truth is “Men” co-creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn (who share script credit with Eddie Gorodetsky and Jim Patterson) probably would have likely let the show end if Sheen hadn’t dissed them so publicly in their Hollywood divorce. And while there would seem to be pressure on the creative team and Kutcher, the truth is if this doesn’t succeed they have an air-tight alibi: We didn’t want to make a huge change this late in the run; blame the (figuratively) dead guy.
Part two will have to explain how Alan winds up staying on as Walden’s roommate, but Monday’s episode — given the interest created by Sheen’s widely covered exit — did most of the heavy lifting. And if the remodeled “Men” manages to hang on to around 80% of the ratings delivered by the show’s former occupant, everyone involved winds up looking like a hero. CBS might even get an extra year or two out of the series.
That is, admittedly, the rosiest of scenarios. But based on how the show has performed in the past, don’t be surprised if “Men” manages to keep on humming.