As sure as the sun sets and rises, someone will look at Monday night’s ratings for “Two and a Half Men,” compare the second episode’s audience to the first, and conclude that however many million people have “rejected” Ashton Kutcher.
This is dunderheaded, for a number of reasons.
For starters, the 28.7 million people who watched the premiere was a wildly inflated number — about double the show’s average tune-in last season — thanks to all the publicity surrounding Charlie Sheen’s much-publicized meltdown. Many millions of those people are essentially looky-loos — folks who just wanted to see how they killed off the character, rather morbidly, so they could be part of the conversation. They wouldn’t have gone back if Jesus and three apostles had replaced him.
In addition, the next episode will go up against Fox’s much-ballyhooed premiere of “Terra Nova,” which could very well open at the best number that show’s ever going to do. Throw in “Monday Night Football” and “Dancing With the Stars,” and there are plenty of TV options for the uncommitted, along with simply tuning out entirely.
Nobody — including CBS — expected “Men” to surpass what the show was doing with Sheen on a regular basis throughout the season. The game was to engineer the change, stay within hailing distance of last season’s performance and thus keep the linchpin of the network’s Monday lineup solvent.
Frankly, I have no idea what the audience for part two of the premiere will look like. But it’s pretty clear we won’t really be able to gauge how well “Men” has weathered the transition — and whether the audience is buying Kutcher in the role — until the show has four or five episodes under its belt, roughly around mid-October.
None of which will stop some over-eager — or simply under-informed — journalistic types from trying to leap to conclusions bright and early Tuesday morning, based on the decline. After all, the pressure to draw some kind of cultural conclusions based on premiere week has already produced appropriately guarded suggestions in major newspapers that comedy is back and specifically, sitcoms featuring women.
While I’d love to be surprised about “Men,” at least it’s appropriate: Given the show’s fondness for sex jokes, it’s the perfect candidate for a premature exclamation.