Review by KC Carlson
Looking at Two and a Half Men in cold hard type makes it seem like the least likely hit sitcom on TV. Yet for most of its seven-year-plus run, it has ranked among the Top 20 shows on television, and its equally unlikely star Charlie Sheen — despite a crazy off-screen personal life — is one of America’s favorite actors. That it airs on CBS — no longer the “tiffany” network it once was, skewing older (average viewer age is 54) than any of the other Big 5 networks — is stranger still. The show primarily trades in sex, alcoholic stupor, sex, lying, extramarital affairs, sex, fart jokes, drug use, sex, hateful insults, sexual deviancy, slacker culture, sex, manipulation, homosexual panic, raunch, sleaze, half-nakedness, and sex, which just makes all of this stranger. (Or does it?) Yet all of the above are just the secondary qualities of the show. When it’s at the top of its game, Two and a Half Men is one of the funniest, well-written, and best-cast comedies on television. And since comedy lives or dies on the strength of its delivery and timing, it’s convenient that the entire cast excels at this as well.
Unfortunately, in Season 7, the show strayed off-course — severely at times — despite some brilliant episodes and situations. If the season had a subtitle, it might be “When Charlie Met Monogamy”, as the long-time hedonistic degenerate Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) finally allows one of his many (many, many) girlfriends to be a bigger part of his life, when Chelsea (Jennifer Taylor) moves into the Harper bachelor beach house. I almost wrote that Charlie decides to let Chelsea move in, but Charlie never really decides anything. His life seems to ebb and flow from girlfriend to girlfriend, and it’s obvious that a large part of it is completely beyond his control — such when his brother Alan (Emmy winner Jon Cryer) and Alan’s uberslacker son Jake (Angus T. Jones) moved into his Malibu beach house after Alan’s really contentious divorce.
It’s all this underlying tension — six years of Alan and Jake’s nonsense, topped with the strains of trying to build an actual loving relationship with Chelsea — that finally causes Charlie to snap, leading to almost an entire season of stress, arguments, and a couple of instances of all-out warfare. Unfortunately, about 75% of this is unpleasant to watch, as Charlie and Alan’s once playful bantering has now become hurtful and ugly. More often than not, Charlie looks headed for the psych ward, and he turns to even more incredible levels of drunkenness to cope. Much of this is no longer funny. Or when it is, we feel bad for laughing at (or with) our TV friends who have largely become pathetic.
For the first six seasons, Charlie’s life has been a parade of women — until the end of season 6, when Chelsea moves in and they become more-or-less engaged. (Charlie refuses to commit to a date, which comes to a head in a key Season 7 episode.) Sadly, this season Chelsea has become a prop, an excuse for a litany of misogynistic frat-boy humor. One entire episode revolves around Charlie’s fury over Alan’s suggestion that she might consider breast-reduction surgery to relieve her chronic back pain. Of course, she doesn’t get the surgery. But there are plenty of breast jokes.
The gaggle of women in Charlie’s life had become such a big joke that the show’s writers decided to turn it into its own episode this season, as over a dozen of Charlie’s exes return to haunt him in a hilarious hallucination served up by trippy pharmacist (and semi-regular) Martin Mull. This is also the basis of one of the DVD set’s two bonus features, featuring nine minutes of interviews with many of the actresses portraying Charlie’s women.
That many of the women in Charlie’s life are interchangeable and throwaway comes to light when you consider some of the casting for the show. Actress Jennifer Taylor was cast as three different characters in the early years of the show before landing the longer-term role of Chelsea in Season 6. No one seems to notice that they’ve seen this woman before.
With both lead characters now almost outlandish cartoon versions of their original characters (and twin Wile E. Coyotes at that, except the “super-genius” has them both beat for class), the main reason for watching this show is the supporting cast. Conchata Ferrell as Berta, Charlie’s long-suffering and sharp-tongued housekeeper, is the heart and soul of the show. By far the smartest character in the house, her job is crappy (especially cleaning up after the frequently hygene-challenged Jake), but she’s also got Charlie pegged as an easy mark, so I’m betting she’s the highest paid housekeeper in TV history. Ferrell is brilliant in the role — keep an eye on her in the kitchen scenes with Charlie and “Zippy” (her nickname for Alan). Her facial expressions and little bits of “business” are priceless while putting up with the inane bantering between the bickering brothers.
Holland Taylor is always a class act, and as Evelyn Harper, Alan and Charlie’s mother (and Jake’s grandmother), she takes control of every scene she’s in. She hasn’t been given much important to do this season, but my favorite bit with her is when she “hires” Jake to be her chauffeur (complete with uniform). She works best when she’s got a new beau (like Robert Wagner in Season 6 or, briefly, Carl Reiner this season). That she shows up in Charlie’s exes hallucination is so disturbing that I don’t really want to talk about it.
Also great is Marin Hinkle in the often thankless role of Alan’s shrewish ex-wife Judith. Judith is remarried to Herb Melnick (played by the always brilliant Ryan Stiles). Herb and Judith’s marriage (like her and Alan’s) isn’t exactly friction-free, and Herb is constantly being thrown out of the house, usually, ironically, bonding with Alan. (The episode with the “bromance” between the two, is a season high point.) Also fun is the earlier situation caused by Herb’s absence, which leads to Alan and Judith briefly reuniting. Of course, that didn’t work out, but approximately nine months later, after Judith and Herb have a baby, everyone remarks about how much the baby actually looks like Alan, leading to one of the show’s ongoing current subplots. Another hysterical Judith moment this season is the flashback to Alan and Judith’s 1980s wedding reception.
Which leaves the “half-man” — Alan’s son Jake, played by the brilliant Angus T. Jones. The show struck gold when they cast Jones in the role, as he as been able to comfortably grow into one of TV’s great underachievers. It’s been much fun watching the cute-but-deadly fart machine grow up in front of our eyes. Jake’s obviously a product of his environment. Although wisely recognizing his father as the loser he is (but nonetheless still loving him), Jake has instead decided to take after Charlie — perhaps the most successful underachiever on TV. Jake somehow manages to score the attention of an endless succession of young, beautiful teen girls (and of course, doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do with them — just like his uncle) as well as somehow befriending a series of friends who are actually dumber than he is (making him unofficial “king” of the uberslackers). Jake is my hero.
Most episodes include the original opening from the early seasons, featuring the “two and a half men” surrounding a microphone, “singing” the show’s theme song. Originally filmed when Jake was young and ubercute, the sequence is now regularly updated to show young cute Jake morphing into young adolescent slacker Jake — one of TV’s creepiest moments ever.
Another great thing about Two and a Half Men is their incredible way of incorporating and getting the best out of an amazing bunch of guest stars over the years. This season includes brilliant turns by Jane Lynch (recurring as Charlie’s obtuse therapist), Tricia Helfer (twice, as Chelsea’s best friend and lust-object for both Charlie and Alan), Annie Potts (as Judith’s alcoholic mother), and — in cameo– Eddie Van Halen and ZZ Top. But the two best additions to the recurring cast have to be Stacey Keach as Chelsea’s father Tom and John Amos as his old Navy buddy Ed. After Tom spent an evening at the bar with Charlie and Alan, he realized just how much he missed Ed, and after Tom left his wife of 42 years, the two admitted their love and moved in together. The pair have the most healthy relationship on the show. Plus, the two veteran actors bring great humor and warmth to their limited screentime roles. I would love to watch a weekly show about Tom and Ed.
Special features on the three-disc, 22-episode set are sparse, with just an eight-minute gag reel in addition to the previously mentioned “A Charlie Harper Ex Reunion”. While I thought Season 7 was a little uneven compared to previous seasons (and I’m not really sure that watching a big clump of episodes in a row on DVD is the best way to watch this show — it’s the rare series where weekly airings are actually preferable to marathon-style viewing), fans of Two and a Half Men will find a lot of good stuff here. If you’re new to the show, I suggest starting with the earlier seasons.
And the series is always better when accompanied with a stiff Egg McBourbon. (The studio provided a review copy.)