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By Ellen Besen

Two and a Half Men ad

Life After Charlie: Can Ashton Kutcher Save Two and a Half Men?

Why Revamped Sitcoms Rarely Survive

9/7/11

Dropping a new lead into a hit show is not as simple as, say, replacing parts of a car. In fact, itís more like a heart transplant performed without anesthetic. Successful sitcoms have their own kind of DNA, muscle memory and chemistry, creating a complex and delicately balanced system. Yanking out the existing lead and dropping in a new one introduces all kinds of trauma and foreign elements into that system. Whether the new elements will combine with the system to create a new balance or simply throw it into fatal shock is an open question, even when the show is a solid hit like Two and a Half Men and the new lead is as big a star as Ashton Kutcher.

In spite of the risks, we know why producers are so intent on keeping successful sitcoms on the air after a key actor has departed the scene. Established franchises with reliable ratings can usually count on audience loyalty for another season or two or even more. Compared to the risk of throwing an unknown new program into the schedule, this is a no brainer from the networkís point of view.

For the audience, though, itís often a set up for disappointment. Iíve been there, tuning in week after week to the revamped version of a previous favorite- initially anticipating with faint hope that this (or maybe this) will be the episode which returns the show to greatness- or at least half decentness; gradually accepting that the glory days are over; then numbly watching from sheer habit, till finally I get bored and give it up. Such is the nature of our attachment to a long running show- exactly the nature networks count on in these cases.

Yet I think itís fair to ask if such shows really should be allowed to continue when their most likely fate is to become one of TVís walking dead.  Like zombies, these shows can still move but thereís no longer anyone at the wheel.  And like vampires, they continue to suck on our time and energy but no longer give anything back.

Why does the loss of just one character have such a debilitating effect? The answer frequently has something to do with the fact that the character who departs is gone precisely because they were compelling enough to attract other offers to the actor. But part of what made them so compelling is that they embodied the story engine of the show.

Iím not talking here about surface story, such as plotlines which carry individual episodes- ďJimmy falls down the well, Lassie goes to rescue him, falls in and hilarity ensues ÖĒ kind of thing- or even story arcs which span whole seasons. Instead, Iím talking about the primary storylines which underpin whole series.

These primary storylines can be surprisingly small yet are essential to the success of a program. They are what give a series its emotional foundation and forward momentum (even though this may not be obvious from episode to episode) and are so essential to the process that once they are resolved (or left dangling because a key character has departed) the life of the series is effectively over.

So if Liz Lemon (30 Rock) ever gets a life (or truly gives up and joins a nunnery) or Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) finally (and miraculously) gets some respect (or figures out why no one will give him any) then those shows will have resolved their underlying storylines and it will time to say goodnight. Frasier ended with the main characterís quest for love and connection (the engine storyline) unresolved but still front and center and clearly in progress- a variation that worked perfectly well. By contrast, Eric Foreman (That 70ís Show) fully resolved that programís main story when he finally stood up to his overbearing dad and departed for Africa but unfortunately also left his previously entertaining cast mates spinning in aimless circles for one last sad season, giving us a clear example of sitcom walking dead syndrome in action.

Even shows which donít seem to have a specific story engine generally do. Seinfeld, the most famous example, wasnít really about nothing as it purported to be. What it was about, on the surface anyway, was the minutiae of everyday living- ďalmost nothingĒ as amplified in the OCD crazed mind of the showís creator- and thus essentially a modern comedy of manners. But underneath it was more about a group of people trying desperately not to grow up, with the fixation on minutiae more story vehicle than core message.

This may explain why the final episode of Seinfeld was so particularly unsatisfying: instead of addressing the real emotional engine of the series it focused on resolving the surface storyline by bringing the characters to justice for all their rude and self-serving behavior. Since it is the deeper, emotional story through which we actually attach to the characters and their adventures, this left the audience feeling unsettled rather than sated.

All of this, of course, is not so very different from the way feature films work, though over a much longer span of time. But the fact that TV series are so often extended beyond their proper shelf life makes me wonder if the folks in the front office really understand this most essential point.

This brings us, then, to the show at hand. Does Two and a Half Men stand a chance with its newly transplanted main star?  To answer this we first have to consider how essential Charlie Sheen was to the foundation story.

When characters are extraneous, as Frasier was on Cheers, they can depart without cracking the foundation. That doesnít mean that only the star is essential to the life of a program. In Frasierís self-named spin off, the writing was so tight, none of the main characters could easily have left without upsetting the balance- yet the show was clearly Frasierís and would probably have been recoverable as long as he stayed on.

In this regard, Two and a  Half Men is a funny one.  Although Charlie was presented as the lead, the series seemed to be almost as much about his brother, Alan. So what was more important: Alanís struggle to get out of his little brother/loser role and successfully grow up or Charlieís struggle to stay in his Peter Pan role and successfully avoid ever growing up? And accordingly, was Sheenís character absolutely essential or could he be successfully replaced?

Iím inclined to say that the most important question here is not whose story was dominant because in many ways the real story lay within the big brother/little brother relationship. These two guys were each otherís perfect foils and neither individual story would have carried much weight without the other.

And that means that dropping a new character into the lead is going to be tricky business. The creators have wisely bypassed any attempt to slip a new character into Sheenís role. This approach works on Broadway but not on long running TV series where the characters become so real to us that replacement actors are perceived as imposters. That really only leaves one other option: dumping Charlie completely and introducing a whole new character.

Taking Charlie out of the picture raises a lot of questions, though. Questions such asÖ where will Alan and Jake live? And how will they get Berta to come along? And how will they justify the ongoing presence of the mother who has always been indifferent to her younger son? All this becomes problematic because the sibling relationship (Charlie had the apartment, Alan had the problem) didnít just drive the story engine in this situation comedy, it also provided the container for all the pieces- was is, in fact, the very situation itself.

 In other words, Sheenís character was tied up with this story in so many essential ways, on a functional level there isnít much left to work with for the resurrection.

So in the face of all this, we now drop in Ashton Kutcher as a broken hearted internet mogul who buys Sheenís place andÖ.what? Letís Alan and his teenage kid continue living there? Indefinitely? For free? These key story elements were believable between brothers- even ones that didnít get along. After all, the bonds of family are strong and hard to avoid even when one dearly wishes to do so. But the bonds between thrown together strangers? Not so much.

If this is the scenario, Iím sure the producers will have concocted a justification to explain it but it doesnít take deep analysis to see how far credibility is already being stretched. A brother taking in a sibling is deeply plausible. But any relationship between this rich stranger and his non-paying, came-with-the-sale boarder will seem forced at best. Even having Alan, say, just happen to find a cheap place next door reeks of convenience.

One way or the other, a justification is just what this is- an excuse to keep the circumstances in tact beyond reason. Consequently, there is no inherent power in this new set up- like, say, the push and pull between brothers- to drive the story forward. And that means everything which follows will to be equally manufactured; darned into the fabric of the show- which inevitably weakens its structure- rather than woven in from the very beginningÖ And all this is before even considering the new chemistry between the main characters and the logic of including all the supporting ones.

I want to make it clear that none of this has anything to do with the acting abilities of Kutcher or the rest of the cast or even the writersí undoubtedly valiant efforts. Itís just a rule of story which is very hard to thwart.

So whatís the prognosis? Will the patient survive the operation? The odds are against it but even if it does what will be its quality of life? If it were up to me, I would just pull the plugÖ

But since it isnít up to me, I will probably tune in like everyone else to see how it goes. Train wreck? Myocardial infarction? Those would at least be dramatic. But more likely, it will just be listless-minimal movement without motivation-though I would be happy to be proved wrong. Letís just say, Iím not holding my breath.

ABOUT ELLEN BESEN

Ellen Besen is the author of Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Developer Should Know (Michael Wiese Books, January 2009). Ellen Besen has been working in animation for over 35 years. Her work has been show in film festivals and venues across the globe, including MOMA and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Highlights of her career include directing award-winning films for the National Film Board of Canada, broadcast work on the topic of animation for CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcasting), and film curating for such organizations as the Art Gallery of Ontario. Besen is a former columnist for POV magazine and her film analysis workshops are featured regularly at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She has written a popular series for Animation World Network on such topics as animation and analogy, and is currently the creative director of The Kalamazoo Animation Festival International. Besen was on the faculty of Sheridan Collegeís School of Animation for nearly 20 years and continues to teach the principles of animation filmmaking on an intensive one-to-one basis.

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