Can Charlie Sheen Make a Comeback?

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Charlie Sheen is a terrible career manager.  Or so it would seem, given that this year he managed to trade one of the most lucrative jobs in television for a role in a national freak show.  But earlier this week, in the space of just over 24 hours, three notable things happened that suggest that Charlie Sheen may have a plan.

On Sunday, he appeared on the Fox Network’s broadcast of the 63rd Emmy Awards ceremony.  He behaved in a way that by most standards could be judged as “normal.”  He looked modest and unassuming in a dark suit and striped tie, a little like he was about to deliver his high school valedictory speech.  There were no tired references to “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA,” and he never once said “winning.”  Pretty much all he said, in fact, were some uncharacteristically nice things about his former colleagues at 2 ½ Men.  “From the bottom of my heart,” he recited, “I wish you nothing but the best for this upcoming season.  We spent eight wonderful years together, and I know you will continue to make great television.”  Sheen’s appearance was received by the audience with a certain tepid politeness, and we might be forgiven our suspicions about the sincerity of his comments, but he seemed contrite, and we demand that in a celebrity who has messed up.

That was Sunday.  On Monday they killed Charlie’s character on CBS’s season premier of 2 ½ Men.  Contrition isn’t all we demand of our errant celebrities after all: we also like to see them pay for their sins.  Although many believe that Sheen’s misdeeds merited more serious legal consequences, he was at least symbolically punished in this episode.  I can’t remember a time in TV history when the departure of a longtime leading character was handled with more glee and less sentiment than it was with the departure of Charlie Harper.  Nobody is crying at his funeral.  His ex-girlfriends come to dis Charlie, not to praise him.  One of them complains that, “I didn’t come all this way just to spit on a closed coffin,” and the others talk about the various STDs that Charlie gave them.  His pharmacist comes to the funeral to collect a debt, his nephew just wants to get something to eat, and his own mother uses the occasion to make a pitch for her real estate business.  Even Rose, the one person that ever truly loved Charlie, turns out to be the person who killed him.  All of this, by the way, happened before the opening theme song played.  By this time, I’m starting to feel a little sorry for the rock star from Mars.

But the night wasn’t over.  A half-hour later, on Comedy Central, came The Roast of Charlie Sheen.  This followed the usual pattern of the “roast” formula: celebrities telling politically incorrect and tasteless jokes about other celebrities.  But in this case it almost felt like some combination of a confession and exorcism.  Charlie sat calmly by, as is the tradition in these shows, as his criminal, offensive, dangerous, and unhygienic behaviors were revisited for the purposes of getting a laugh.

And then something remarkable happened.  At the end of the show, Charlie himself took to the podium.  

He got a standing ovation, of course, but he didn’t go on one of his characteristic rants.  He was funny, and although he told his share of off-color jokes, he turned out to be maybe the classiest act of the night.

His final words were as follows: “I’m done with ‘the winning’ because I’ve already won.  This roast may be over, but I’m Charlie Sheen---and in here burns an eternal fire.  I just have to remember to keep it away from a crack pipe.”  For a minute, I thought I was watching Oprah.

Between Sunday’s Emmy Awards and Monday’s roast, Charlie Sheen had become kind of charming.  Go figure.

Robert J. Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, where he is also a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was a visiting professor for six summers at Cornell University and served for nine years as professor and director of the N.H.S.I. Television and Film Institute at Northwestern University.