Charlie Sheen and the Future of "Two and a Half Men"

Although its future doesn’t look promising, "Two and a Half Men" has already secured an important place in the history of American television. When in premiered in 2003, the TV sitcom had hit the skids. The traditional sitcom---those half-hour shows performed theater-style in front of multiple cameras with audible audience laughter ---was one of television’s most venerable genres for most of the medium’s history, from "The Goldbergs" and "I Love Lucy" through "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."

By the turn of the century, however, the sitcom was entering its Dark Ages. The form that had brought us such classics as "I Love Lucy," "All in the Family," and "The Cosby Show" was on the verge of extinction, as critics and scholars argued that it was no longer relevant in the highly fragmented new media environment.

Almost single-handedly, Two and a Half Me proved that the sitcom still had a few tricks up its sleeve. For a couple seasons in the middle of the last decade, "Two and a Half Men" was one of the only sitcoms left standing, and it was the only comedy of any kind in the Nielsen top twenty.

It achieved this success because it didn’t seem like an old-fashioned remnant of the network era. Its guileless vulgarity, frank sexuality, and obsession with belching, farting, and bodily fluids made it feel more like the “cutting edge” comedy we might see on cable or the Internet. And it was funny--at times really, really funny--which is, in the end, all we might ask of a sitcom. The writing was literate, the ensemble cast was quirky and versatile, and, at times, it could trot out some of the best physical comedy to appear on television in a long time.

Charlie Sheen may or may not have been the most talented actor on the show, but his embodiment of the character Charlie Harper was certainly the most important element of the program. Charlie Harper could play strait man or fall guy with equal aplomb, and he was the force that catalyzed the best performances of the rest of cast, from the ongoing virtuoso contributions of the regular characters to the brief struts upon the stage of the endless parade of Charlie’s beautiful young women friends.

It would be possible, of course, for the show to go on without its original star, and from an economic standpoint there may be an argument for trying to squeeze another season or two out of a valuable franchise.

From an artistic standpoint, however, it’s probably a little late in the game to bother. In sitcom years, eight seasons already makes "Two and a Half Men" a senior citizen. Many would argue, furthermore, that it has begun to show its age. As the child on the show grows up, even its title is wearing out; somehow "Three Men" doesn’t have the same conceptual punch. This show was, perhaps, already getting to the point where it had said what it had to say.

Whether happens, "Two and a Half Men" is not going away. My cable package in Syracuse, New York, offers me the opportunity to see the show six times on most weekdays. Sitcoms remain one of the most rerunable of genres and it’s likely that this series will continue to be seen for many years to come. Charlie Sheen’s recent odd behavior does not negate the fact that he leaves behind some very funny performances on a very funny show. Vincent Van Gogh cut off his own ear, but we still like his paintings.

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.