There's a choking bitterness to Two and a Half Men that has absolutely nothing to do with the recently departed Charlie Sheen. The season premiere, "Nice to Meet You, Walden Schmidt," was the series' attempt to reboot itself in the wake of Sheen's abrupt exit after a series of public tirades against the show's producers, the media, and the world in general. And as present-day multi-camera CBS sitcoms go, it was as predictable and broad and flat as you'd expect, right down to the transparent dialogue that the writers didn't even try to pretend wasn't about Sheen's epic mania.
But what really made the episode so off-putting was its weird hatefulness, and the way that air of self-loathing ran through every story, not just the bits about Sheen's character. This is a sitcom that's entering its ninth season, and it's been a Top 20 show every year. It has earned its status not as a comedy about characters worth liking or hanging out with, or even empathizing with, but about people who just shit on each other for 22 minutes a week. Ashton Kutcher's presence changes nothing. It doesn't matter what face you put on a body when there's no soul inside.
The episode opened with a funeral for Charlie Harper (Sheen) that sidestepped any semblance of reality, even sitcom reality, and just went for the easy jokes about Sheen's -- excuse me, "Charlie's" -- persona that felt dated back in April. Charlie likes sex, Charlie's crazy, Charlie used a woman's panties to make tea, etc. The thing is that there's nothing wrong with staging a funeral for a major character after the actor's public meltdown. The TV shows we watch have entire pop culture identities of which the actual episodes are only a small part. We all know Sheen was fired, and that there's no way around that but by killing his character. Yet the show missed out on some potentially great (well, good) comedy by making the funeral a public venting session instead of a joke at the expense of the characters who are still around. Jon Cryer's Alan felt like a spokesman for creator Chuck Lorre, not a neurotic guy whose brother just died. The creators forgot that, though Sheen was fired, Charlie Harper actually lost his life. The episode ceased to be a TV show and just became a read-through of Lorre's blog.
It just got weirder from there. Alan, forced to sell Charlie's house, entertained a number of potential buyers that turned out to be guest stars/characters from Lorre's other series. John Stamos showed up as, ostensibly, John Stamos. Then Dharma and Greg showed up, played again by Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson. Dharma & Greg ended its run a year and a half before Two and a Half Men debuted, but let me refresh your memory: They were a slightly mismatched couple but still very much in love, and not the bitter, sniping, making-jokes-about-divorce-and-suicide people Lorre's had them become. But what do you expect? Two and a Half Men started out revolving around a hopeless cad who used women like Kleenex and his sour brother who hated every second of his existence. How could two happy characters walk into a world like that?
Eventually, Ashton Kutcher shows up and plays Ashton Kutcher, or at least the on-screen version of himself he crafted on That '70s Show. He's drifty and dopey, utterly at ease with the world around him. This is a bit of a tough sell since his character, Walden Schmidt, is technically dealing with a broken heart after being dumped by his wife. But Kutcher, at least in the context of this show, can't find anything remotely approximating emotional depth. He's just kind of there. Walden's a dot-com billionaire, and by the end of the episode he announced he's buying Alan's house. From here, he'll decide to let Alan and Half Man live with him while they get into a series of bitter and unfun misadventures. It doesn't happen in this episode, but come on. We all read the papers.
Walden's a pretty standard replacement character, meaning he's the tonal opposite of Charlie. Charlie drank constantly, but Walden doesn't like the taste of booze; Charlie was a sociopathic man-child who saw women as disembodied vaginas, but Walden's a romantic with a broken heart; etc., etc. But again, it doesn't matter. That's all surface. There's no heart or brain to back it up. The ensemble has changed slightly, but the broad jokes, bitter pills, and hate masquerading as humor aren't going anywhere. Two and a Half Men can end in May or live for years to come. Its empty legacy is secure.
• "He used my panties to make tea." Actual line of dialogue from the funeral scene. Couldn't make this up if I wanted to.
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• I don't recall Angus T. Jones speaking in this episode. He farted, though.
• Right after Dharma and Greg left, Alan got another visitor: a delivery man played by Joel Murray. What makes this kind of mind-splittingly surreal is that Murray actually starred on Dharma & Greg as Pete, Greg's friend and coworker. He wasn't some random player, either. He was in every episode. Elfman and Wilson get walk-ons as old characters they've long since abandoned, and they probably got a nice check out of it. Murray plays a nameless courier who delivers Charlie's ashes. Hollywood's a fickle bitch.
• Wait, OK, Angus Jones did speak. At his uncle's funeral, he said, "I'm hungry." Hilarious!
• I've never felt as old as I did watching the ads for other CBS shows. Hawaii Five-O? Jeff Probst? Seventeen different NCIS and CSI titles? Who lives like this?