There seems to be a bit of a cottage industry these days of people bemoaning Charlie Sheen’s behavior and the terrible example he’s setting for our children. My favorite comes from my local paper:
The news was saying Charlie Sheen was carried out on a stretcher from the place where he was staying. Our 11-year-old great-granddaughter and her two friends looked at each other, got giddy, and put on a wry, knowing, “what’s up” look. They huddled and discussed what was going on with one of their favorite TV people.
What’s going on is we’re enabling Sheen — who, from what I can see, is hard not to like — to continue promoting a lifestyle that is largely immoral and sometimes illegal…
CBS won’t do anything except make him stay at some spa for a few days.
Lawyers, probably, are keeping the police at bay. I’m not hearing anything from politicians or other performers. I think we should call our political representatives to help us end what we’re enabling.
Now, I think it’s fair to say that Sheen really is setting a terrible example for young people. His list of unsavory activities is long and unpleasant: He smokes crack cocaine. He parties with porn stars. He drinks dangerous amounts of alcohol. He’s sleeps with prostitutes. He beats women. Sometimes he does all of these things simultaneously. Those close to him are openly fearing for his life. His show has now been shut down. There were rumors that when it resumed production, it would have to forgo a studio audience because Sheen apparently just can’t handle being around other human beings. But now Sheen’s taken to calling into daytime talk radio shows and ranting incomprehensibly about how awesome he is and how terrible the people he works for and with are. So the show has been shut down for the season and potentially forever. It’s sad and horrifying and I obviously don’t think it’s a good idea for children to emulate his behavior.
And yet I have a difficult time taking all the moralistic hand-wringing seriously. It presumes, first of all, that there was some period of time during which Sheen was something other than the worst role model in the world. A Charlie Sheen Golden Age, if you will. Like all golden ages, this is mythical. It is, in fact, perhaps the most mythical golden age of all. A well-behaved Charlie Sheen makes talking animals and magic trees seem outright plausible by comparison. In reality, Sheen has been beating women and smoking crack since before I was born. But until a couple of weeks ago, we were all perfectly comfortable with him selling us our underwear.
Moreover, most of the people complaining about the poor example Sheen sets for children seem to have no awareness whatsoever of the character he plays on television. In Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen basically plays Charlie Sheen; the show just calls him Charlie Harper instead. The line between Fake Charlie and Real Charlie is remarkably thin, its girth amounting to little more than the standards and practices the FCC and CBS inflict upon Chuck Lorre and his team of writers. Two and a Half Men has been on a long time, so one would assume that people would have at least a basic idea about what kind of show it is. Its main sources of humor are contempt and dick jokes, and it’s almost certainly the meanest, filthiest sitcom ever to air on network television. A typical episode goes something like this:
Everybody wakes up. Berta the maid says terrible things. Alan does something humiliating. Fake Charlie says terrible things to him. Jake does something stupid. Fake Charlie says terrible things to him. Dick joke. Dick joke. Dick joke. Fake Charlie bangs a hooker. Dick joke. The end.
If your child is watching this show, they’re not getting a great role model anyway, no matter what Real Charlie does in his spare time.
Given this, I’m inclined to think that the hand-wringing on display the last couple of weeks has less to do with our children than it has to do with us. I made a joke on Twitter the other day that when Real Charlie bangs hookers, it ruins the good, wholesome fun of Fake Charlie banging hookers. But I think there’s actually something to that. A big part of what makes Two and a Half Men successful–aside from its extremely competent structure*–is the escapism of a world in which a character can do whatever the hell he wants without any consequences at all. The entire premise of the series is that Alan has been excommunicated from the world of adult responsibilities and into Fake Charlie’s world of hedonistic alcoholism. Alan keeps trying to get back into the grown-up world and is continually punished and humiliated for it; within the world of the show, his efforts to grow up are precisely what mark him as a loser worthy of our derision. Fake Charlie, on the other hand, is the hero of this world, doing all the things we sometimes wish we could do: Barely working, but living in affluence. Drinking to excess with nary a side-effect. Having sex with anyone he desires whenever he desires. Saying terrible things to the people who annoy him. And so on, in general just living out everybody’s worst tendencies and getting rewarded for it through sheer je ne sais quoi. As that letter writer says, he’s “hard not to like.”
(*This is CBS, after all.)
There is, of course, a darker reading to the show. Rather than a hedonistic paradise, the show could be said (and has been said) to depict a sad, lonely world inhabited by broken people who have given up on their lives. Fake Charlie, in this reading, fills his life with empty pleasure to dull the painful pointlessness of his existence. It’s clear from his acidic demeanor that whatever ridiculous things he does, none of them actually make him happy. He masks his depression in alcoholism and is a corrupting influence on all he comes in contact with. Alan’s desperate attempts to reclaim a life of meaning are a Sisyphean battle for respectability; each time it seems as though adulthood might once again be in his grasp, he is rejected and tossed back into Fake Charlie’s depressive swirl. In the end, his only option is to give in to Fake Charlie’s world and take whatever pleasure he can from it. Jake–the half-man, as it were–is the innocent being raised in this unfortunate morass of a culture. In the early seasons, perhaps we could hold out hope that he could escape it; but now, as the show has gone on and Jake has gotten ever stupider, we see that’s never to be. Berta the maid, meanwhile, has become hardened by her years of thankless service to such a spoiled man-child; all she can do now is crack joyless dick jokes while frying Fake Charlie’s eggs. This is what the characters are, and they have no hope to be anything else. They have completely and utterly given up. In this reading, Two and a Half Men is a nihilistic horror show of sad broken people spiraling toward death. It’s not that there are no consequences; it’s that the whole show is consequences.
Both of these readings are accurate, but I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the show’s massive audience sees it in the former way and not the latter. Shows predominantly about soul-crushing despair don’t generally become enormous hits, after all. But this is precisely the problem with Real Charlie’s behavior. When we see someone acting in real-life the way Fake Charlie acts on the show, it’s not at all appealing, because it is removed from the artificial context that allows us to view those actions as inconsequential. So when, all of a sudden, it becomes difficult to ignore all the ways that Real Charlie is like Fake Charlie, it breaks down the barrier between the two Charlies and destroys the fantasy. Now when we see Fake Charlie being awful, we see Real Charlie being awful too, and we know instinctively that there are consequences to that, something along the lines of one of Lorre’s recent vanity cards:
He felt dead inside.
No matter how hard he partied, he could never escape that simple fact — inside, dead.
And that was his life.
Running from a feeling.
At least until he could run no more.
Exhausted, spent and beaten, when the end finally came, he welcomed it.
With life ebbing from his wasted body, he was suddenly swept up in a transcendent state of joy that was pure and complete.
Moments later he felt dead inside.
In other words, Real Charlie’s actions and the destruction of the artificiality of the character force us to see the latter reading of the show. That vanity card acts almost as a kind of confirmation: “Yes, this is what you’ve been laughing at all these years. Didn’t you know that?”
But lots of people didn’t. Jokes about dicks and hookers are good honest fun when they don’t mean anything, but they become something altogether different when it’s clear that they’re part of a narrative of nihilism and despair. All those years we laughed mindlessly at them suddenly become incriminating; perhaps we use those jokes like the characters do, to blunt the casual meaninglessness of our own lives. As if his actions wouldn’t be bad enough on their own, Real Charlie metaphysically implicates us through the Fake Charlie we’ve sometimes wished we could be. Real Charlie’s awfulness is all the worse, then, because it reveals the awfulness in ourselves.
In the face of this, people become moralistic and lash out at the actor, but not the show. Because to lash out at the show would be to admit to all of this. Instead we keep watching with fingers in our ears and beg for someone, anyone to make Real Charlie behave and rebuild the walls of artificiality so that we can escape back into them. Not for our sake, of course–certainly not!–but for the sake of our children.