Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Charlie Sheen Situation

I stay out of celebrity gossip whenever possible, but the current situation with Charlie Sheen, star of CBS's highest rated sitcom, "Two and a Half Men," and the highest paid actor on network television today, has gone far beyond the covers of the tabloids. "Two and a Half Men," now in its eighth year, has been shut down for the rest of the season after Sheen delivered rants against show creator Chuck Lorre on a radio program and TMZ. He has ABC and NBC tussling over first dibs on interviews, his publicist has quit, and several lawsuits are forthcoming. He's thrown an entire network into chaos, and CBS is now left grappling with what to do with a show that is suddenly without its leading man.

This is a situation entirely without precedent. There have been unexpected deaths in the sitcom world before, which have left shows like "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "The Royal Family" without their headliners, but never has such a high profile, popular star been forcibly ejected from a television program at the height of its success. You have to go back to Suzanne Somers from "Three's Company" to get anything comparable, and back then actors didn't have the kind of soapboxes afforded to them by the media to be disruptive and and combative. And boy is Charlie Sheen taking advantage of the mass media. He's putting his personal life and personal demons on full display, unfiltered, for any gawker who wants to see it.

I don't watch "Two and a Half Men" regularly but I remember Charlie Sheen from his leading man days in the 80s, when he was in "Platoon" and "Wall Street," and romanced Jeanie Bueller while her brother was having the day off. Sheen's substance abuse problems were legendary and provided plenty of gossip column fodder, but you never had the blowouts taking place directly in the public eye like this. What strikes me about the latest meltdown is not only the severity of the financial consequences, with the potential shuttering of a lucrative sitcom, but the total lack of any attempt to do damage control of the situation. Now that CBS has apparently cut ties with the troubled star, it feels like everyone around Sheen has given up trying to hold him back from hitting rock bottom.

What we're seeing now is truly Charlie Sheen let loose, and it's scary. Hollywood is full of overpaid nuts living in warped realities, but it's also full of PR professionals and managers and image consultants helping celebrities to maintain their valuable screen personas. There's a lot of money involved in many cases, and the studios have an interest in making sure their stars behave, or at least appear to be behaving. Morals clauses have been part of employment contracts in Tinseltown for years. It's one of the reasons why celebrity gossip is so intoxicating for many - everyone wants to see the mask slip and get a glimpse of the unvarnished reality.

Right now Charlie Sheen is giving us reality, all right. The reality is that this man is proving himself to be unemployable and needs professional help. It's fascinating to see the dissonance between the truth and the constructed fiction that was the studio line until only a few days ago - that Charlie Sheen was recovering from his last bout of substance abuse and addiction, and was ready to resume work on "Two and a Half Men" as of this past Monday. Instead, it turnes out he's the same womanizing addict he was in the 80s, only he's been better at hiding it for a long, long time. And it's equally telling that the straw that finally broke the camel's back was Sheen's attack on Chuck Lorre. Once it became clear that Charlie Sheen could not honor his professional commitments, and CBS and Warner Brothers' economic interests in "Two and a Half Men" and Lorre's other projects were being put in jeopardy, Sheen became too big a liability and was left to fend for himself.

The cycle of celebrity meltdown and revival is so ingrained in the public psyche, the expectation is that Charlie Sheen will see reason eventually and return to our screens. He's already had one career resurrection, going from movie star to sitcom bad-boy, and there's certainly enough goodwill from the public to ensure that somebody in Hollywood will take a risk on him again, as long as he stays out of jail and can get himself reasonably cleaned up. However, the question is whether this is the end of "Two and a Half Men." Will they recast the part? (What has Emilio Estevez been up to lately?) Write Charlie Harper out of the show? Or will "Two and a Half Men" simply end, despite being one of the biggest ratings winners on the CBS slate?

I honestly don't have much interest in Sheen's ongoing career implosion, but I want to know what CBS is going to do next.

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