The public reaction to the recent Charlie Sheen debacle is one of the definitive representations of American culture’s simultaneous, irresolvable fascination with, envy of, and ultimate loathing of celebrities. While it’s often written that celebrities represent America’s royalty, they’re really its contemporary outlaws—larger-than-life figures who appear to be above all of the problems that shackle everyone else (to varying degrees) on a daily basis. The celebrity, at least in the imaginings of the public, has an exciting job, a pick of willing and physically ideal sexual partners, and a deep reservoir of money that allows him or her to do whatever the hell they please. Audiences love the celebrity for embodying their fantasies and suggesting a hope, however slim, that they may one day for whatever reason become a celebrity themselves, but they also resent the celebrity for wallowing in pleasures they will never have.
Sheen’s disaster, in other words, offered the American public the spectacle of a celebrity paying for his sins while still enjoying said sins—thus allowing the viewer to feel righteously superior while indulging a little vicarious curiosity as to how far, exactly, Sheen likes to go to satisfy his apparently considerable hungers. And that’s Sheen’s on-screen appeal in a nutshell. He’s a bad boy who offers just enough contrition to be vaguely likeable while still indulging a sanitized version of the antics that established his current persona in the first place.
I devote this much space to the Sheen myth because it’s clearly the only reason that the new Anger Management exists, and the sitcom, if it were ambitious, could have perhaps been an amusingly acidic deconstruction of the Sheen persona, which is precisely what the shrewd ads running on FX seem to suggest. There’s exactly one joke in the pilot that flirts with that kind of self-awareness and you’ll know it when you see it, but the rest of the series is bafflingly lame even when judged on the considerable bell curve set by Sheen’s prior TV endeavor, Two and a Half Men.
Two and a Half Men offered viewers a fantasy version of Sheen’s life with an extremely broad every-dweeb thrown into the mix as a viewer surrogate. The Sheen incarnation of the CBS show, which was so idiotically misogynist and homophobic as to seem strangely tame, was basically an updated Married…with Children that reveled in the still largely popular, if less freely discussed in this politically correct age, notion of the ideal woman as a willing receptacle for whatever a man wanted to stick in her. All the other females that appeared on the show were castrating shrews.
Anger Management is a little more polite, but generally follows the same formula, which is to say that it lacks the open viciousness that distinguished Two and a Half Men from every other network sitcom that depicts families arguing for our theoretical amusement. Charlie Goodson (Sheen) is an anger-management therapist who seeks counseling from a female colleague (which, this being a Charlie Sheen show, means that they’re also sleeping together) when he realizes that he still has untapped anger issues of his own that are related to his divorce and his abbreviated career as a professional ballplayer.
Anger Management is one of those sitcoms, which are dinosaurs in the era of the legitimately brilliant Louie, in which a pronounced laugh track is necessary to locate the punchlines. Otherwise, we’re stranded with a variety of stereotypes that would be offensive if they weren’t so obligatory. The scenes with the group that Charlie counsels are the show’s low point, as each member is defined by one contemptuous identifier that will inevitably be dry-humped to death in non-joke after non-joke over the next three months. The writers have assigned the patients various names, but if they’d called them Bigot, Pansy, Bitch, and Faggot they would’ve at least been practicing honesty.
Anger Management’s biggest offense, though, is the appalling waste of talent on display. It’s depressing to watch Selma Blair, as Charlie’s therapist-lover, desperately try to imbue her lines with a sense of play. It’s a nice surprise to see Brett Butler again, but as a bartender at Charlie’s regular spot, she’s given even less to do than Blair. The gifted character actor Barry Corbin turns up as well, but all the writers can think to give him are fifth-rate queer jokes below the sophistication of a sixth-grade bully.
And, yes, Sheen has talent too, particularly for line deliveries that would be sharp if the lines themselves had even a whiff of ingenuity. Sheen’s a pop-cultural joke now, but there is, somewhere underneath all of the detached, postmodern party-animal meaninglessness, a pretty good actor (as proof, see Spin City or his cameos in Being John Malkovich and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). Anger Management isn’t going to bring that actor out though, and it isn’t even trying to, as it’s just another cynical cash-in that lamely tries to milk laughs from casual, unquestioned dehumanization. Only one line anywhere in this show manages to ring true, and for an unintended reason: “This is what we in therapy call a train wreck.”