I’ve never liked Two and a Half Men, but I’ve never hated it. Among the elitist TV blogerati, the show has become a defining example of ridiculously popular claptrap: A show built on a thin all-there-in-the-title premise which has been reheating more or less the same jokes for a decade of high ratings. But watching the finale of the show’s tenth season, I found myself admiring certain elements of the Chuck Lorre man-com. I can’t think of too many shows on TV which could survive the departure of its most interesting character, but Two and a Half Men replaced Charlie Sheen (who, say what you will, has charisma) with Ashton Kutcher (who, say what you will, does not), and it keeps on chugging along.
There’s a workaday unfussiness at the core of Men that’s diametrically opposed to fast-and-faster pacing of modern sitcoms like 30 Rock or The Office or even the multi-camera How I Met Your Mother. Just look at the finale. This episode marked Angus T. Jones’ last series-regular appearance as Jake, the half-man who – at least concept-wise – was arguably the glue holding the show together. Even though Jones may recur next season, his character’s departure feels like a big moment. Any other show might have turned Jake’s departure into an event.
But not Men. Jake announced he was moving to Japan; Alan took him on a father-son bonding trip, which resulted in no real bonding; they had one conversation about living in a sitcom-purgatory beach house for Jake’s entire life which was momentous only in the sense that it was purposefully not momentous; and then, in the final moments of the episode, Jake farted loudly, and that loud fart echoed all around the Grand Canyon. You want catharsis? The joke’s on you. The Half in Two and a Half Men is leaving, and all he got was one last big fart joke.
This might sound like a critique, but it’s not. The lo-fi nature of Two and a Half Men is a big part of its appeal. As a TV show, it’s not that great, but as a bad-joke delivery system, it’s a smooth product, with no rough edges. It’s worth watching an episode of Anger Management by comparison: Sheen’s new show seems specifically produced to fool channel-flippers into thinking it’s a Two and a Half Men rerun, with eerily identical set design and aging-fratboy dude humor, but Anger Management usually feels slapped-together at the last second.
Men by comparison really is a well-oiled machine. The finale made room for two decent guest stars:
Hillary Hilary Duff as a boozy-blonde date for Kutcher, and Marilu Henner as Duff’s cool grandmother. Both characters were barely-written uni-dimensional placeholders, and the subplot – which saw Kutcher fall for Henner – was absurdly no-stakes. But Henner brought some flirty charm to the role, and Duff did her best with bargain-bin gags about bulimia and jokes about how stupid blondes are stupid and funny hahaha. Most great sitcoms on TV now have a show-your-work density, but Two and a Half Men has a tossed-off quality, where nobody ever seems to be working very hard.
With one exception. Jon Cryer’s Alan occupies an odd place in TV history. Most sitcoms get gentler as they go along, but Two and a Half Men seems to actively despise Alan. His son doesn’t respect him. The guy he lives with seems to actively want him out of the house. Women don’t like him. In the finale, the show put him in a beauty mask – because hahaha men using beauty products right? – as yet another debasement. Cryer always sells the character’s desperation: You can feel him trying, and failing, at everything. I suspect that Two and a Half Men would be a better show if it were interested in exploring that desperation. But then it would probably be less successful.
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