As CBS' Two and a Half Men airs its final episode tonight, capping its 12th season, critics like me are stuck trying to answer a single, niggling question:
How did a show like this end up as the longest-running multicamera comedy in television history?
To understand our predicament, consider a bit of history. Two and Half Men debuted in 2003 as a crass, borderline sexist counterpoint to hit CBS comedies like Ray Romano's Everybody Loves Raymond and Kevin James' King of Queens, starring two guys from Hot Shots and Pretty in Pink as a mismatched sibling pair forced to live together with one guy's son.
But within a few years, it had become TV's top comedy, taking over Raymond's place as CBS' biggest sitcom. Co-creator Chuck Lorre had begun a string of hits that would include Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly and Mom, making him the architect of comedy on CBS and the last guy who seemed to know how to create broad comedy hits on network TV.
Stars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer – and later, Sheen's replacement, Ashton Kutcher – would become the highest-paid comedy actors on television. And the show would continue four years after Sheen was fired amid a blizzard of acid comments about Lorre, reports about drug use, fighting with ex-wives, massive partying and an increasingly bizarre media tour that forced an early end to the show's eighth season.
So how exactly did all this happen? Kutcher had an explanation, given during a press conference with critics gathered to tour the sets of Lorre's shows in Los Angeles back in January.
"These shows work because they're all built on family," said Kutcher, who plays Walden Schmidt, an Internet billionaire pretending to be the gay partner of Cryer's Alan Harper so they can adopt a kid. "They're all built on these obscure, broken, beat up, messed up families that are just like yours...Even if its two straight guys acting like gay guys so they can adopt a kid; that's a family...and if you have one, you know what one's like, and you can really relate to it, and it's fun to laugh at."
Another explanation might be executive producer Lorre, who cut his teeth as a writer for ABC's hit sitcom Roseanne – getting a crash course on building popular shows around erratic, demanding stars – before creating the sitcoms Grace Under Fire for Brett Butler and Cybill for Cybill Shepherd. Butler and Shepherd also had reputations as difficult performers; Grace Under Fire ended, for example, as Butler struggled with a painkiller addiction.
Lorre, who also created the ABC sitcom Dharma and Greg, says Two and a Half Men worked because the stories – featuring Sheen playing a lecherous, millionaire jingle writer who was a thinly-veiled sitcom version of himself – offered characters in extreme, fantasy situations without the negative consequences.
Sheen's Charlie Harper was a womanizer and hard partier who was paid handsomely from a job the audience rarely saw him do, forced to take in his brother, Cryer's character, after an awful divorce. "[It] was very much a magical show," Lorre says. "There were no STDs and no alcoholism...nobody got hurt. It was a make-a-wish kind of show."
The show's success also sold a kind of fantasy to fans; that Sheen could live a debauched life offscreen without any real world consequences to himself, his family or his work. But that all unraveled in 2011, when Sheen went briefly into rehab and then gave interviews where he criticized Lorre and challenged him to a fight.
Warner Bros. Television, the studio which makes Two and a Half Men, stopped production and fired Sheen. Kutcher's character was introduced that fall in an episode featuring a funeral for Charlie Harper, who viewers were told had died offscreen.
Since then, Two and a Half Men has remained a steady ratings performer for CBS, even after losing the actor who played Alan Harper's son, Angus T. Jones, after a religious conversion. In part, I credit Cryer, an often underestimated talent who has won a couple of Emmys playing Alan Harper and remains one of the smartest actors I've ever personally met.
To understand just how inexplicable Two and a Half Men's success is, you only need to watch an episode of the new comedy debuting on CBS tonight, Friends star Matthew Perry's revival of The Odd Couple. That show casts Perry as slob Oscar Madison and Reno 911 star Thomas Lennon as persnickety Felix Unger, recreating a dynamic that was also at the heart of Two and Half Men.
But this new Odd Couple lacks even Two and a Half Men's penchant for naughty button-pushing. There is no subtle-as-a-sledgehammer callback to the chaotic offscreen lives of its stars and nothing nearly shocking as the scenes from Kutcher's first Two and Half Men episode, where his character walked through the house naked, his naughty bits pixilated by CBS.
The Odd Couple's pilot doesn't provide much of a reason for the show's existence, beyond providing gainful employment for ace comic actors like Lennon, Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Yvette Nicole Brown (Community).
It's also a reminder of why CBS has long struggled to develop new comedies that aren't produced by Lorre; lacking a point of view and attitude, it's still just a collection of jokes centered on characters from a 50-year-old play.
Expect the comparisons to Two and a Half Men to sting tonight, as viewers wonder whether producers and Sheen were able to bury the hatchet enough to allow the erratic star a cameo in the finale episode (my money says no).
For better and worse, Two and a Half Men was a bawdy, broad comedy that held viewers' attention even as critics wondered why it was still on the air.
That it exits now, as a new slate of bold, smart comedies like Black-ish, Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat hit the small screen, could be taken as a good sign.
In the end, it's a message for TV fans that the bar has risen enough to let Two and Half Men slide off the schedule for good.