It was the Chernobyl of celebrity meltdowns — a virtuoso performance chock full of vicious, anti-management rants, fits of delusional narcissism, wild hedonistic boasts and some really colorful catchphrases (“Tiger blood,” “Adonis DNA,” “Rock star from Mars”).
When the commotion finally abated, Charlie Sheen was a toothless little warlock, bereft of one of Hollywood’s biggest paychecks and evicted from his starring role in TV’s most popular sitcom, “Two and a Half Men.” Adding insult to injury, the show continued to spin ratings gold with a handsome new star.
And somehow, the entire mess was interpreted by Sheen as “winning.”
Of course, here in America, we’re all about second chances. We love a good comeback story — to watch someone emerge from a brutal train wreck, dust himself off and get right back on track. Thus, our rubbernecking senses were on high alert when FX awarded Sheen with a new, ironically titled sitcom called “Anger Management.”
Then again, if you think this opportunity materialized because some kindhearted programming executive believes in comeback stories, you surely have been drinking tiger blood. Much more likely: The bigwigs at FX saw all the media attention and Twitter traffic the wayward actor generated with his outbursts. And they saw great big dollar signs.
The result is “Anger Management,” a mostly conventional series loosely based on the 2003 movie starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. It has Sheen playing a volatile, washed-up baseball player — named Charlie, of course. He has become a therapist who helps people deal with their own rage issues. Along the way, he struggles to correct the many sins of his past, which include cheating on his now ex-wife (Shawnee Smith) and being a neglectful dad to his teen daughter (Daniela Bobadilla).
Meanwhile, he’s having lots of lively sex with a fellow therapist (Selma Blair), and it’s a relationship that seems to be going very well because, as Charlie points out, “we feel nothing for each other.”
In some ways, “Anger Management” is Sheen’s attempt to work out his various issues while America watches. Consider it “therapy with a laugh track,” as one writer described it. Thursday’s series opener even begins with winking references to last year’s famous implosion.
“You can’t fire me. I quit,” Charlie snarls as he throws a phantom punch at the camera. “Think you can replace me with another guy? Go ahead. It won’t be the same. You may think I’m losing! ... ”
The camera then pulls back to reveal that Charlie is leading a therapy session with three clients and showing them how to take their frustrations out on an inflated punching dummy named Bobo.
FX is home to edgy, outside-the-box comedies such as “Louie” and “Wilfred,” but with “Anger Management,” showrunner Bruce Helford and Sheen, sad to say, have decided to go the well-worn route with a multicamera format and annoying laugh track. Yes, there are the condom, penis and boob jokes that Sheen fans undoubtedly expect and cherish, but they are accompanied by the generic, march-time pace and punch-line delivery of the typical network sitcom.
Based on two preview episodes, “Anger Management” is at least more interesting than “Two and a Half Men” (take that, Ashton Kutcher). That’s certainly not saying much, though. Even Sheen knew how bad “Men” was and is, once astutely describing it as a “driveling pukefest.”
Oh, that Charlie. He might be the luckiest actor in Hollywood. After all, who else is repeatedly paid lots of money to play characters who aren’t much of a stretch and move about in cruise control? His new sitcom alter ego might be softer at the core than the dearly departed Charlie Harper on “Men,” but he still comes with a party-boy past, stunted maturity and a mischievous streak.
He’s also lucky to have a strong cast around him. Smith, in particular, has a laid-back charm as the ex who exhibits no mean-spirited resentment toward Charlie but loves to playfully needle him whenever she can. It’s also a kick to see Brett Butler (“Grace Under Fire”) back in a small role as a cynical bartender. She’s certainly someone who can relate to Sheen’s tale of hitting rock bottom.
Considering the erratic nature of its star, “Anger Management” is a bit of a risk for FX. Can Sheen exert enough self-control to keep the production humming? And even if he does, can he still attract the viewers? Or has the whole idea of playing a cartoon version of himself been pretty much played out?
We’re about to see if he has another winning streak in him.