Two and a Half Men may be one of the few current comedies with a laugh track, but its more “classic” approach to sitcom television hasn’t stopped it from pulling in strong ratings for eight years. But now that the show is down one star (that’s Charlie Sheen, in case you somehow missed the fuss) and the titular “half-man” is almost an adult, this would normally be the part of the story where it fades into obscurity.
However, thanks to a new, younger leading man (and yes, also greatly thanks to the aftershocks of the Charlie Sheen media storm), Two and a Half Men pulled in its biggest audience ever with its season nine premiere last Monday night.
After Sheen memorably got himself fired from the show for his off-screen antics, it was announced this past May that Ashton Kutcher would take over the starring role opposite Jon Cryer. Although the show easily could have ended with Sheen’s departure, it made sense that the network kept it afloat. Sheen’s growing infamy guaranteed it a huge audience—at least for a while—even if he will be absent from the show. And Two and a Half Men did have an even bigger premiere than many had predicted: nearly 28 million viewers. But does the “new” Two and a Half Men warrant all the fuss?
The season premiere got straight to the point, starting with the supposed funeral of Charlie Harper, complete with an army of wronged women literally cheering his death. Though funerals aren’t usually laugh-packed affairs (and the whole concept felt a little macabre), the writers did a pretty good job of getting rid of Charlie’s character in an irreversible, somewhat edgy way.
After that initial scene, the show paraded a few guest stars out just because they could (including a random Dharma and Greg reunion) and continued with their gleeful Charlie-bashing. It felt a little pleased with itself, but luckily things did start to pick up when Kutcher appeared.
Kutcher may not be the greatest actor, but based on what little we saw of him in this episode (he didn’t appear until nearly halfway through), he showed that he has the potential to revitalize Two and a Half Men. Most importantly, Kutcher and Cryer already seem to have great chemistry, which is key for a show that relies so heavily on the appeal of its leading men.
It seems like the writers are playing it smart with Kutcher’s character, too. Walden does share some similarities with Charlie (he’s a charming lady’s man who lives an extravagant lifestyle… sound familiar?) and he provides a nice foil for Cryer’s straight-laced Alan. But Walden is also introduced as an emotionally fragile guy who’s been dumped by his girlfriend. It’s hard to imagine Charlie Harper staying with a woman long enough for that to even be a possibility. To have the show helmed by a “sensitive” character fighting for love seems like a strange concept for Two and Half Men, but it’s probably wise to go in the opposite direction from Sheen’s on-screen “jerk” shtick, rather than trying to duplicate it.
It’s hard to say whether or not the show will work in the long term without Sheen. After all, he was the show’s main appeal (if you can call it that) for years. Two and a Half Men has its fans, certainly, but how many viewers just tuned in to the premiere out of morbid curiosity, and to see how they would tie up the Charlie storyline? The ratings will almost certainly dip in the following weeks once the novelty wears off. Kutcher seems like a game-leading man (he put more effort into one episode than it seemed Sheen ever did), but it’ll take a few episodes to see if this is a viable “new” show, or just a half-hearted publicity stunt.