Brian Lowry / TV Columnist @blowryontvCharlie Sheen might be kind of a jerk, but after his very public meltdown, “Two and a Half Men” discovered it couldn’t get by without him any better than it could live with him. So despite the hoopla that surrounded signing Ashton Kutcher, the series has been pretty much running on creative fumes since 2011, making its finale – after 12 hugely profitable seasons – feel more overdue than nostalgic.
In what can only be called a bizarre turn, satirizing that unflattering appraisal became the spine of the program’s one-hour series finale, an episode that owed as much to the Marx brothers, in tone, as to the past 12 years of the CBS series. Throughout the hour (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), the message came through loud and clear that while many have derided “Men” as a silly, lowbrow sitcom, hey, we’re laughing all the way to the bank over here.
The curious, no doubt, will drift back in sizable numbers to see how it all ends, but the truth is that thanks to syndication and a shortage of the kind of broad-appeal comedies “Men” represents, the show isn’t going away so much as retiring on a feather-bed of cash for all concerned.
Granted, the acrimonious way Sheen left created an element of suspense regarding the finale, with the big question being whether series co-creator Chuck Lorre would, or could, bring his one-time star back for the curtain call. Sure, the character of Charlie Harper might have died in a body-mangling train accident, but having already been fleetingly revived as a spectral Kathy Bates, the thought lingered that everyone might bury the hatchet long enough to allow for a reunion of sorts.
What ensued played off that uncertainty, in an episode that was both wildly self-referential and built around Charlie’s long shadow without his actual presence – an extended tease, mostly serving as an excuse to show off as many people who have passed through the show’s doors as possible.
Ultimately, Sheen didn’t attend his own not-funeral, and the show gave the last word, perhaps appropriately, to Lorre, who uttered Sheen’s much-repeated phrase, “Winning,” before a piano landed on him. But the real coda belonged to the producer’s vanity card, which explained that Sheen had in fact been offered a cameo and declined.
One could make an argument that without Sheen, the producers should have junked the idea and skipped all the foreplay. But the episode was seemingly designed less to provide closure than as an extended rejoinder to those who have criticized “Men” through the years – even weaving in a line in which Kutcher says to Angus T. Jones’ Jake, “Amazing you’ve made so much money with such stupid jokes.”
Along the way, there was an animated sequence – presumably to prolong the uncertainty regarding Sheen; a “Silence of the Lambs” homage; several lines that broke the fourth wall and called back to the circumstances surrounding Sheen’s exit, including a quip about “a crazy rant about a former employer,” no less; and unnecessary celebrity cameos, among them Arnold Schwarzenegger as an LAPD detective.
“This whole thing has been going on way too long,” Schwarzenegger concludes, echoing an earlier moment when Kutcher looks directly at the camera and says,“I can’t wait for this to be over.”
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the audience’s sophistication about what transpires behind the scenes, but diving into the business side of the show so relentlessly felt seriously misguided – and more than a little defensive.
Moreover, the producers largely abandoned the plot that has dominated the final season, which focused on Kutcher’s Walden deciding to adopt a child and marrying Jon Cryer’s Alan in order to create the appearance of a stable, loving couple for those purposes. Not surprisingly, Alan was more than willing to play along with anything that allowed him to stay in that Malibu beach house, which throughout the series has been the cash-strapped character’s one enduring love.
Cheekily, the plot for the finale was set in motion by $2.5 million in unpaid royalties, and money – from Sheen’s astronomical salary to the show’s syndication bounty – has always been a significant part of the show’s big picture.
Lorre is justified in his sense that “Two and a Half Men” has been underappreciated – or at least, taken for granted – for much of its run. Yet while the sendoff addressed a certain kind of “Winning,” in the grand pantheon of series finales this wasn’t even close to serving up a winner.