When CBS fired Charlie Sheen from its top-rated comedy in March following several weeks of erratic behavior and public comments aimed at Creator/Executive Producer Chuck Lorre, many people spelled the end of Two and a Half Men. Others questioned how the show could possibly go on without one-third of its titular characters.
The show had already ceased production at the end of January – midway through its eighth season – after Sheen once again checked himself into rehab. At the time, only sixteen episodes had been completed with only two left to air. The show typically airs between 22 and 24 episodes each season.
The show and the network had faced a similar but more manageable situation around the same time in 2010 but only two of the series’ 24 planned episodes had to be scrapped to allow Sheen time to tend to some personal legal matters.
The network had to act fast to find a replacement of sorts for Sheen and retool the show accordingly. John Stamos and Rob Lowe were brandied about as potentials but it was Hugh Grant who was seriously considered. I thought Grant would have been an interesting choice, but he eventually opted out. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Ashton Kutcher was joining the cast – just in time for the upfront presentations in May.
The casting choice was interesting, if not an eyebrow-raiser, for many. Hardcore Sheen supporters wanted Sheen re-hired or the show itself cancelled, declaring that they wouldn’t watch without him.
Then came the speculation as to how Charlie Harper would be written out, how Kutcher’s character would be written in and what kind of character that would be.
By the show’s September 19 premiere, it was already known that the Charlie Harper character would die in a tragic accident and that Kutcher would play a heartbroken internet billionaire named Walden Schmidt whose wife was leaving him.
The premiere episode began with a rather hilariously callous funeral scene that took place at Charlie Harper’s funeral. In attendance were several of Harper’s scorned former paramours played by the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Jeri Ryan as well as former cast members Melanie Lynskey (Harper’s longtime stalker Rose) and Jennifer Taylor (Harper’s most recent fiancée).
At the time of the funeral, Harper mom Evelyn (Emmy winner Holland Taylor) already had the house on the market, with brochures and an open house scheduled – all of which she announced at the funeral. Evelyn later informed younger Harper brother Alan (Emmy winner Jon Cryer) of Charlie’s previously unknown debts, which meant that there would be no money from the sell of the house.
Enter Walden Schmidt, who appeared on the back deck of the beach house after having tried to kill himself in the ocean but finding it too cold. The applause for Kutcher’s entrance was long, loud and sustained – a sign of Kutcher’s popularity, the support of those in attendance and encouragement for the show to continue on in spite of the behind-the-scenes tumult of its previous season.
Stamos, ever the good sport, appeared in a cameo during the open house as did Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson, presumably reprising their Dharma and Greg characters (though from a previous Chuck Lorre production, they’re not mentioned by name). At the end of the episode, however, Schmidt decides to buy the mansion. Hapless Alan’s kindness toward him buys him a place to live – at least “temporarily”.
It was a strong start to the ninth season, which drew 28 million viewers. As expected, the initial curiosity factor waned and ratings for subsequent episodes settled back down to normal levels of about 14-15 million viewers each week, but still 7% above last season.
Though the ratings continue to be consistent, reaction to Kutcher and the show’s altered storyline remains mixed. Some find Schmidt to be a rather generic character. Others see him as a younger version Charlie Harper type. With Kutcher just five years off of his breakout role as Kelso on That 70s Show, it just seems that Two and a Half Men is trying to be very careful not to recreate Kelso without looking as if they were trying hard not to do so.
They’ve somewhat succeeded in that any Kelsoesque slowness on the part of Walden stems more from social ineptitude than anything else. However, the result is a less dynamic character than Charlie Harper. Perhaps this is intentional as the Charlie Harper character turned being a drunken playboy into an art form and bringing Kutcher on to play a younger version of Charlie Harper would just seem derivative.
Besides, based on the first 12 episodes that have aired this season, the main purpose of Walden seems to be satisfying the existing premise. Walden is young, tall, good-looking, sexy, rich, well-endowed and very attractive to women while Alan continues to be the same leeching loser counterpart he was to the good-looking, rich, exciting, “winning” Charlie who could sexually satisfy any woman who landed in his bed.
Still, there have been some great moments this season – which peaked with the Jon Cryer tour-de-force “Thank You for the Intercourse”. In the episode, Walden sells Charlie’s piano and makes plans to decorate the house, which causes Alan to miss Charlie all the more. Walden takes him out and they meet a couple of women, who engages with both of them but are only really interested in Walden. Dejected over this inability to attract women in the way that Walden can and Charlie could, wishes he could be more like Charlie -- and gets his wish.
Another bright spot has been the development of Alan and Walden’s friendship, which is obviously used to justify why Walden would continue to allow Alan to live at his beach house rent free. To the show’s credit, this wasn’t something that occurred right away.
Though Walden was initially drawn to Alan’s kindness toward him in the premiere, their friendship was solidified at the end of the season’s sixth episode where Alan confessed to taking advantage of Walden at times and Walden letting him know that he knows this but doesn’t feel taken advantage of because they’re best friends. It was a sweet scene by Two and a Half Men standards and concluded with Walden putting his arm around Alan – a sign that a) they’re a team and b) he’s going to look out for Alan in ways that neither Charlie nor his mother ever did.
The latest stroke of brilliance occurred in “What a Lovely Landing Strip”, the season’s 11th episode. After accepting the fact that his marriage is over, Walden begins dating again and signs the divorce papers. However, his wife (Judy Greer) wants him back and decides not to sign them, even though she’s the one who asked for the divorce in the first place. She tells Walden she wants him back but, he rejects her because he wants to move on. As she’s leaving the beach house, she is approached by stalker Rose.
For those who of you who aren’t all that familiar with Two and a Half Men…this means trouble.
There have been a couple bad creative moves. Walden hires Evelyn as his interior decorator in “Those Fancy Japanese Toilets”, the season’s seventh episode. Then he sleeps with her -- which presents quite a contradiction to Walden’s declaration to Alan in the previous episode that they’re best friends.
In the most recent episode to air, “One False Move, Zimbabwe”, we meet Walden’s mother (Mimi Rogers). She is a primatologist who raised a gorilla as Walden’s brother for the first four years of his life. Walden had always thought the gorilla was an imaginary friend and gets upset with his mother. It was a silly and far-fetched episode ending with the ridiculous image of Walden being tickled by the now-grown gorilla upon their eventual reunion.
And this was their CHRISTMAS episode.
Perhaps because of the tiresome off-screen hoopla surrounding Charlie Sheen or because the formula of the show itself was getting tiresome, I missed the last few episodes of last season. I still maintain that casting Hugh Grant would have been a bit more intriguing in that it would have turned the entire premise of the show on its head, but the casting of Kutcher and the introduction of Walden has been enough of a shot in the arm that Two and a Half Men needs if it is to continue for a likely tenth and possible eleventh season.
Overall, the transition from Charlie Sheen/Charlie Harper to Ashton Kutcher/Walden Schmidt has been rather smooth given the circumstances. Given the stable ratings and creative consistency, that transition has also been quite successful.
Two and a Half Men airs on Monday nights at 9pm on CBS and also stars Angus T. Jones and Conchata Farrell. Full episodes are available on cbs.com.
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