Deep down, I am an incredibly shallow person. I really am. I enjoy Two and a Half Men. It may not be my favourite sit-com, but I never miss an episode. To be honest, I rarely miss any episodes of any sit-coms, once it’s piqued my interest. But it isn’t liking Two and a Half Men alone that makes me shallow, it’s that I love sit-coms above all other art-forms. Worse than that, I think the Americans make the best ones.
The earliest sit-com that I can remember following (though how one followed anything before the the advent of those little magic boxes that ‘series link’ I just do not know) was Family Ties. It was a programme that annoyed me greatly, but I was almost immediately addicted to the format. The combination of the episodic, the story arc and laughter. A 20 to 25 minute peek into the lives of people, that if well written become part of one’s own life, combined with humour, is to my mind, an unbeatable experience.
The first sit-com I really loved was Roseanne. It was loud, brash, working class and remained very funny up to its jumping the shark moment i.e. the lottery win. I was able to watch people’s lives, married couples bickering, children growing, money problems, romantic problems and incisive humour. I also followed The Cosby Show at the same time and while enjoyable, it was a tad dull and middle class. The format however, did keep bringing me back to it.
Then I saw Fawlty Towers and I realised I had been setting my standards too low. Well, that’s what I thought for a while. No 12 episodes of any sit-com ever made, could stack up against Fawlty Towers. It is peerless. Yet there are 236 episodes of Friends. How does one compare 12 episodes of genius with 236 episodes of good to excellent? I’m sure there are some people reading this who are now experiencing rage that I have put Fawlty Towers and Friends in the same paragraph and not used the opportunity to pour scorn on Friends.
I understand that emotion. Fawlty Towers is a precious thing and the ubiquity of Friends has all but poisoned our memories to its better moments. But I cannot dismiss the disparity in the number of episodes produced/created; 236 versus 12? They are both sit-coms, it is not like differentiating between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is not even comparing Star Wars with Star Trek. It’s Star Trek Voyager versus Battle Star Galactica (the newer series obviously)(though to be fair, in this scenario Voyager would have to be imagined as being much much better than it was and Galactica as only 12 episodes long). I think you get the picture. Apples and oranges, but apples being a citrus fruit.
It is through watching the career of John Cleese that I came to fully understand the difference between British and American sit-coms. As part of a relatively large team of writers, Monty Python, Cleese helped create the genius that is Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the equally genius films that followed. He was part of a team that produced 45 episodes, 5 films, numerous albums and books and that toured NorthAmerica like rock stars. He then wrote Fawlty Towers in partnership with Connie Booth. There was no one else. They filmed the series on a shoe string and that was it. I often ponder what would have happened if Cleese and Booth had been given American levels of support and resources. Cleese famously disliked working in teams and Friends had more writers than Monty Python, so I can’t help thinking he would have been fired by the end of Season2. He would have retained the credit ‘Created by’ but the series would have continued without him.
The disparity in resources available is not just a quirk of personality. The money generated by American sit-coms is phenomenal. Seinfeld has made billions of dollars. A successful sit-com is a cash cow, a money spinner par excellence and a goose that lays golden eggs. British sit-coms continue to be short run little gems. The pay-offs are simply not there to risk investing a great deal of money in a British sit-com. Instead there are occasional world beaters like The Office (UK Office = 2 writers. US Office = 17 writers) and the cheaper to produce, sketch show.
Back in the day when I presumed Americans did not get irony or self-deprecation, this would be a thing to be regretted. In this time of 30 Rock, Modern Family and The Big Bang Bang Theory however (and there are others I have yet to see but have heard good things about) I know that I am living through a Golden Age of sit-coms. Just one of those mentioned, would fill me with glee, but there are three of them on together. It’s stunning.
So why Two and a Half Men? I’m currently watching Season9. I was curious to see if they could fit Ashton Kutcher into Charlie Sheen’s boots and they’ve done so quite successfully. I’ve watched every episode of every season and it took me two seasons (yep, my addiction is matched only by my slowness) to work out why this nasty piece of work, works? Season1 just screamed misogyny. Every female character is shrill, conniving, slutty, grasping and vile. I was continually stunned by just how unpleasant ‘all’ the female characters were. Even Berta, the outsider, the one I’d assumed would act as the show’s conscience, turned out to be repellant.
In Season2 however, it clicked. Two and a Half Men is not misogynist, it is misanthropic, it is downright un-American, it is subversive and it is dystopian. There is not a single attractive character in the entire show. Not one, male or female, child or adult. All are equally the villain of the piece. I am unaware of any sit-com which is so resolutely unheroic, unsympathetic and causes one to feel grubby if one identifies with any of the characters.
In contrast, Modern Family is a conservative paean to the importance of the family in American society. It is in every way a positive and joyous celebration of family values. The addition of two Hispanic, two gay and an Asian character merely makes it appear more modern. It is so obvious yet its quality saves it from being hokey and cheesy. It is possibly the best written sit-com I’ver ever had the pleasure of laughing at. I look forward to Fridays, just because Modern Family will be on.
I do not have that same affection for Two and a Half Men (I’d worry about anyone who would) but I still won’t miss it. It’s subversiveness can be seen in the contrasting economic fortunes of Charlie and Alan. Charlie does little and is richly rewarded for that minimal effort. Alan works himself to distraction and is rewarded with poverty and scorn. But is there a moral to this? No! Charlie engages in consequence free hedonism and Alan disgusts one and all with his cheapness.
Even at the end of Season8, when life imitated art with Charlie Sheen being fired for his behaviour, he received a $25million pay-off and is expected to earn another $100million in syndication fees. Unless they start making coke out of gold, Sheen’s money will outlive his liver, heart and lungs.
That is what is so un-American, so subversive about Two and a Half Men and ultimately why I watch it, it shows only what is small in people. There is no idealism, no hope, no aspiration beyond the next act of self-indulgence. It is squalid and yet so few people realise that the bile on the surface merely disguises the true cesspool at its heart.
They are a dysfunctional family without any redeeming features (other than a beautiful house in a beautiful location), it is the anti-Simpsons. It is purist anarchy. It consistently avoids lecturing, avoids hectoring, avoids any teaching, any moralising, any hope and any attempt to inspire. It is in fact unique and it will prove impossible to emulate. It is so wrong, but I will continue to watch it, because if you’ve nothing to mix the vodka with, you’ll still just hold your nose and horse that harsh swill back.