Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images
Charlie Sheen arrives at the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, Colo., in August 2010.
Charlie Sheen arrives at the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, Colo., in August 2010. Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images
I have been enormously hesitant to write about Charlie Sheen beyond the occasional link to a news item, to the point of being slightly neurotic about it.
It has long been my position that "pop culture" does not include "celebrity gossip" unless there is some connection between that gossip and something at least arguably broader, or more interesting, or ... you know, actually related to culture.
But we have reached the point where what is going on with Sheen, and with Two And A Half Men, and with CBS (which airs it) and Warner Brothers (which makes it), is presenting some genuinely wrenching questions about audiences and networks and studios that don't really require anyone to care about the details of this particular guy's personal life.
Start with a few fundamentals.
Two And A Half Men is consistently in the top 20 shows on television, if we're going by Nielsen ratings. It's also wildly successful in syndication. It is, by any measure you care to choose, a massive hit and thus a massive moneymaker. All that money sticks to this story like baked-on mud. You couldn't see the problem without its influence if you wanted to.
Two And A Half Men might — might — be able to exist without Charlie Sheen if they found just the right other lead, but that's a crapshoot nobody is going to take if they don't absolutely have to.
His personal problems, as you probably know whether you want to or not, are not limited to drugs (which have led to more than one reported stint in rehab). They also include accusations of domestic violence involving two different wives — and in one of those cases, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after being charged with felony menacing.
They are also not new. It's very hard now to read this 1998 CNN story in which his father, the actor Martin Sheen, discusses his hopes for his son's recovery.
They are also not bad for ratings, and as such, they have not been bad for business. According to one poll, 90 percent of his "avid fans" don't think his behavior matters at all. Other than when he's been in the hospital or under arrest, there aren't widespread reports of his missing work or slowing down production, either. He shows up — that's what he says, and it's often what CBS has said, too.
But the last year has been particularly hard to watch.
Only months past the announcement last February that he was entering rehab, he wound up in the news again in October, accused of trashing a room at the Plaza Hotel — the usual stories about cocaine and women included. It happened again in January, when he was rushed to the hospital with "abdominal pains," amid reports of another bender.
At first, he said that he was going to rehab again. But then it turned he meant he would do rehab at home, and only for a few weeks, at which point he wanted to return to business as usual.
Others expressed profound concern. Chuck Lorre, the executive producer of Two And A Half Men, Warner Brothers Television ... everyone was "profoundly concerned."
While they were busy being profoundly concerned, Sheen's side wasn't terribly concerned at all. His publicist glibly told The Wrap, "Memo to Chicken Little: The sky remains in place."
All this background is to say that it should have been no surprise when Sheen called in to Dan Patrick's radio show the other day to complain about the show being kept on hiatus. He told Patrick, among other things, that CBS should put him back to work immediately: "I heal pretty quickly," he said, "but I also unravel pretty quickly. Get me right now." He also said plenty of other things, including that if you can "manage it socially," doing crack cocaine is fine, and that when he's sober, "it's inauthentic — it's not who I am."
And then, last night, producer Chuck Lorre ran this vanity card at the end of Men (that's the screen at the very end, after the credits, from the producer, and Lorre has been writing custom vanity cards for his shows for years):
I exercise regularly. I eat moderate amounts of healthy food. I make sure to get plenty of rest. I see my doctor once a year and my dentist twice a year. I floss every night. I've had chest x-rays, cardio stress tests, EKGs and colonoscopies. I see a psychologist and have a variety of hobbies to reduce stress. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't have crazy, reckless sex with strangers.
If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed.
That one was darkly funny. He also ran this one at the end of his other Monday night CBS show, Mike & Molly:
He felt dead inside.
No matter how hard he partied, he could never escape that simple fact — inside, dead.
And that was his life.
Running from a feeling.
At least until he could run no more.
Exhausted, spent and beaten, when the end finally came, he welcomed it.
With life ebbing from his wasted body, he was suddenly swept up in a transcendent state of joy that was pure and complete.
Moments later he felt dead inside.
We are now at the point where this question is being presented more straightforwardly than it has at any time that I can remember.
It's the question, "Is there any point at which you do not keep a guy in a high-profile job in family entertainment simply because using the considerable power of your television network to support the road he's on is so irresponsible that it defeats the profit motive as well as the desire to keep everyone else on the show employed?"
Remember: Said guy seems to be pretty specifically disclaiming the idea of getting sober for good. He's using the threat of his next bender ("I unravel pretty quickly") as leverage to get back to work. There certainly doesn't seem to be any point in a hiatus that's aimed to allow him recovery, since he doesn't seem to be interested in it.
Let me put it as I put it to a friend a while ago: Is there a point where you don't leave a guy at status quo until he dies?
Where, when he's taunting you ("Get me right now"), you don't play along?
If there is such a point — but we are not at it after the assault conviction and the reported mountains of cocaine and the fact that Sheen is obviously tired of pretending he's interested in sobriety and unwilling to carry on doing it — what would it take to get there?
To be honest, I'm afraid there is no such point. There's a crew, there are other actors, there are writers, and they're all out of work if he gets dumped — assuming CBS wouldn't restart the show with somebody else in his role, which it has showed no interest in doing thus far.
There's just so much money. People do amazing things when there's that much money. Hits are hard to find, and increasingly so. CBS has built its entire Monday night around this show — around Sheen, really. A lot of other people's jobs rely on getting him back to work. Just like he wants. Just like it never happened. "Get me right now," he says, and the twisted, pragmatic arguments are all in favor of doing just that.
But when your producer is openly fearing that your star is killing himself and he's saying as much on screen — those two vanity cards are not just about personal problems; they are both about dying — and when your star is calling up radio hosts to say he might not have that much sanity left, so you'd better get some of it while you can, do you just bring everybody back to work and move on?
Don't get me wrong: The crushing power of money in Hollywood is not a new phenomenon. The cynical "they'll use him up until he's dead" argument is the easiest one to make, and the most obvious.
But will they really? Will the audience, really? People have been used up before in front of us, to varying degrees — Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland — but have they stayed front and center, family entertainment, top of the ratings, every week? Have we ever had to watch the producer lament his helplessness while the guy calls in on the radio and shrugs, in effect, that it's none of anybody's business if he's being repeatedly rushed to the hospital and/or arrested?
Maybe it's an old story. Maybe it's just the way these things always go. But it's interesting to wonder how much money is spent on PR and image management and meticulous handling of one's persona when, in fact, for some people, it doesn't matter at all. Why does Charlie Sheen even have a publicist? What, at this point, would he really need a publicist to fix? Is there anything that would put a dent in him?
Other than, of course, a headline that says, "Charlie Sheen No Longer Absolutely Necessary To The Earning Of Truckloads Of Money"?