With Charlie Sheen's Anger Management and Louis CK's Louie, FX has best and worst comedies of 2012
The appeal of Charlie Sheen is at once the simplest thing in show business and a riddle which will perplex critics of the form for ages to come.
The simple answer: Sheen is a ready surrogate for all the fans out there who wish they could put a bottomless vat of money to the singular purpose of having sex with a string of pornstars and ingesting as many mind-altering substances as possible.
His recent TV roles – as a lecherous jingle writer on CBS’ Two and Half Men and his current gig as baseball star-turned-therapist in FX’s Anger Management – are strings of thinly-written punchlines allowing us to bask in a heavily-filtered version of Sheen’s party-hearty charisma.
Regardless of what he might say on camera, we know what really happens when the cameras stop rolling, and every joke floats by with some extra spice provided by that wink to real life.
But, in another sense, it is remarkable that a performer who seems to be trying so little has earned so much reward: the biggest paychecks, a crowd of fans and a perch at the highest reaches of television.
And his new sitcom Anger Mangement emerges as more evidence of Sheen’s blessed status; a comfortable landing spot after last year’s explosive personal crisis (even Sheen has called it a “psychotic break” in a recent interview) led him to be fired from the highest-rated comedy on network television.
FX wisely tampered little with Sheen’s formula, making him a flawed voice of reason as a therapist who struggles with his own anger issues. But the circumstances are a thin façade; this is mostly an excuse for Sheen to swagger onstage and drop leaden punchlines like his remark to a member of his therapy meeting: “I’ve already checked out you’re a--; it’s one of the better ones in the group.”
The jokes are sex-obsessed and lame, while the setup/punchline rhythms are about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the naughty bits.
Worse, the multi-camera setup and old school co-stars – including Spin City’s Michael Boatman and Grace Under Fire’s Brett Butler -- makes the whole series feel like it was fished out of some time capsule from the mid-1990s. (in another bit of showbiz nostalgia, the series has 10 executive and co-executive producers, including Drew Carey Show co-creator Bruce Helford and Sheen’s brother Ramon Estevez.)
But it is also Charlie Sheen in his element. Which makes you wonder: will he somehow make this into a success, too?
It’s particularly odd, because FX has worked so hard to emerge as a home for cutting-edge comedy, exemplified by the other show debuting Thursday night, Louis C.K.’s Louie.
Already hailed as one of the best comedies on TV, Louie breaks every rule Anger Management is too lazy to challenge, finding humor in the ludicrously uncomfortable and demeaning circumstance of being a divorced, out-of-shape fortysomething comic in New York City. (see promo by clicking here).
This week’s episode finds Louie breaking up with a headstrong girlfriend without saying a word. As she grows more exasperated at his inability to express himself, she actually breaks up with herself, guessing his feelings from his various expressions of confusion and ambivalence.
And. The guest appearances. Are. Amazing.
Oscar winner Melissa Leo is a lewd delight as a woman Louis is set up with on a blind date who he warms up to – until she wants him to deliver on a certain sex act he can’t bear to consummate.
And Parker Posey is riveting as a kind, cute bookseller who reveals another side during their first date. Louie’s speech asking her out – he apologizes for being bald and lumpy and swears he grows on women over time – is one of the great comedy speeches of the summer.
With its spare, stark look, a score cobbled together from old jazz and rock tunes and a ground-level view of New York, Louie is a side-splitting comedy with an indie film’s heart. Add in that the star also writes, directs, produces and until this season even edited every episode, and you have a bawdier, funnier Woody Allen for the 21st Century.
And it comes back to new episodes for the summer exactly 90 minutes after Anger Management, making for the oddest one-two punch in TV comedy.
In a swoop, FX will vault from a totally conventional, totally impersonal, totally predictable TV sitcom to one of the most original, eccentric, creative comedies on television.
Their only real connection; both star middle-aged white guys who young male viewers may find entertaining.
In today’s fractured, hyper-competitive media universe, maybe that’s just enough.
Anger Management debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday; Louie returns for its third season at 10:30 p.m. Thursday on FX.