1. Arts & Entertainment

Two FX comedies: Louie C.K.'s is funny, Charlie Sheen's is a joke

The appeal of Charlie Sheen is at once the simplest thing in show business and a riddle that will perplex critics 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 porn stars and ingesting as many mind-altering substances as possible.

His recent TV roles, as a lecherous jingle writer on CBS's Two and a Half Men and his current gig as a baseball star-turned-therapist in FX's Anger Management, are strings of thinly written punch lines 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; 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.

His new sitcom Anger Management emerges as more evidence of Sheen's blessed status. It is 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 excoriate colleagues publicly and get 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.

The circumstances here are a thin façade. This is mostly an excuse for Sheen to swagger onstage and drop leaden punch lines, like his remark to one beautiful female patient in his group therapy meeting: "I've already checked out your a--; it's one of the better ones in the group."

The jokes are lame and the setup/punch line rhythms of the often sex-based quips are about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the naughty bits.

Worse, the multicamera setup and old school co-stars, including Spin City's Michael Boatman and Grace Under Fire's Brett Butler, make 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.)

It is also Sheen in his element, working a mildly amusing sitcom with the same offhand attitude he brought to Two and a Half Men.

Which makes you wonder: Will he somehow fall into success here, too?

It's particularly odd, because FX has worked so hard to emerge as a home for cutting-edge comedy, exemplified by one of the other shows beginning a new season 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.

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 bawdy delight as a woman Louie is set up with on a blind date whom 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 monologues 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.

Louie comes back to new episodes for the summer exactly 90 minutes after Anger Management, making for the oddest one-two punch in TV comedy. (Adding to the craziness Thursday is the debut of an 11 p.m. talk show starring Russell Brand called Brand X and a 10 p.m. comedy about a guy with a talking dog named Wilfred.)

In a swoop, FX will vault from a totally conventional, totally impersonal, totally predictable Charlie Sheen sitcom to one of the most original, eccentric, creative comedies on television.

Their only real connection is both star middle-aged white guys whom young male viewers may find entertaining.

And in today's fractured, hyper-competitive media universe, that just might be enough.