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Critic's Notebook: Charlie Sheen's last straw

It's hard to feel sorry for CBS and Warner Bros. After all, they looked the other way at Charlie Sheen's string of bad behavior. Apparently, the star finally went too far being mean to Chuck Lorre.

February 26, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Threaten your wife with a deadly weapon and become one of the highest paid actors on television. But when actor Charlie Sheen (right) says mean things about Chuck Lorre ... he is toast.
Threaten your wife with a deadly weapon and become one of the highest paid… (Frederick M. Brown / Getty…)

So now we know.

If you are the star of a hit comedy on CBS, you can keep your job in spite of accusations of: threatening your pregnant second wife; holding a knife to your third wife's throat on Christmas Day; and indulging in cocaine-fueled weekends during which your bizarre behavior causes your female companion to fear for her life.

But say mean things about Chuck Lorre and You Are Toast.

It is difficult to feel anything but relief regarding CBS' recent decision to officially halt production of its hit comedy "Two and a Half Men." A crazed Charlie Sheen once again took to the radio airwaves this week, this time to denounce the show's creator, whom the troubled actor accused of stealing from him. Within hours, CBS and Warner Bros. finally put their foot down; for once, the writer trumped the performer, perhaps because Lorre also produces two other very successful comedies on the network, "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mike and Molly."

But it's equally difficult to feel much sympathy for the network or the studio. Having spent years in a dysfunctional, codependent marriage with Sheen, they have, apparently, done little to prepare for a moment that the rest of the world has seen coming for a while now. We haven't seen these kinds of meltdown antics since the Heidi Fleiss years.

Of course, these are the same folks who, after Sheen was arrested and charged with felony menacing and third-degree assault for the 2009 Christmas Day incident (he later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault as part of a plea bargain), later described the situation as a "very personal and very private." And Lorre, before a gathering of the Television Critics Assn. weeks after the arrest, treated it largely as a joke, telling journalists that it was business as usual on set because "Charlie is a consummate pro. He shows up and he delivers." A few months later, Sheen renewed his contract for two years in a deal that brought him roughly $1.8 million per episode.

Threaten your wife with a deadly weapon and become one of the highest paid actors on television.

Meanwhile, no one appears to be interested in actually protecting the future of "Two and a Half Men," the highest-rated comedy on television. Even taking the most restrictive contracts into account, surely Lorre and his writers are clever enough figure out an "Operation: Off the Rails" story line in which a vibrant and distracting new character is introduced mere moments after Sheen's Charlie Harper has gone on "an unexpected and indefinite trip to Morocco." As Mandy Patinkin proved when he simply failed to show up for work on "Criminal Minds" a few years ago, one big-name performer does not a show make — call in the comedic equivalent of Joe Mantegna and in a couple of years, the franchise will be so solid it can afford a spin-off.

In a way, Charlie Sheen explains it all. Every junkie/alcoholic/sex addict star who ever bounced in and out of rehab, every assault/soliciting/handgun possession charge that has been dodged or bargained down by a celebrity, every set shut down caused by a star's dehydration/exhaustion/flulike symptoms/personal issues. In Hollywood, if it's still making money, it ain't broke.

Still, you can't blame CBS or Warner Bros; it isn't a network's job to tough love a star into rehab and if every star with demons was fired, more than one show would go on hiatus. The real problem is that no one quite knows how to deal with stars like Sheen because we're not quite sure how to classify people who generate that kind of money. Although they are paid for services rendered, they are not "employees." Employees must adhere to certain rules and standards — it's hard to imagine the VP of international marketing at CBS getting away with the cocaine-fueled weekends and the cowering prostitute, or even the star of a slightly less successful show.

If actors are not employees, then they must be artists, which makes them part of a larger conversation about personal behavior vs. The Work. Spencer Tracy went on benders, Joan Crawford was "Mommie Dearest" and Frank Sinatra all but institutionalized bad behavior, but who wants to live in a world without "Pat and Mike," "Mildred Pierce" or "Summer Wind"?

Not surprisingly, Sheen recently argued that his off-set behavior shouldn't matter as long as he is able to do his job, stirring up a brief media brouhaha over the history and relevance of a "morals clause." Yet at a time when ill-advised tweeting is a firing offense, this argument appears shaky, especially when domestic violence is part of one's "personal life." Actors may not be role-models anymore but they are still expected to adhere to the basic standards of citizenship.

Or maybe not.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to the Charlie Sheen story is the lack of public reaction. Even after the Christmas Day attack on his wife, there were no calls to boycott the show, none of the moral outrage leveled against other public figures who have sinned far less egregiously. Threats to cancel NBC's "Chuck" got more people in an uproar than the sight of a troubled man imploding in a maelstrom of drugs and violence right before our eyes.

It's as if we expect this sort of behavior, from Sheen in particular, and actors in general, as if we consider the self-destructive behavior of an ill-fated few to be part of the multimedia entertainment package delivered daily into our homes, like Netflix streaming, behind-the-scenes footage and online director commentary.

And that's not Sheen's problem. That's all on us.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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