Jon Cryer, left, and Ashton Kutcher on the season premiere of CBS'… (Danny Feld / Warner Bros. )
After seeing these ratings, the producers may have wished they'd buried Charlie Harper sooner.
"Two and a Half Men" earned its most-watched episode ever Monday night as the No. 1-rated CBS sitcom helped kick off the fall TV season with the funeral of Harper, the wisecracking heel played by Charlie Sheen.
But the night was hardly a farewell to Sheen: The newly contrite actor, who has been trying to mend fences the last few days, happened to turn up Monday night with his own highly rated roast on Comedy Central.
The sideshow of Sheen's career derailment — combined with the hiring of Ashton Kutcher as his replacement — lured an enormous audience of 28.7 million viewers to "Men's" Season 9 premiere, making it one of the year's top prime-time broadcasts, according to data from Nielsen. In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic often sought by advertisers, the sitcom delivered a gigantic 10.7 rating/25 share, numbers seldom seen for a scripted program in these days of fierce media competition and splintered audiences.
Those were the best stats ever for "Men," which suffered a shortened eighth season earlier this year after producers sacked Sheen, who had engaged in a public war of words with his bosses.
In fact, viewing was so high, it put a noticeable dent during the 9 p.m. half-hour for ABC's heavily anticipated season premiere of "Dancing With the Stars," which ended up with a 19 million average for the night. The two-hour "Dancing" was still strong enough to power ABC to a win for the night in viewers, thanks in no small part to curiosity over the introduction of Chaz Bono, the series' first transgender contestant.
NBC, meanwhile, suffered a bruising night: Both its reality competition "The Sing-Off" and the new 10 p.m. drama "The Playboy Club" bombed, logging barely 5 million viewers apiece.
"Men" even wrapped its ratings glow around a new CBS sitcom, "2 Broke Girls," which averaged 19.4 million viewers, making it the highest-rated fall sitcom premiere in a decade.
The next few weeks, however, may cut "Men" back down to size.
"I don't think anyone expected that number," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York. "Unfortunately for CBS, the audience for the comedy will only go one way, and that is down."
Once the Kutcher novelty wears off, the sitcom will probably settle this season in the 12 million to 14 million range, which is what it's averaged in recent years, Adgate predicted.
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said in a statement: "We're cognizant that it's only one night in a long season, but it's certainly a spectacular and rewarding way to get started."
Kutcher was introduced mid-episode in "Men" as Walden Schmidt, a lovelorn Internet billionaire who had tried to commit suicide by walking into the ocean near the Malibu beach house previously owned by Sheen's character. The episode's opening revealed that Harper had died after a girlfriend had learned of his infidelity and, it was assumed, pushed him in front of an oncoming train.
Sheen's appeal, however, is far from dead for some fans. Comedy Central's "Roast of Charlie Sheen" — shrewdly targeted as counterprogramming to "Two and a Half Men's" season premiere — drew 6.4 million viewers, a record for the cable network's popular roast franchise. Celebrities who came to insult the troubled actor included William Shatner, Kate Walsh and "Family Guy's" Seth MacFarlane.
Though Monday was the official start of the 2011-12 TV season, some new shows jumped the gun last week. NBC may have reason for optimism with "Up All Night," a sitcom about young parents (10.9 million), but the workplace comedy "Free Agents" looked weak (6.1 million). At the CW — a youth-targeted mini-network with a shorter ratings yardstick than its broadcast competitors — Sarah Michelle Gellar fans turned out for the thriller "Ringer" (2.8 million), and the teenage witch fantasy "The Secret Circle" drew a respectable 3 million.