Monday, March 7, 2011

One and a half men...and a monster. US morality has lost its Sheen.

There’s always got to be one, or even a few, but usually the media likes to focus on one, and he or she often starts with some kind of extraordinary talent; and if not that at least a siren-like attraction, a la Marilyn Munroe, then we gawk in awe as they plunge to their death on drugs or utter humiliation and loneliness or all of the above.

The latest is Charlie Sheen.

They’ve ditched his TV show, just as the juggernaut of his personality ensures the ratings of Two And A Half Men go berserk!  Who isn’t going to be watching now that he’s given the bird to the producers? Even I who can’t stand those sarcastic, dehumanised Ad vehicles called American sitcoms will be glued to the box, just to see the guy who every day walks the plank of commercial excess, and he’s doing it with such impudence, such utter disgrace.

This is the paradox of capitalism: do it, do it, do it, do it….woops, you’ve done it, you terrible man! Every TV magazine, advertisement, bill board, pop song, sit com, film clip – you name it – is pumping out the idea of going overboard, getting that little bit more out of life; but once someone really does it they’re pilloried by the press, by comedians, by psychologists and moralists, warned off by parents and teachers across the planet.

Charlie’s paying two pretty women to live with him. Sure, they’re blonde and plastic looking versions of women, but they fit the commercial mould nicely. And no doubt millions of married men are secretly wishing they were Charlie for a week or so, and I’m sure millions of American women are wishing they were doing Charlie for a week or so. He’s doing exactly what a commercially successful playboy should be doing: taking drugs and alcohol and getting laid a lot. Is there something else in the handbook of excess?

Well, yes apparently so. Amongst all of this striving to the pinnacle of garish taste and profit is supposed to be some kind of philosophical integrity, some human standard to which one must adhere in order to still be liked by the ‘family viewer’.

‘Family entertainment’ was the famous sardonic catch-cry uttered by American comedian Sam Kinison as he blundered Viking-like into the prudish realms of late night TV shows, smashing their mores and morals with his ‘anti-preaching’ stand-up routine. It’s the family entertainment tag that’s keeping Sheen from being simply relegated to the category of just another talented loony, in the same way that footballers like Brendan Fevola are admonished for their excesses: it's because the kids might be watching.

Well, derr! The kids are watching alright, but they’re also participating in their own world of online excess filled with porn and violence way beyond anything Charlie or Brendon might be involved with.

The whole problem is that shows like Two And A Half Men rely so heavily on the comedy of the anti-hero, in the same way Punch and Judy revolves around the psychotic, scary behaviour of Punch, and we love that Punch is there to actually do those hideous things that we might do if we completely lost our moral compass, just as Charlie is there to do what a good family man wouldn’t. The difference is however, that Punch is a puppet and Charlie is a real guy; his character is his real name, he’s based on a real guy who really does this stuff. And while the real Charlie is walking off set to get smashed and have real sex with real hookers and porn stars, the Two And A Half Men writers and producers are desperately attempting to build a morally acceptable TV show based on the idea that the Charlie guy is wrong, not the guy to follow kids! “No, don’t be like the handsome, witty, commercially successful, wealthy son of a film star and brother of two other extraordinarily talented film stars. Be like the dowdy guy about whom we know nothing.”

In a sense Two And A Half Men is a form of reality TV because it’s premise and it’s fame are based on a real guy; and hey, this does give it an added paradoxical complexity. The problem is that the producers have tried to keep the old school family morality attached to it all; they not only want their cake and eat it, they want to sell the cake at top dollar, lace it with liquor and drugs, smear it over naked imaginations of prime time TV viewers, then claim it’s a lovely wholesome cake for general consumption. And in a way it is wholesome, but the guts of the cake – the luscious, sexy, heart of it – Charlie – is something they don’t own. The can’t keep him locked in a cabinet until next week. He’s a walking, breathing Punch if you like. Imagine allowing Homer Simpson or Family Guy to wander off into the real world and wreak moral havoc amidst the citizens of Los Angeles.

We do the same with our footballers, of course: set them up to be overtly aggressive, arrogant and wilful; then when they display that behaviour in public, we can't cope. Similarly, we shake our heads at the behaviour of Matthew Newton who spent several years on the film sets of Underbelly, a rootin and shootin moral quagmire that celebrates murder, drugs and prostitution and somehow attempts to imply that we shouldn’t be doing these very exciting things.

In a way, people like Charlie Sheen and Matthew Newton are walking, talking embodiments of capitalism gone too far, they are monsters spurned from the fetid excess of commercial TV. And before Charlie Sheen, Matthew Newton or Brendon fevola go to their deaths hounded by the press and the fading memories of their own glory, I say to those TV producers and AFL managers: you got what you asked for, you greedy pricks, and now you don’t have the guts to actually take responsibility for it.