Saturday, August 6, 2011

TWO AND A HALF MEN vs. THE OFFICE: WHO WILL WIN THE RECASTING LEAD BATTLE (Hint: the one that didn't pick Ashton Kutcher, is ahead!)

My mother has been obsessing for the last couple months over what "Two and a Half Men," is going to do without Charlie Sheen. For those who don't know, although there are rumors about, they've added Ashton Kutcher, and according to most reports, Sheen's character Charlie Harper, is apparently gonna to die in the show. Obviously, showrunner/creator Chuck Lorre is not shortening the symbolism of his feeling towards Charlie Sheen's "winning," antics, that have basically forced them into firing him. I, have been caring about one of my favorite shows, "The Office," which is also going through a lead casting change, for very different reasons. Steve Carell, opted not to renew his contract with the show, and decided to be one of those long list of actors to try his luck out on his movie career by leaving his TV show.  His leaving was long pre-planned, graceful, and ended in one of the most touching moments in TV last year, while simultaneously jump starting a brilliant TV storyline angle to find his replacement. James Spader has been reported as being added to the cast for now, but the replacement in Michael Scott's position as head of the Scranton branch is reportedly still up for grabs.

What we have here are two popular, long-running TV shows at defiantely different crossroads. "Two and a Half Men," has been the most popular sitcom on TV for years now, basically since "Everybody Loves Raymond," handed the reigns to them when they went off the air. "The Office," however, has been critically one of biggest hit since then. It's been nominated for the Best Series Emmy every year since it's second season, winning the award once, has made many members of the cast stars in their own right, in films and TV, and has certainly long exceeded it's rocky beginning as the second NBC experiment in transplanting a popular British hit to America. (After the disasterous American version of "Coupling," which lasted, I believe 3 episodes.)

I'm a fan of "The Office," and not a fan of "Two and a Half Men." Well, let me put it another way, I think "The Office," is the more inventive and a consistently interesting show, while I think "Two and a Half Men," has its moments, and it's certainly a show worth watching in reruns occasionally, but I find it more of a imitation/throwback to previous shows. It's not bad, but I've constantly seen better, and for a couple years there after the aforementioned "...Raymond," went off the air, the show was very good. I'd say one of the best shows on basic TV. Now, it's gotten tiresome. In fact, I have to be honest, I'm basically on Sheen's side when it comes to the show. Yeah, he's clearly overdone it, but frankly, he just got sick of the show, and I don't blame him. I got sick of it years ago. It hasn't evolved. Particularly the Angus T. Jones character. I'm sorry, I know there are kids who are that dumb, and I don't want the dumb character to suddenly have the underachiever student suddenly have a Princeton or Stanford scholarship, like many, many TV shows have bizarrely done in the past, but that doesn't mean a stupid kid is interesting to watch on TV. Frankly, it's annoying. I know what my mother would say here, who is not a fan of "The Office," for reasons beyond my understanding, "But the guy on 'The Office,' is stupid and silly all the time, too, but you think it's smart and hilarious." Herein lies part of the subtlety of these two different shows. She's not entirely wrong. Some of the things that the Michael Scott character has done (I should throw in the Dwight Shrute character too, who it's possible she might have also been talking about) do require a surprising lack of intelligence. It's a little tricky to explain, certainly, but the appeal of "The Office," to me has been how the characters are actual ever-evolving characters instead of what, for the most part, "Two and a Half Men," doesn't indulged in expanding upon their charcters. Carell's Michael Scott character does occasionally do some mindless things, but they don't come out of a generic, sitcom situation and are then expanded upon for every possible joke. They come out of an actual ignorance towards the world around him, and therein lies the humor of a man who isn't aware of not just the fact that he's unintelligent, but in the way that he isn't unintelligent, and how unaware he is of how others perceive him. That last part is really the essence of "The Office." It was the critical aspect of the British version of the show, and it remains the critical part of the American show, only greatly expanded upon. It's not simply Michael Scott that has the amazingly inept character and everybody going, "Oh my God, he's amazingly inept, I can't believe I'm working for "this" guy." Slowly but surely the levels of his character develop into why and how he is so inept, and these critical aspects of the other characters are developed as well. This is partly from great writing, which the show continues to have, even with the few episodes that we saw without Michael Scott. but also from the actors themselves. Most of these actors are trained in improvisation and many come from the same kinds of Second City/Groundling background that you might find casts of SNL come from. They're trained in creating and forming characters. So from the beginning, where there was one partly formed character with eccentricities, Michael Scott, it's expanded to the learning more about all the characters that react to his crazy things, and then, we understand why and how they react. This is done and evolved upon, even with the newest of characters on the show. I don't think I laughed more on the show in the last few years then when we learned that a distraught Erin (Ellie Kemper) that she was an orphan, and during her childhood, her hair was her room, so she pushed her face behind her hair, so as to go and hide. It's a minor detail that said more about that character than in the previous year that she had been on the show. And this is a minor, minor character. The show is filled with these details. They're shown behaviorally, they're shown in their words or lack thereof, they come from sudden revelations, and not necessarily in ones that are saved for Sweeps week episodes. It's this everevolving nature of the show that keeps it interesting and fresh, well pass when most shows should've gotten stale. Now, it faces it's greatest challenge head-on, and frankly, while I'm curious as to what the shows next move is, I have little fear that the show will lost any ground with Steve Carell. In fact, no matter what they do next, I wouldn't be shocked that it might continue to be improved upon. Now, we have another/more new character(s) that we can slowly learn about. What fun. "The Office," has the rare oppotunity to be successful and remain funny with a continuous addition and subtraction of characters on a sitcom, probably not seen since "Cheers," and unusually, they can absolutely do it.

"Two and a Half Men," has been stale for years. I know, this isn't a popular opinion considering it's ratings, but the jokes have basically remained the same. Charlie's a sex hound, Alan a useless, sexless, inept brother, the kid is a blissfully ignorant underachiever. In fact, the most interesting characters on the show are Berta, Charlies housekeeper, played by Conchata Farrell, the unnuturing mother played perfectly by Holland Taylor, and the crazy stalker neighbor Rose played by Melanie Lynsky. They added some interesting substance to a show that combined the sex jokes of "Three's Company," and "Married...with Children," and the basic outline structure of one of the most underrated of three-camera sitcoms, "The Odd Couple." These are strong influences, and at times, makes a funny show. However, almost every time they try to add something to the show, it backs out of it, and eventually, and the show begins to devolve into a basic three-camera sitcom. That's not to say something bad about the three-camera structure, there's not. While part of "The Office,"'s main difference and innovation from most sitcoms is the documentary style of the show (A sometimes forgotten aspect of the series is that they're being filmed for a documentary by a never-seen documentary crew that may or may not ever actually air in theatre or on TV). many three-camera shows are able to take the basic sitcom structure, and expand it into creating realistic and likeable characters, even if they are sitcom quirky. Chuck Lorre is certainly aware of  andcapable of this, and I have to look no farther than his other show, "The Big Bang Theory," a show that for all-intensive purposes shouldn't work, but not only does, it's one of the funniest shows on TV, and has greatly expanding their characters and added characters that have improved on the show immensely. (The addition of Mayim Bialik's character this past year on "Big Bang..." was absolute genius.) On "Two and a Half Men," he's had Alan get married, but then he got divorced and broke almost immediately after. Charlie's had a long-standing affair with a woman named Chelsea that lasted about a season and a half. There's been an occasional flirtation with Charlie and Rose, again, one that never seems to go anywhere. That's essentially been the problem with the show, the main characters and the situation have remained more or less the same throughout the series, even with these occasional plot developments, they've always gone back to their original stagnant positions. In certain shows, this can be looked upon as a benefit and a plus. "Seinfeld," made it an artform. The key element though was that that show was about the characters views on the surrounding world, and how it didn't make sense to them, and that somehow, nobody else seem to notice. It's this essential conflict that continually makes that show even more brilliant in reruns than when it aired ('cause now we see where every other show basically stole from). We don't get these two opposing "Us vs. the World" forces as much in "Two and a Half Men." The conflict is in the two differing lifestyles of the characters, Charlie's a laid-back musician with women coming in and out and in and out and in and out..., all the time, while Alan is divorced, he's basically a married man with a kid who thinks he's trying to be the responsible parent, and is failing miserably. While there is inherent comedy in this conflict, after a while, they two conflict evolved or devolved into Reality (Charlie) vs. Delusional (Alan). This is a conflict that can only go on for so long, before it no longer becomes convincing believable. Charlie is always gonna to have a girl and drink, and be relatively successful and at ease with himself, and Alan seems to keep believing things can change for him. They never do, and when he occasionally comes to that realization, he wallows in his own self-pity, instead of taking more drastic actions to change or at least modify his behavior. Or any action to modify his behavior, and his kid, probably learning from example, is inaction personified. Occasionally used as a tool for the essence of the lifestyle confrontation between Charlie and Alan, mostly he's lazy, lays around, and has little interesting to say or do, which was relatively fine when he was young. Now, he might have an occasional girlfriend. There's basically no care from any adult in the show about his welfare, and it shows. And when you make him apart of the title of the show, that becomes an issue, 'cause now, he's one of the featured characters, (When it's Rob and Laura's kid on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," it's not that important, 'cause the kid's not a focus of the show), and Jake is only slightly more useful than Beavis or Butthead, and possibly not as intelligent as either of them. I keep bringing up this intelligent factor involving "Two and a Half Men," but it's bothersome, and it underlines a bigger issue with the show. It's been on eight seasons now, and if the characters aren't even getting minimally smarter or at least emotionally more intuitive, what good is the show? Both drama, and comedy are about change, (and conflict, I should point that out so that my film school professor don't lambast me, but for this purpose, change is just as critical) and little or nothing has changed on the show. When the situation doesn't change, then the characters should, and neither has. Finally, it's being forced into a change, and quite frankly, while I, like everyone, am skeptical of the addition of Ashton Kutcher, and part of me is hoping this is a long punk that Charlie Sheen's pulling on us, frankly, if I'm not excited, I'm certainly curious as to what the shows going to do. While I don't back down from these criticisms, I hope the show is benefitted from this, 'cause if nothing else, it can add a dimension, some dimension, any dimension to this show that will inevitably force the writers to make some alterations to the main cast of characters. I hope it works. I want to see good TV as much as anybody. "Two and a Half Men," has had the potential, and the audience, it's just never lived up to it, and frankly, I think it gave up trying. If that's part of what led Charlie Sheen's to his decision, than I hope we're both wrong.

Well, there we have it. A rather intriguing new season coming up for two of the biggest sitcoms on TV. Both losing their main character, both for very different reasons, and soon, we finally get to find out if they can survive. I find myself looking forward to both, but one, I expect and predict continued greatness, and the other, well, I'm just saying a prayer for the other. (Which, given that I'm an agnostic, might really be prophetic.)  There's an infamous term in the world of TV sitcoms called "jumping the shark," many if not most of you have probably heard of it, it's generally described as an exact moment a tv show, usually a sitcom, becomes unwatchable. It's named after an infamous "Happy Days," episode, but quite often, it's a term that's used when a major character leaves a show, and the show is forever unable to recover. When Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace both left "That '70s Show," it jumped the shark. There's dozens of other examples I could list, but that's the worst case scenarios these two shows could run into. I'm gonna take an optomistic view going into this fall season. These two shows have a chance to really succeed when the chips are not necessarily in their favor. Yet, for different reasons, they're uniquely setup to succeed and get through this kind of nightmare scenario, one because it's had preplanning, preparation, and has been uniquely successful in creating strong characters that one can leave and/or can be added while keeping the show strong, while the other has struggled to advance the show above and beyond it's original format, and is now forced into a gamechanging decision to forever alter and impact the series. People will definitely be watching however, and whatever the results, and in the interest of not being sued by NBC, let's say it's, must watch TV.
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