‘Two and a Half Men’: A Cautionary Tale in Sitcom Revamps

by | December 2, 2011 at 2:31 PM | TV News

By Ellen Besen at TheWrap

Creating a hit sitcom is a tough business. Revamping a hit sitcom is suicidal.

Here we are, eight episodes and counting into the new improved season of “Two and Half Men.” The initial ballyhoo over Ashton Kutcher is long over, all the main pieces of the revamped story have been introduced and we are now presumably well into the heart of the new situation. The time has come to see if they have dodged the numerous pitfalls involved in reviving a hit show once the star has departed … or fallen into a trap created by their own folly.

Writing great or even half decent comedy is much harder than it looks. Sitcoms, with their set running times, ongoing casts of characters and limited locations, are particularly challenging. Their success depends on an intricately linked set of elements which have to fit together just so to produce the working balance of hate (to create dramatic tension) and love (to hold things together in spite of the tension) among the cast which drives the show forward. Knock even one key element out of place and the whole structure comes undone.

So not surprisingly, revamped sitcoms rarely work.

At this point, it doesn’t look like “TAAHM” is going to be an exception to the rule. But with the highly successful “TAAHM” Mach 1 as a comparison, Mach 2 does make an excellent case study for what and why revamps usually go wrong.

First let’s look at the new set-up. Charlie’s tasteless funeral aside,the most striking thing here is that it took four whole episodes to get all the elements in place.

Four episodes — one for each tiny step from booting Alan out of the beach house to settling him in permanently … that’s the better part of two hours! And a serious red flag.

“TAAHM” Mach 1 took us from suddenly single Alan landing on Charlie’s doorstep all the way to Charlie agreeing to let him stay on indefinitely- all in one lousy episode. Bing, bang, boom, the stage was set and the show was ready to roll.

In fact, most decent sitcoms pull off this feat. Why? Because their stories grow organically out of real life experience that we all understand without a lot of explanation.

It’s easy to accept that Charlie would tolerate Alan as a long term, unpaid guest because that’s something brothers actually do.

It’s not so easy to accept that a homeless billionaire would show up just when the beach house goes on the market. Nor that cautious Alan would pursue suicidal, dangerous (remember the car ride?) Walden as his landlord, let alone want Jake to live there, too.

And how about the late breaking news that Charlie died broke, which triggered the sale of his house in the first place? This one really came out of nowhere and that means the entire revamp hinges on a rewrite of history.

So instead of basing the set up on real world logic, the new set-up relies on dubious history, impossible coincidence and out of character behaviour.

The problem is that when you don’t have logic, you have to start explaining everything. This is what slowed down the set-up to a snail’s pace. And is also what’s behind other weaknesses which will continue to plague this program if they aren’t corrected.

Then there’s the new lead, Walden Schmidt — another weak link who just keeps getting weaker. I have sympathy for the creators faced with replacing a popular starring character who was tailor-made for the show. What they were trying for, it seems, was a new star with just enough of Charlie’s traits to sustain the original situation. What they got, though, is something quite different.

One thing Walden undoubtedly has is a strong physical presence. The show has taken full advantage of this along with Kutcher’s reputation as a chick magnet- maybe too much advantage as Walden seems to be taking his clothes off in every other scene …

Yet at the same time, this new lead is strangely lacking in personality, so much so that you have to ask … Where’s Walden?

As per the plan, Walden is successful, attractive and self-centered just like Charlie Harper. But Charlie was also a big brother and it’s this factor, rather than the flashier attributes, which was the key to Mach 1’s success.

Family dynamics are what gave the original show its dramatic push and pull. Though Charlie often wished Alan would just go away, he also felt the tug of obligation, love and, of course, guilt for a family member in need.

There were also the usual older — younger sibling rivalries, though when a middle aged man still takes such delight in bullying his little brother, you can bet that some of his swagger depends upon having his underling to kick around. And that without him, the older might feel surprisingly lost.

So though it looked like Charlie had all the means and Alan all the needs, the reality was more complex. At the core of this relationship sat a tangle of interconnected needs which produced plots driven as much by Charlie’s needs for Alan as vice versa. And that meant Alan could play on Charlie’s weaknesses, too, using his own dependence to pull the ties even tighter.

On top of all this, the sexier attributes — Charlie’s success and romantic prowess — upped the power he held over Alan. Yet at the same time, they also highlighted his superficiality. This gave Alan another tiny edge, a moral superiority on which he could hang a bit of pride to counterbalance his envy.

The family dynamic that grew out of all these factors was therefore simultaneously the friction which drove these two apart and the glue which held them together.

This may seem like way too much analysis for a little half hour sitcom but these really are the kinds of underpinnings that make situation comedy both funny and compelling enough to return week after week. And nothing makes this clearer than their absence.

At their best, these emotional underpinnings act as a largely invisible force that feeds and guides humour, character development, as well as surface plot. Punch lines are funny but also provoke a ping of truth; characters feel real, like friends we look forward to seeing each week and plots feel logical and meaningful even if we don’t know why.

In their absence, though, things can go wildly off track … which brings us back to our new pal, Walden, easily one of the most undeveloped lead characters on TV now and maybe ever.

Walden began the season with no background beyond his successful career and failed marriage … and with less personality than a 6 month old: a cipher in a vacuum.

Most of what we did learn about him initially was negative: he had no friends, no opinions, no social skills, no ability to take care of himself, really no life at all. And he was also strangely passive, not even able to choose a restaurant for a date without help.

There has been a recent attempt to address this deficit by sending him to a therapist to relate his history and to a decorator (Ma Harper … really?) to list his likes and dislikes. But the total effect only highlights the missing bits.

Yes, now we know lots about the deprivations of his childhood, his interest in green issues, along with whatever has previously been revealed. But all this material is either dramatically inert — as relevant to the circumstances at hand as ground beef is to apple pie — or actively detrimental. His wealth and luck with women, for example, make all his problems too easy to solve: anything he can’t buy to remedy the problem, he can coerce out of the next female who happens along. And that takes whatever minimal motivation this listless character has and effectively douses it.

Walden is also wildly inconsistent. Ready to kill himself over his failed marriage one moment, drooling over another pretty face the next; first speaking with sophistication about his work, then too stupid to understand what Alan means by “magic vagina” …the writers seem to be making him up as they go along. And given that Walden is missing the key traits which would define his actions and entirely without the emotional engine which would provide his reactions, what other choice do they have?

The new lead is a poor fit in other, less expected ways. In an essentially realistic show, Walden is a character of extremes — a 2D character set loose in a 3D world. He isn’t just rich, he is impossibly wealthy. He isn’t just lacking experience in daily life, he’s utterly helpless. And while even lady-killer Charlie could only attract a certain kind of woman, Walden is miraculously attractive to all women- young, old; pretty, plain; married, single — except for that lesbian who looks like his wife.

The issue here is that highly exaggerated characters need stories to match, as do more realistic ones. So in this context, you either keep the stories within the established style of moderate exaggeration, which makes Walden look like a freak. Or push the stories to reflect the new lead’s propensities and hang the rest of the cast out to dry. Either way, the show is only thrown further off kilter.

None of this is helped by an unexpected perceptual problem. Walden is presented as a man in his early 30s (Kutcher’s actual age) but comes across through looks and behavior as much younger — more like 26 or 27. By comparison, Alan starts looking older than his 46 years; old enough to be Walden’s dad. And that makes Alan not so much a roommate as what … an older, not very attractive guy being kept by a much younger, good looking guy? Fine if they were really father and son but otherwise kind of … creepy.

Strangely, the show toys with a sexual edge between these two with some regularity which only makes the spread in age, attractiveness and financial worth (the Big Three in personal power politics) creepier.

Of course, it is exactly the relationship between Walden and Alan that is suffering the most here. This relationship should be the heart of the show, the primary source of sparks which ignite the main storylines. But with so many missing or mismatched parts, it’s no surprise that it is so completely unable to deliver.

Alan’s misguided mission to get back to the beach house gave the first six episodes some structure and dramatic energy, though Walden’s role in this was more accessory than lead. Most of that tension was resolved when Walden declared Alan the only person he trusted and invited him to stay on indefinitely.

Of course, Alan — who was spending most of his time manipulating Walden into letting him stay — was anything but trustworthy and this deception created a new source of tension that still threatened to return Alan to the street. But even that tiny story stump came to an end when Alan confessed, Walden forgave him and friendship bloomed.

This curious turn of events grows directly from the faulty foundation of the revamp. As we’ve seen, Walden and Alan have no natural business being together in any capacity whatsoever … unless it turns out that Walden has a daddy complex and he and Alan do ultimately hook up.

Those first episodes made that lack of inherent connection abundantly clear. But since connection is as essential to sitcoms as tension, the creators had to scramble to concoct one. The trip from strangers to bonded roommates had all the hallmarks of weak writing: too long; too convoluted and too manipulated for credulity.

Most damning, though, is that in order to cement the friendship, they had to sacrifice the tension. In other words, instead of creating an engine between these two, a credible balance of frustration and love which would drive the show forward, they resolved all the issues and christened Walden and Alan best pals for ever and ever. This isn’t the beginning of a story- it’s the end! In the middle of the season! Where on earth can they go from here?

They wouldn’t just keep exploiting the “oops, my ex just caught me with another woman” plotline that they’ve already used at least three times, would they? Or decide out of nowhere that Alan is racked with grief over Charlie’s death to the point of cracking up? Or just keep throwing in more random twists to paper over all the holes in the revamped situation?

And while we’re at it, what is the new situation, anyway? With no family bond and Alan’s long running story — a key part of Mach 1 where he was never allowed to be sure he could stay- brought to a close, all we are left with are two lonely mismatched roommates doing what? Looking for love? Fighting over who left the top off the toothpaste- or who used whose condoms? Less “Two and a Half Men,” it seems, and more “The Odd Couple” or with the generational factor, “The Golden Girls.” Except that even those lame shows had some interesting contrast between the characters and real reasons why they had to stick together even when things got rough.

The show’s foundational deficits lead to a very limited dramatic and comedic vocabulary as well. Not only are the plots already repetitive, the jokes are, too — anyone actually want to hear another big penis joke?

In any case, aren’t stories about the trials of unjustifiably rich guys- perfectly in keeping with the times eight or nine years ago when the show debuted — out of synch and perhaps even offensive to financially struggling viewers caught in this never-ending recession?

And for that matter, isn’t this show about to age out of its concept? After 8.5 seasons, Jake has to be on the cusp of official manhood and just about ready to ship out … and then the show would become… “3 Men”? (Catchy!) “2 Men”? (Wow, there’s a high concept!) … or maybe more accurately, “2 Half Men” …

In other words, with the natural end of the series so close at hand it might have been more gracious to have ended last year- to have made a couple of wrap up episodes to account for Charlie’s disappearance and then gone out with some dignity.

I know the main reasons for keeping the show going were purely financial but some sense of responsibility to a loyal audience and some sense of self dignity for the creators might have motivated them to make, if not the best choice of a quick exit, at least an effort to raise this season to reasonable credibility.

And that would have meant taking the time before they started writing new scripts to build a real foundation for the revamp, instead of relying on factors designed mainly to produce jokes and desperately playing catch up with the rest.

Truth is audiences come for the laughs but stay for the emotional connections. They want to see the characters get in the thick of it, then find their way out week after week and be willing to hang in there in spite of it all. In the end it’s quite simple … no friction, no glue, no show.

There are ways “Two and a Half Men” could still be saved, of course — even some unexpected ones. But unless the creators have the guts to look at the misshapen thing they have conceived and set it right, it may even die by Xmas, financial obligations be damned.

*Don’t these guys know that when you’re too angry, the funny goes away? And do they really want the world to know how much power Sheen still has over them?

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