For a guy who prides himself in interviews on his wildness and his lust for new experiences, Charlie Sheen adheres to a conservative business model when it’s time to make money: the laugh-tracked, multi-camera sitcom, for Two and a Half Men and now Anger Management, which premiered on FX Thursday night. Based loosely on the 2003 Adam Sandler film of the same name, the FX version of Anger stars Sheen as Charlie Goodson, an ex-baseball player turned anger-management therapist. The idea is that Charlie’s had anger issues himself, and this makes him a good, or at least qualified, counselor.
Charlie Goodson is a bit different from Men’s Charlie Harper. True, Goodson is a womanizer who doesn’t want to commit, and he’s unethical enough to find no problem bedding his own therapist, played with understandable lassitude by Selma Blair. But unlike Harper, he’s not pickled in booze, and he’s a good guy to both his ex-wife (Becker’s Shawnee Smith, always a welcome TV presence) and his teenage daughter (a clever Daniela Bobadilla). (The other notable cast members are Michael Boatman, wasted as Charlie’s neighbor, and Brett Butler, in a small role as a bartender. Butler and Sheen are both graduates of Chuck Lorre-produced shows; it’s nice to see her again, post-Grace Under Fire.)
The locus of most of this show’s comedy, however, is the therapy sessions Charlie conducts. Watching him referee a group of recalcitrants and oddballs, you recognize the true template for this series: The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), with its bemused therapist surrounded by his wacky clientele.
But they’re not as vividly drawn as Newhart’s patients; you’ll find no equivalent to, for example, Jack Riley’s intriguingly furtive, insecure misanthrope Elliot Carlin.
Instead, the troubled souls in Anger Management are all less pleasingly complicated types, familiar to sitcoms current and past: the cranky old man (Northern Exposure’s Barry Corbin), the sarcastic gay man (Michael Arden), the sexpot (Noureen Dewulf), and a dope (Derek Richardson) who likes goading other people. Charlie also has a second group of patients – a group of prison inmates he counsels – but that’s a tonally strange, unfunny subplot that will either have to be dropped or drastically overhauled, since its humor in the first two episodes involve awkward jokes about murder, gay sex, or rape.
When Anger Management was first announced, it seemed like a logical fit for FX, home of raunchy-guy humor to be found in programming such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League. But it turns out, Anger is pretty tame stuff. As overseen by showrunner Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show), Anger is a conventionally constructed show, and Sheen delivers his lines with snap; it’s the writing that’s dully vague. Sheen and Helford don’t have a fix on this Charlie, on what he’s supposed to be. With Newhart, you had a first-rate stand-up comic working with producers such as David Davis and Lorenzo Music who knew how to meld Newhart’s persona to the sitcom format to yield aspects of the comic’s personality that hadn’t been revealed before.
Sheen, by contrast, seems to be working out, on-camera, from scene to scene, what his character will eventually become. One moment, he’s a horny lothario; the next, he’s an affable guy genuinely trying to put his patients at ease. Most of the time, however, he’s a bundle of varied frustrations. The jokes are scattershot and sloppy.
In the second episode, Charlie expresses frustration at cooking spaghetti. “There are no instructions for spaghetti,” he says. “It’s like doorknobs; you’re just supposed to know what to do.” Huh? That line barely tracks, for either sense or grammar.
The most promising dynamic is the one that, so far, looks as though it’ll be the most downplayed: Charlie’s relationship with his ex-wife (it’s rather difficult to imagine why he wouldn’t get along with Smith’s character — what’s not to like about her?) and his daughter, who has a behavioral tic used as a recurring joke: OCD. Not too many laffs to be mined from an adolescent with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I wouldn’t have thought, and none seem to have occurred to the writers thus far.
Far be it from me to suggest that his show would benefit from more Sheen-derived wildness, but at the least, the star needs to bring Anger Management up to his level of talent, if not extracurricular intensity. Sheen and Helford may have the luxury to nurture their Anger into a better show, given the report that if the first episodes reach a certain undisclosed ratings threshold, the series will be picked up for a syndication-sweet 90 half-hours.