June 29, 2012

TV: Anger Management (FX, Thu 9:30)

FX has been advertising its new Charlie Sheen sitcom Anger Management for weeks now, with a campaign built around Sheen's own image. It's not as if that's a new stunt for Sheen; his characters have been rooted in his public persona -- the reckless rogue, the lovable rascal, the charming womanizer -- going back at least as far as Major League.

But the last year has been a rough one for Sheen, with his behavior going beyond reckless to frighteningly self-destructive, leading to his unceremonious dumping from Two and a Half Men. So how do you build a comedy around a guy whose public reputation borders on toxic? If you're FX, you clean him up as much as possible and present the nicest possible version of Charlie Sheen that you can create. The sad truth, though, is the nicest possible Charlie Sheen is still a pretty loathesome guy.

Anger Management borrows its title (and not much more) from the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson movie. Sheen stars as Charlie Goodson, a former minor-league baseball player whose anger issues ruined his one shot at the majors; he went back to school and now works as an anger management counselor. This sets up a sort of Bob Newhart Show vibe, in which we follow Charlie's personal life and his professional life (conveniently, and cheaply, he does his therapy sessions in his living room, requiring only one set).

Regardless of how you feel about Sheen and his personal issues, he's a talented and successful sitcom actor. He carried Spin City for two years after the departure of Michael J. Fox, and until his personal life fell apart, did fine work on Two and a Half Men. He's got a nice deadpan delivery, and gives as good a reaction shot as anyone on TV.

And he's surrounded by a talented cast, including veterans like Barry Corbin (the obligatory grumpy old man in the therapy group), Brett Butler (Charlie's bartender), Michael Boatman (the next-door neighbor), Selma Blair (Charlie's best friend, his own therapist, and his occasional lover), and Shawnee Smith (his ex-wife).

You will notice a lot of female names in that list; this version of the Charlie Sheen character has better relationships with women than any previous version. He gets along well with his ex and their teenage daughter; he has a reasonably mature relationship with his pal/therapist (by Sheen standards, at least); he and his bartender have a nice friendly bantering relationship. Yeah, he's still chasing the hot chicks and flirting with every cutie who crosses his path, but hey, that's just Charlie! and for the most part, it's marginally less vulgar and tacky than it's been in Sheen's other work.

But "for the most part," unfortunately, isn't "always," and when the show does go sleazy, as it did in the second episode of last night's two-episode premiere, it becomes the most viciously misogynistic thing I've seen on television. That episode is centered around Kerri Kenney as a woman who had once been Charlie's "slumpbuster" -- a baseball superstition says that you get out of a hitting slump by sleeping wth the ugliest woman you can find -- and every joke in the episode is built around her unattractiveness or her stupidity. It's an entire half hour that's nothing but variations on "she's a stupid pig," and it completely destroyed the goodwill that the first episode had earned.

It's a shame, because there's a lot of talent here. The actors are talented, and while the writing isn't brilliant or surprising, it plays to Sheen's strenghts and will surely keep his fans happy. Anger Management isn't a particularly ambitious show -- it doesn't attempt the formal innovation of Community or even Modern Family -- and if you remember producer Bruce Helford's earlier sitcoms, which starred people like Drew Carey and Norm McDonald, then you have a good idea what you're getting here. It's an old-fashioned style that calls for a fairly predictable setup-punchline "ba DUM bum" rhythm; the cast delivers the material well enough that you can almost forget that it's B-grade shtick at best.

But there is an ugliness at the core of the show that, at the risk of delving into armchair psychology, may be the ugliness at the core of Sheen himself. Try as hard as he might, he can't resist turning the show into an exercise in the degradation of others.

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