Famous people who go spectacularly off the rails frequently have to hire high-priced PR firms and spin doctors to repair their public image.
You may think I should just review the show and not talk about Sheen's history. But Sheen has been playing himself for a long time -- he's the one who's essentially asked audiences to conflate his public identity and the characters that have padded his bank account for decades.
So it's not really possible to discuss "Anger Management" without pointing out that it's lucrative spin control disguised as a traditional sitcom. In the show, Sheen plays a therapist named Charlie who has many women in his life: An understanding ex-wife (who is still understanding after Charlie menaces her boyfriend with a lamp), a sweet daughter who looks to him for guidance, a friends-with-benefits fellow therapist, a woman in his therapy group with rage issues, etc.
The interactions with these women are all designed to make Charlie look magnanimous, wise and kind. And because audiences frequently transfer the feelings they have about a character to the actor playing that character, this repulsive show will no doubt go a long way toward solidifying Sheen's image as a harmless party boy (an image that the media is all too willing to go along with), and erase the image of Sheen as a man who has repeatedly been accused of being violent toward women.
Yet despite the careful attention to image enhancement possibilities, the core ugliness and toxic narcissism of "Anger Management" are impossible to ignore. The second episode revolves around the sexual humiliation of a woman who commits the crimes of 1) Being over 30 and 2) Not being a pneumatic fembot. The idea is that we're meant to find Charlie generous for controlling his revulsion whenever he's around this woman, who continually begs Charlie to sexually and personally validate her.
The similarly unfunny first episode finds Charlie failing to keep a lid on his anger with his ex-wife's boyfriend, and yes, Charlie Sheen's return to television finds him on the point of physically attacking another human being. But it's the "apology" for the near-attack on the boyfriend that is truly telling.
"If you knew the shame and humiliation this has caused me," Charlie says. Well, sure, menacing and physically threatening behaviors are always about how those things hurt the aggressor, aren't they?
The bigger issue is this: How is getting paid to say sitcom lines atoning for anything Sheen has done? There's this idea of redemption floating around in much of the coverage of Sheen's return -- the notion that he's "atoning" or somehow making up for a long history of thuggish behavior.
Let me be clear: If Sheen wants to continue to act, that's fine. I never expected him to end his career after his various scandals and non-apology tours. But what he is doing now is not for the benefit of anyone but himself and the companies bankrolling him. Acting in a lazy, stiff, laugh-track sitcom is Charlie Sheen doing something for himself and his corporate partners. That's all. He's being paid to appear in a program about a character who achieves some kind of personal growth.
And are we so jaded at this point that we are willing to accept the facsimile of enlightenment for the real thing?
To receive a check to burnish one's own image is not in any dictionary under the word "atonement," which is defined as reparation for an offense or injury. The greatest injury Charlie Sheen has done to our culture is to minimize violence against women and treat it like just another "boys will be boys" bit of silliness. It's not.
If Charlie Sheen truly wanted to atone, he'd be working at a domestic violence shelter, donating to charities that empower women, going on a speaking tour to convince the young men who idolize him that they should treat women with respect, or thinking up his own ways of using his fame to express regret for his offhand sexism and his repeated physical altercations with women.
What he does in his personal life is his business, but it can't be denied that he's never really used his celebrity to apologize or educate in any substantial way. And what's likely happen here is that, by playing a guy who's learning to be nicer, Charlie Sheen will get a bump in public approval and many, many paychecks from "Anger Management." So it goes. Commerce sometimes trumps all other concerns, but that doesn't mean all of us have to go along with commercial desires to paper over ugly and entitled attitudes.
I'm especially dismayed by the willingness of many of my colleagues in the media to just roll over and accept the premise that there should be no consequences, or even hard questions, for Sheen's history of menacing women and his casual disregard of anyone who questions his conduct. Are we still so distracted by tiger blood that we can completely ignore everything Sheen's done? But I must have missed the memo that went out -- the one that apparently states that if a female performer says one mildly controversial thing, she should be pilloried (paging Katherine Heigl); if a female creator has an non-diverse cast, she should be ripped apart (see Lena Dunham); and if a female performer is late to the "Glee" set, then my God, it's on par with a constitutional crisis.
Charlie Sheen has done far worse, and his "far worse" involves repeated physical altercations with other human beings and a series of flippant dismissals of the causes and consequences of those actions. I don't care what substances he takes or what idiotic philosophies he espouses on his own time; it's a free country, he can do what he wants to himself and be as dumb as he chooses to be in whatever setting he feels most comfortable.
But the free pass he continually gets for being the poster boy for misogyny -- I just don't understand it. The corporations involved in "Anger Management" are at least getting money out of Sheen's on-air image enhancement. Some in the press are giving out the same bros-will-be-bros spin for free, which is, frankly, pathetic.
Whoever "Anger Management" benefits -- and it certainly won't be viewers used to FX's usual scripted fare -- whole enterprise is really just image management.
Nice work if you can get it.
Note: Ryan McGee and I discussed "Anger Management" in this week's Talking TV podcast, in addition to "The Newsroom," "Girls," "Louie," "Weeds," "Wilfred" and "Awkward." It's available here and embedded below.
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