Around six months ago, anyone within range of any form of communications technology was aware of the accelerated descent into the Heart of Darkness undertaken by actor Charlie Sheen; best known for his role as an alcoholic narcissist on CBS' "Half-Hour Assault On Your Cerebrum," alternatively referred to as Two and a Half Men.
To suggest that major media gave Sheen's self-destruction regular coverage would be an underestimation on par with Chamberlain's views on Hitler at Munich. Night after night, day after day, we were treated to updates on Sheen's descent into the abyss, while scores died in suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rebels lined for war with Gaddafi.
Why did the breakdown of a marginally talented sitcom star warrant so much attention in the media? And, far more unsettling and importantly, why couldn't we look away?
Sheen, as we all know, discovered fairly early on an efficacious manner in which to profit from his firing from "Two and a Half Brain Cells." In the span of a couple of weeks, he gained a legion Twitter following (of which, it must be admitted, this writer was a part), and subsequently booked a cross-continental "tour" to capitalize on his newfound public reverence.
The oft-quoted analogy of the "train wreck" -- as in, we see it coming, but for seemingly-visceral reasons we cannot look away - applies here, of course. So too does the stereotypical "rock-star" fantasy that holds such allure for so many of us: on occasion, it seems downright pleasant to drink, smoke, and screw into oblivion. But throughout Charlie Sheen's very public nervous breakdown, some of us couldn't escape the thought that there was something different -- something downright wrong -- going on here, however elusive its precise nature was from our grasp initially.
Many of us found what we'd been looking for on or around the first night of the prolonged-snuff-film Sheen called his "Violent Torpedo of Truth Tour." In Detroit, the actor mocked his audience -- "I already got your money, dude!" -- when the audience booed and hissed its way through a night of what only the sadists among us might refer to as "comedy." Sheen's act stunk, but what stunk even more was that he was right. Charlie had our money, dude. And for what?
We consumed Charlie Sheen with such voracity for reasons extending beyond escapism, and skilful marketing. It seemed as if the late-capitalist world had its first "rock star" who was completely devoid of irony, painfully self-aware, and almost entirely bereft of substance. Perhaps we consumed Sheen because we are the generation that can recognize most clearly the Charlie Sheen within ourselves -- that compulsion to drink, smoke, and fuck up everyone and everything we see because we possess the means to do so -- but it came to horrify us. Sheen's un-humanity eventually produced a violent shudder in the entertainment-drenched bowels of our hyper-stimulated, hyper-consumptive systems; our humanistic impulses finally engaging amidst an onslaught of pure and unadulterated public displays of selfishness.
Look at photos from some of the audience members that night in Detroit; that most ravaged city by changing patterns in consumption and production, as well as public entertainment. Some appear almost shell-shocked -- we paid for this?
Beginning earlier this month, Charlie Sheen has attempted to make a less theatric, if more cognitively-disengaged return to the spotlight in the form of sedate awards show appearances, and late-night humility. However for many of us, the memory of the psycho-spiritual nightmare we endured at his hands earlier in the year lives on. Charlie got our money.
Let's take it back.