Monday, March 14, 2011

Characters With Character

Now that Charlie Sheen is fired, I don't see how the sitcom Two and a Half Men can possibly continue. They'll probably try it, but the circle is broken. That perfect set of characteristic characters can't be rearranged.

The production company has a few choices, equally bad. They can try One and a Half Men, maybe by adding a permanent leading lady beside Alan, the remaining brother, making it One and a Half Men and a Woman. Or they could make a spinoff based on Alan, which would probably be pretty much the same.

But really, this sitcom has reached its end. It would have, anyway, even with Charlie Sheen still on the boat. Sitcoms have their limited time span. No matter how much fun they are at first, a joke can just be repeated so many times. A setting can't be explored forever. Repetition is the certain killer of any work of art.

Enhance and Exaggerate
Two and a Half Men was a brilliant piece of work, though. Very character driven, with very enhanced characters. That's a basic principle of drama – enhance and exaggerate. Find the extremes. It was done excellently in this sitcom.

Charlie is the completely irresponsible playboy, not to say sociopath, surviving by his bad boy charm only. His brother is his absolute opposite – neurotically responsible, terribly boring, and yet struggling to somehow be a kind of Charlie. The boy Jake is the pestilence version of a kid, with no forgiving features, endured only because of his young age.

The women are just as twisted. Evelyn, the mother of the two men, is a terrifying combination of Lady Macbeth and Snow White's stepmother, surviving on her Machiavellian skills alone. The housekeeper Bertha is sort of the same, in a bigger version, ruthlessly using her ability to keep the men dependent on her. Another Machiavellian woman is Judith, the ex wife of Alan, making her own needs the axis of her world. Charlie's one night stand Rose is stepping lightly on the border to psychopathy.

Actually, these women in the show are all the same, but in different perspectives.

No one of those main characters is the least bit normal, or for that matter sane. They form extremes that must collide with noise and absurdity ensuing. They would do that on their own, since each character contains an inner conflict with no foreseeable solution.

Charlie in his freedom suffers from the lack of commitment, and secretly longs for the orderly life that Alan repeatedly tries and fails with. Alan is stuck in the conflict of doing the right thing, but still trying to get ahead, wondering why he is the only one regarding himself as commendable.



Jake Is the Key
Jake is sort of the key. He wants to be Charlie, but is most likely to grow up to Alan, although without his manners. The two men compete about his admiration, in spite of the fact that none of them has much respect for him. That way, he is a symbol of the futility of their lives. The most they can get is admiration from someone they are unable to admire.

The core of the structure of this drama – and every comedy has to be a drama at heart, preferably a tragedy – is the continuous struggle of Charlie and Alan to reach self-respect, which can only happen if Jake transforms into the ideal version of them. A Charlie type ladies' man but with sincere compassion, and an Alan type do-gooder but without self-righteousness. Thereby, the boy would show the men how they need to transform. C. G. Jung would approve.

That makes this sitcom character driven to a rarely seen extent.

They Do What They Have To
This is a good ideal for a sitcom, but hardly for drama in general, which should be driven by actions and events – so that people do what they have to and their characters evolve from that. In a well-written drama, the fates of the characters could be exchanged, and the outcome would still be the same.

For example, it's not that Romeo is Romeo and Juliet is Juliet leading to the disaster, but the fact that they happen to belong to families in a bitter feud. Any other couple would experience the same fate in the same situation. That's the premise, and that's what makes the tragedy relevant to us all.

Aristotle expressed it so that the characters of the play should do what the have to, what they can't avoid doing. Their actions should be ruled by circumstance, and not by their characters.

In a way, this is what takes place in Two and a Half Men. Charlie and Alan are explained by their past and the situation they are presently in. If Alan would have been the older brother, everything would be different. Also if they were not stuck under the same roof, and so on.

Their characters are explained by their background, and so are their actions. Otherwise it would be hard to make them at all believable, and we would be unable to relate to them.

Normal Women
Anyway, if Charlie Sheen had not been fired, the sitcom would still fade out soon. Repetition is a killer, although sometimes slow about it. Also, the producers tend to give any sitcom its coup de grâce, unknowingly, by changing it in order to keep it popular. That tempts them to deviate from its dramatic base and premises, so the audience deserts it.

There have been such tendencies already. For example, whenever Charlie has a serious love interest spanning several episodes, it's with a character without significant characteristics. They are “normal” women, who therefore seem alien in this setting. It doesn't work.

Any love interest of Charlie's must be as absurd as he is, or we see no connection. The women he adores are boring visits from drab reality. In a comedy, we couldn't care less.

Another threat to the survival of the sitcom, recognizable from many others with a family theme – and that's just about all of them – is the unavoidable continued growth of Angus T. Jones, who plays the boy Jake. He will not be a boy forever.

Jake is an essential part of this sitcom drama, perfectly played by Jones, without whom the two men would forever be at each other's throat. As he grows up, it will be more and more difficult for Charlie and Alan to keep him as a sort of common ground, and the main motor of the drama will be lost. It will turn into Grumpy Old Men.

So, let's not weep the sudden end of this sitcom. Better this than a slow decline ending in tedium.

Here are the first eight seasons on DVD at Amazon

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