It's Week 3 of work on the Two and a Half Men set, and Ashton Kutcher is still getting to know his costars. Conversation drifts toward mobile phones, and Kutcher reveals there's a feature on the iPhone 5 that Apple internally calls "The Kutcher."
What's "The Kutcher"? "An in-mail editable text expander," the actor explains. Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones are dumbfounded. "Jon, how many times did we have this same conversation with Charlie?" jokes 17-year-old Jones. Cryer quips back: "All the time. He was always talking about the new spellcheck on the iPhone."
Two and a Half Men, as you knew it, is dead. Long live Two and a Half Men. The "Charlie" that Jones refers to, of course, is Charlie Sheen, whose extremely public meltdown last season forced CBS, Warner Bros. Television and creator Chuck Lorre to pull the plug on both him and the show.
The existence of Two and a Half Men's ninth season this fall is thanks to a combination of tenacity and serendipity — including the fact that Kutcher was ready and so quickly willing to revisit the sitcom world.
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Sitting down for their first joint interview, Kutcher, Cryer and Jones admit they weren't sure if they could pull it off at first but now believe that this Men has legs. And Lorre, in his first public remarks since last winter, says the show has managed to become a "well-developed series and a brand-new one at the same time."
"Moving into somebody else's house is a scary thing," says Kutcher, who has initially agreed to just a one-year deal at around $700,000 per episode, which immediately makes him one of prime time's top earners. "Who knew what the dynamic would be and how everybody would feel? I wanted to make sure it was comfortable for everybody else and for myself. And I think we've already found that."
When Two and a Half Men returns from its lengthy hiatus on September 19, a lot will have changed. First of all, the reports are true: Charlie Harper is dead, killed in France under mysterious circumstances. Without divulging details, Lorre and the actors say the season premiere's dark humor is in line with what viewers have always expected from Men. "It's still a show that veers into the vaguely unacceptable," Lorre says. Cryer enthuses: "We're known for incredibly poor taste. We're aware of that. With pleasure."
And in Kutcher, the show's producers have found another willing party for those off-the-wall antics — including, the actors hint, a touch of nudity. "The writers had always felt that with me, they were dealing with an actor who had no pride and was pretty willing to do any ridiculous thing," Cryer enthuses. "Now they have two."
Kutcher plays Walden Schmidt, an Internet billionaire who's whip smart but lacking in social grace. Nursing a broken heart over his split with soon-to-be ex-wife Bridget (new recurring star Judy Greer), Walden buys Charlie's Malibu beach house. The extremely needy Walden, sensing instant companionship, convinces Alan (Cryer) and teenage son Jake (Jones) to stick around and continue to live in the compound they've called home for the past eight seasons.
"He's so maladroit socially, it allows me to form a sort of mentor relationship with him, which is, of course, ridiculous, because my character is such a mess as a human being," Cryer says. "I'm no longer the student, I'm the teacher. It's my Yoda moment."
Going through the motions like it's a new show — first table read, first photo shoot — led up to a first taping that Lorre describes as "electric." "The audience just went crazy," he says. "We were all giddy and humbled by the experience. It was one of the most memorable moments in my career."
The fact that things have worked out so smoothly belies Men's explosive winter. The show shut down production in January due to Sheen's personal problems — and Sheen was fired in March. (Sheen sued over his termination, which is now in arbitration.)
Then came the media circus, fueled in part by Sheen's antics. Cryer started getting chased everywhere for comment. "I couldn't drop my son off at his school bus in the morning without being crowded by photographers," he says. Sheen, meanwhile, called his former costar "a turncoat, a traitor, a troll" in one interview. "I have not heard from him," Cryer says now. "I don't even have his number. He still has mine."
As a minor, Jones says the press treated him more respectfully. The young actor returned to high school and mostly avoided the media crush. "I was preparing for my senior year and wasn't too worried about it either way," he says. "If I would go to an event, the questions were never ending. But they weren't chasing me at my bus stop."
That could have been the end of it — and at one point Cryer thought it was: "I honestly felt we had a great run. We could end it right here and I'd be grateful for the whole experience."
Instead, CBS and Warner Bros. waited for Lorre to figure out a new course. "It seemed like a shame not to try and keep this incredible ensemble, writing staff and crew together," Lorre says. "And yes, there were many times I thought the show would stumble to an ignoble ending."
For more with Lorre and the cast of Two and a Half Men, pick up this week's Fall Preview issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, September 8! (Check out the cover below!)