Does Two and a Half Men minus Charlie Sheen equal zero?
Executives at CBS and Warner Bros. TV — who on February 24 decided to shut down production for the remainder of the season — are just beginning to sift through the carnage left in the wake of Sheen's tirades, in which the actor trashed his boss, Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre, among other targets. But so far, the prognosis isn't good for TV's most-watched comedy.
Every time Sheen throws another slur at Lorre — whose given name is Charles Michael Levine, even though Sheen insists on calling him "Chaim" — the door to a ninth season ofthe show comes closer to shutting for good.
"This contaminated little maggot can't handle my power and can't handle the truth," Sheen wrote in an e-mail to the website TMZ, referring to Lorre. "I wish him nothing but pain in his silly travels, especially if they wind up in my octagon. Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words — imagine what I would have done with my fire-breathing fists."
And Sheen's Media Tour of Destruction has just begun: The actor spoke at length with both ABC News and NBC News over the weekend, leading to a race between both news organizations to see who could get their interview on air first. (Both Today and Good Morning America promised Sheen chats on Monday, while ABC also scheduled a special Sheen-focused 20/20 on Tuesday.)
"I am on a drug — it's called Charlie Sheen," an animated Sheen said to ABC News reporter Andrea Canning, as seen in a promo that ran several times during Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony. "I've one speed, I've one gear, 'go'! And I dare you to keep up with me."
Warner Bros. TV and CBS have had ample time to ponder life without Sheen on Two and a Half Men. Just last year, Sheen threatened to not sign a new deal to stay on the show before ultimately agreeing to come back in a contract that increased his earnings to $1.8 million per episode (including profit participation). With Two and a Half Men shut down, Sheen won't be collecting a paycheck from the studio — but neither will anyone else on the show, including costars Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones. The decision not to produce the series' final eight episodes of the season also puts Two and a Half Men's crew out of work, while most of the series' writers have been moved to other shows, including Lorre's Mike & Molly.
Warner Bros. TV and CBS have two months to make their decision on the show's ultimate fate, before the fall schedules are announced in May. In the meantime, CBS will have to figure out what to do with the key Monday 9 p.m. slot. Reruns of Men perform well enough that the network can stick with the status quo for now; but by May, CBS will likely want to move another show in originals to that time slot. (Additional episodes of Rules of Engagement and Mike & Molly have been ordered to fill the void.)
Long-term, the studio and network could consider keeping Two and a Half Men going with a new star opposite Cryer and Jones; Sheen isn't the only actor who can play a lovable lothario after all. And there's plenty of precedent for primetime replacements: ABC kept 8 Simple Rules going after star John Ritter died, and tapped Sheen to replace Michael J. Fox on Spin City.
But as Sheen shows no sign of backing down from his attacks on the show and Lorre, the network and studio might opt to throw in the towel all together. CBS has already locked in a ninth season of Two and a Half Men, but they've gotten a sense that Sheen has no intention of changing his behavior. "The guy's unhinged," says one studio insider. "It's scary."
The loss of Two and a Half Men would sting, but wouldn't be devastating. There are already eight seasons of the sitcom in the can, and it's poised to be a billion-dollar asset for Warner Bros. Men is now in its second cycle of syndication, netting more than $1 million an episode from TV stations, and the studio receives another $850,000 an episode from FX, which runs repeats on cable. There's also every indication that Two and a Half Men will continue to print money for the studio, in the same vein of classics like Seinfeld.
With that future already secure, executives might want to end the show now rather than potentially hurt that value by introducing a lesser product sans Sheen (or keeping it going while Sheen throws fireballs in public).
Warner Bros. TV would take a financial hit if the show wrapped now, as it would no longer have any additional episodes to sell. CBS is in much better shape, having made a nice profit in the series' first five years, before the price tag for Two and a Half Men skyrocketed.
It's also generally true that a program this late in its life sees its ratings erode, which means Two and a Half Men's best days on CBS may already be behind it. (During Sheen's escapades, however, the show continued to hold up in the ratings.) The network thankfully still has another megahit in The Big Bang Theory, also from Lorre. Should Two and a Half Men not continue, it would put a crimp in CBS' plans to keep its Thursday-night comedy beachhead, as the network might need to move Big Bang back to Mondays in order to secure its dominance on the night.
Troubled stars are nothing new in Hollywood, and the Two and a Half Men star is hardly the only actor that CBS and Warner Bros. TV executives have had to set straight over the years. Yet Sheen may be the most stubborn — and his meltdown has easily been the most public. Even before Sheen's latest comments, addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky told TV Guide Magazine that he found Sheen's erratic behavior to be troubling, and not the sign of someone in proper recovery. "It's very manic, very grandiose," Pinsky says, noting that delusions of grandeur are common symptoms of cocaine addiction. (And indeed, Sheen's claims that HBO was about to hand him $5 million an episode to host a TV show were roundly dismissed by the pay-TV channel.) "I'm deeply concerned," Pinsky adds. "It's hard to watch."
Lorre hasn't said much publicly about Sheen's problems. But the producer did address Sheen's behavior via the production vanity card seen at the end of Two and a Half Men — which is what later set Sheen off. "I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't have crazy, reckless sex with strangers," Lorre wrote. "If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed."
The decision to shut down Two and a Half Men didn't come lightly. In fact, the network and studio were roundly criticized for keeping the show running while Sheen's increasingly intoxicated exploits hit the tabloids. In early January, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler defended the decision to continue production, even after Sheen's meltdown in an NYC hotel.
"They have no real power, short of stopping the entire production," says Pinsky. "I'd be much more concerned about his managers and agents, who aren't using whatever leverage they have to get him the proper care."
Pinsky says Sheen may have a clause in his contract demanding that production continues as long as he's fit to perform. That would explain why Sheen consistently says he's willing to show up to work — and why it's possible that the actor may sue the studio and network in an attempt to force the production to resume.
But Sheen's recent comments and behavior likely gave Warner Bros. TV plenty of legal cover to shut things down.
Although CBS and Warner Bros. regularly told Sheen that they were unhappy with his behavior, it took a January trip to the emergency room after one particular 36-hour bender for his bosses to lay down the law — and demand the star return to rehab. Sheen, no stranger to rehab programs, opted to get help at home instead.
"A doctor can do detox and can stabilize him psychiatrically, and that will put the lid on things for a few months. But there will be further trouble ahead," says Pinsky, who believes Sheen needs three months of immersive and intensive rehab, followed by six to nine months of residential treatment, to kick his problems. "It's common for someone who had long-term sobriety, and then a relapse, to decide [traditional rehab] is not for them."
Warner Bros., CBS and Lorre nonetheless signed off on his in-house plan, hiring a team of professionals to monitor Sheen's condition. Those specialists gave the go-ahead in mid-February to start the show back up.
"It's not behavior you can show a tolerance to, and you deal with the fact that you're paying talent a lot of money so that they conduct themselves appropriately," says one insider. "Unfortunately what you can't do is give [talent] a will to be healthy. Somewhere a human being has to find that."
Back in the late 1990s, another one of Lorre's shows, Grace Under Fire, was forced to shut down due to star Brett Butler's struggle with addiction. (Coincidentally, Butler and Sheen also share the same manager, Mark Burg.) Like Sheen, Butler at first was able to keep functioning on the set. But her misbehavior eventually became a problem for all involved: Butler burned through five executive producers — including Lorre — and two costars before the show was finally canceled.
"I disappointed people that I respect," Butler, now 12 years sober, tells TV Guide Magazine. "There's a lot I wish I had done differently... I still feel awful for the people I worked with."
Butler recalls lashing out at people after being forced into rehab, and says she continued on a downward spiral for another six months after Grace Under Fire was canceled. Finally she got help. "I had to want to stop," she says. "It's amazing that I didn't die."
In 1996, when Frasier star Kelsey Grammer flipped his Dodge Viper (a gift from his network and studio) after a night of partying, NBC and Paramount TV executives — along with the show's cast and producers — didn't just ship him off to rehab, they staged a full intervention.
"That [crash] was a massive sign that we had a problem," says one exec who took part. "We realized he could have killed himself. We quickly put together a team and a plan."
By the end of the intervention, Grammer agreed to be escorted straight to rehab. After that, the actor shaped up and Frasier never faced another shutdown.
On Friends, star Matthew Perry struggled with an addiction to painkillers and took some time off from the show to get help. "You're suddenly very much aware that this is just a TV show, and what's most important is what's best for the person in trouble," says former Friends executive producer David Crane.
Among other stars, Robert Downey Jr. was forced to drop out of the animated series God, the Devil and Bob (he was replaced by Alan Cumming) when he entered rehab. In earlier years, Lauren Tewes (who played Julie, Your Cruise Director) was forced off Love Boat and Howard Rollins was yanked off In the Heat of the Night because of their addictions.
And it's not just actors who have faced the music. Aaron Sorkin battled addiction during the early run of The West Wing, and got arrested for possessing drugs at the Burbank airport.
Ultimately, many entertainment-industry execs say there's a limit to what they can do when a troubled star manages to show up and perform. "So much of it comes down to them and whether they really want to change the situation," says one producer. And Sheen, who has struggled with addiction for years, appears to believe that he's got things under control.
But Sheen may be the only one under that impression. Says one insider: "Will Charlie ever be entirely sober? I don't know."
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