It all came down to the wire, yet CBS, Warner Bros. TV and creator/executive producer Chuck Lorre pulled it off: Two and a Half Men will be back in the fall, and with a new star: sitcom veteran Ashton Kutcher.
Kutcher is set to take the Carnegie Hall stage on May 18 as CBS presents its post-Charlie Sheen plan to advertisers. It's a major coup for the show, as CBS wasn't about to announce the return of Two and a Half Men without a plan firmly in place.
It almost didn't happen. After Sheen self-imploded and was fired from Two and a Half Men in March, the studio, network and Lorre began looking at ways to evolve the show. "From the beginning, Chuck had been keen on formulating a plan and a new character," says one insider.
But the clock was ticking. Lorre and Co. aimed high. "They were going after movie stars," a source says. Lorre was following the model of sitcom Spin City, which replaced star Michael J. Fox in 2000 with a film actor — coincidentally, Sheen.
Red herrings started appearing in the press: names such as Bob Saget, John Stamos and Jeremy Piven. "All the names speculated were totally wrong," the source says. From the very beginning, Kutcher was on Lorre's short list. The idea had big merits. He was a sitcom vet, having spent eight seasons on Fox's That '70s Show. Both he and Lorre got their first big career breaks inside venerable sitcom powerhouse Carsey-Werner, the studio behind That '70s Show, as well as Roseanne, Cybill and Grace Under Fire (three shows where Lorre cut his teeth).
According to New York magazine's website, Vulture, it was CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler who first broached the idea with Kutcher's lawyer, her old friend Robert Offer. But rather than put their eggs in one basket, Lorre, CBS and Warner Bros. TV were pursuing different tracks with three actors, including Hugh Grant. The idea of Grant had its internal fans, and would have dramatically changed the direction of Two and a Half Men. Grant also might have avoided many direct comparisons to Sheen because of his completely different, self-deprecating acting style. But there were also insiders who felt that Kutcher made more sense, given his ease on a multicamera sitcom stage.
Ultimately, Grant passed. "He got cold feet at the last minute," says one insider close to the talks, and Kutcher became a front-runner.
The actor also comes with serious social-media cred, having garnered nearly 7 million followers on Twitter. And his production company, Katalyst, is already set up at Warner Bros. TV's Warner Horizon division. Before that, Katalyst was based at CBS TV Studios, so Kutcher has worked closely with both companies for years.
For Kutcher, the high-profile gig makes sense for other reasons: His film career has generated only so-so results. This winter's No Strings Attached garnered a decent $71 million at the box office, but last summer's Killers was a flop. Plus, the stakes are relatively low: If Two and a Half Men stays strong, he's a hero. If not, viewers simply don't want to watch without Sheen.
Kutcher will also become one of the highest-paid stars in prime time, pulling down between $625,000 and $700,000 an episode (Sheen was earning $1.3 million an episode). "Ashton knows it's a good gig," says one insider.
"I think it's a really good idea," adds a rival network executive. "He's a guy that people like. I think people definitely will want to check it out."
Media analyst Steve Sternberg believes a Kutcher-led Men will get big sampling early on, but he harbors doubt about its long-term health: "I'm not sure Ashton Kutcher is as popular as the media thinks," he says. "His recent movies have not performed well...[but] it could just be that he's best-suited for TV."
In a statement, Kutcher said, "I'm going to work my ass off to entertain the hell out of people. "Lorre, meanwhile, called him "talented, joyful and just plain remarkable."
And what about Sheen? He told website TMZ that he believed the show would collapse in the younger demographics, and he warned Kutcher about Lorre: "Enjoy planet Chuck, Ashton. There is no air, laughter, loyalty or love there." But there is a job, and Kutcher will be there, on Monday nights this fall.