It’s fair to say that the most impressive feat Two and a Half Men pulled off is that it existed for so long: 12 seasons and 262 episodes, from Charlie Sheen to Ashton Kutcher, with a little bit of Amber Tamblyn thrown in. Since 2003, it has transformed from Two and a Half Men to Two and a Half Different Men to Two Men and a Kid Who Skypes From the Military to Two Men and a Random Lesbian to, finally, Two Straight Men Who Are Married to Each Other. It’s a sitcom that is simple but never makes any sense. It’s universally despised by culture critics, and the easiest of punch lines to jokes about the worst of television. But it’s also one of the most popular comedies on any broadcast network, ranking in the top 20 for its first 10 seasons. Who’s watching a despised program that is aggressively redundant and gleefully misogynistic, and just churned out a final season that is basically one 16-episode-long gay joke? As it turns out, millions and millions of people watched. And I was one of them.
As something of a defense: I have a compulsion when it comes to television, an obsessive nature where I have to finish every show that I start watching or else I feel a constant itch that I can’t reach. In 2008, while sick in bed, I made the fever-delirious mistake of watching the first few episodes and spent the following week watching five seasons. Since then, I’ve watched every new episode on a weekly basis — it’s actually been kind of nice knowing that I can easily predict what the lowest 22 minutes of my week will be. It’s the only comedy series that I’ve watched where I never — not even once — laughed at a single joke. Anytime I’ve come close was due less to humor and more to patent absurdity: a CSI crossover episode, or a visit from Chuck Lorre’s other creations Dharma and Greg. This compulsion makes me more familiar with Two and a Half Men than the vast majority of detractors who endlessly poke fun at its awfulness. I still agree that it’s terrible.
Yet after watching multiple episodes, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular — and why I kept going to the next episode immediately after one ended. Two and a Half Men has a very simplistic setup: Alan (Jon Cryer, who has won two Emmys for this role) gets a divorce and moves in with his rich, boozy, druggie brother Charlie (Charlie Sheen), bringing along his son Jake (Angus T. Jones, who later decried the immorality of the series). Alan is a pathetic, broke loser who drinks girly drinks and therefore becomes the butt of countless gay jokes. Charlie is a womanizer who drinks Scotch for breakfast and shrugs off his multiple threesomes. In one episode, Alan and Charlie squabble and then go have sex with women. In another episode, Alan and Charlie squabble and then go have sex with women. This continues for about eight seasons, until Charlie Sheen is replaced with Ashton Kutcher. Enter Walden Schmidt (Kutcher), another rich and attractive guy. He and Alan squabble and then go have sex with women. Soon, Jake leaves the series and is replaced by Jenny (Amber Tamblyn), a lesbian for no other reason than this show demands that every main character sexualizes women, even when they are women themselves.
The most (and again, only) fascinating thing about Two and a Half Men is that all of the critical complaints are about the same notes that make it popular. The very point of the show is that there isn’t anything intelligent or deep happening; you won’t miss anything if you skip a week, or even a season. It also means that it appeals to viewers who don’t necessarily demand complex story lines but instead are happy to keep their sitcoms simple, to be told when to laugh and for how long. You don’t have to be in on the joke to get the joke. Two and a Half Men is popular because it’s pure escapism. Men — and I’m sure some women — love to entertain the notion that maybe they, too, can be Charlie Harper, a man who wears a bowling shirt and khaki shorts but manages to get every single woman he glances at. They want the fat royalty checks for doing minimum work (Charlie wrote cheesy jingles; Walden is an Internet billionaire), they want the huge beach house with the beautiful view of the ocean. But those things aren’t attainable, of course, so instead we watch these characters every week, patiently wading through the endless jokes about Alan’s impotence or Charlie’s collection of STDs.
Two and Half Men hit a new low every season and then continued to sink even further underground. During this last season, the show went off the rails in terms of absurdity and offensiveness. After a death scare, Walden decides that he wants to adopt a child and, since he’d have more luck if he were married, he and Alan decide to wed and adopt the child together. What follows are a plethora of obvious jokes, mostly at Alan’s expense — no one is surprised that he married a man; they all assumed he was gay already — as he girlishly demands a fancy wedding, fawns over his new husband, and brags about Walden’s attractiveness to everyone he can. Isn’t that funny, these two straight men playing gay for a roaring laugh track? It’s as low as the show can go but then, again, it goes lower. They successfully adopt a child who is now in the home of two con artists. When their lie is discovered by their social worker, Ms. McMartin — she stops by on a day when Walden is, what else, having sex with a woman — Alan’s solution is to then sleep with Ms. McMartin. It works until they break up. In danger of losing their son again, this time Walden sleeps with her. This is the sort of plot you’d make up for a purposely terrible fake sitcom, but it’s one that Two and a Half Men trotted out proudly over multiple episodes. It’s so bad that it’s impressively bulletproof — how can critics try to make sense out of this nonsensical narrative without throwing up their hands and simply giving up?
Take last night’s two-part series finale, “Of Course He’s Dead.” In lieu of wrapping up any story lines or providing glimpses into the future of these characters that fans have spent years with, it instead provided something of creator Chuck Lorre’s revenge fantasy. The entire hour was dedicated to the out-of-nowhere idea that Charlie — killed in France, per an explanation in Season 9 — was still alive. We learn that he has spent the last four years living in a dungeon built by his former stalker turned current wife turned kidnapper (long story; not worth it) and now, recently escaped, he plans to kill both Alan and Walden. Charlie’s after Walden because he took over Charlie’s life (and house), and after Alan because, in Alan’s words, “He thought I was more of a supporting character in his life, but it turns out I was more of a co-lead” — one of the many meta jokes sprinkled throughout the two episodes. Sheen himself never shows up,[foonote]Lorre tried to get him involved, at least.[/footnote] but a look-alike does (shot only from behind) and, suddenly, we see a piano, absurdly delivered by a helicopter, fall down and crush him to death. The camera pans back to break the fourth wall and reveal a smirking Lorre in a director’s chair. He sneers,“Winning,” before he, too, is crushed by a piano. That’s it. That is the impossibly lame way the show ended after 12 seasons, once again offering something so ridiculous it defies scrutiny.
Two and a Half Men transcended hate-watching and found a loophole in the system: It became so unequivocally terrible that hardly any critics stuck around to watch it long enough and analyze how awful it was, instead checking in only periodically (such as the Season 9 premiere when Kutcher arrived). Two and a Half Men, for all of its stereotypical sitcom tropes, was actually a rarity in that it managed to escape weekly critical scrutiny. It was a show that existed solely for the people who loved it intensely, and who didn’t need the Internet to validate their opinion. The writers crafted a show that belonged to the fans — not the critics. And then they started dropping pianos on everybody.
Pilot Viruet (@pilotbacon) is the TV editor at Flavorwire and has written for The A.V. Club, Vulture, and The Hairpin.