I have to say that until last week I couldn’t care less about Two and a Half Men. I’ve seen episodes. I’m decidedly not a fan. I’d estimate that half the branches I work at have copies of at least one season of the show handy. It’s inoffensive to have around, and, yeah, some people like it. It fits into a broad definition of something you’d have in an office break room, something that barely asks anything of you except to laugh on cue. Again, perfectly understandable: I would never watch an episode of something really taxing (like, say, the Wire) on my lunch hour.
Even having only watched a handful of episodes, the premise is easy enough to decipher. Jon Cryer’s character (a) is a stuffed shirt and chronic worrier raising his not-so-bright son (Angus T. Jones) with the help of his hedonistic brother played by Charlie Sheen. He is a Bad Influence, but he balances out Cryer’s fussiness, so it works. There is also a sassy maid.
The bus ad (see: title) wasn’t overly complicated. The title of the show, the network, and the eponymous two and a half men. Cryer, Aston Kutcher, and Jones are all wearing suits, singing into the same microphone. That’s enough, really, because a) the show does amazing in the ratings suggesting that a lot of people like to be told to laugh on cue and b) because the show’s new goal is to establish Ashton Kutcher as Charlie Sheen’s replacement on the show (b).
The central conflict in the series has always been between the laid back Sheen and the nerdy Cryer. Together they are a nuclear family: Sheen as cigar smoking, newspaper and La-Z-Boy father and Cryer as dotting, worrying mother to Angus T. Jones half man (c). The title is a really broad play on words, but now the ad introduces a new subtext: Who, in this cavalcade of faces, is the half man?
Kutcher’s bearded face stands in contrast to Angus T. Jones’ baby fat. Kutcher has always been an impish figure. His series, Punk’d, was all about him playing schoolyard pranks on other celebrities. I’m sure that’s why he was chosen: his public image matches the archetype he’s out to play. Sheen, though, was an old school cad; Kutcher projects the air of a frat boy. To put a finer point on it: Sheen is Playboy, Kutcher is Maxim.
Angus T. Jones has had his puberty televised, and it isn’t flattering. The oafish character he’s been reduced to playing is probably the writers working with what they’ve got. In the poster he has a sneer. Because he’s a teenager? Because they can’t traffic in his charming youth after his awkward televised puberty? Either way, he is clearly a child, and clearly the one we’re supposed to believe is a half man.
Cryer though. Jon Cryer isn’t a young man. His most famous pre-2&1/2 Men role was as Duckie in Pretty in Pink and that was released the year I was born. But looking into that poster, at his softened edges, he evokes a Howdy Dowdy vibe. (Several casual “Am I the only one that sees it?” surveys have backed that up) Some photoshop was done: soften the lines in his face, makeup to give a cohesive shine, a sparkle in his eye that makes it appear glassy and dead. He’s boyish.
None of these men actually appear as a fully grown heteronormative man. Kutcher comes close, but in the show’s premiere he’s been made as a sort of Charlie-in-waiting character. Dumped by his wife, about to commit suicide, he eventually works his way into a threesome with two buxom blondes. But our first sight of him is through a glass window, soaked by a storm. He is more puppy than man.
The puppy, the mother, and the teenager all live together, all exploring different facets of modern masculinity. In viewing the opener of the season premiere, drawn by the issues of gender the poster brought up, I found out that Charlie Sheen’s character was killed in a particularly violent way. The show’s conflict has been changed into something deeper and all together more radical: what we have now is an Oedipal struggle played out. With Charlie dead, the classic patriarchy has been abolished and Cryer, Kutcher and Jones are free to explore what it really means to be a modern man in a society that is becoming (or trying to become, at least) post-gender (d).
Needless to say: I will be tuning in and seeing how this plays out.
(a) I never bothered to learn any of their names.
(b) I’m not really going to get into Charlie Sheen’s meltdown because that’s mostly outside the scope of this piece and something that’s had a lot of space devoted to it already. I will say that it’s pretty interesting that when people found out that Charlie Sheen was almost identical to his cartoonish character of the same name (even to the point where the real Sheen was the caricature), they stopped laughing.
(c) I’m convinced that they were made brothers as to limit the homosexual sub-textual reading. The actual house work, i.e. stuff that a 50s housewife was expected to do as her duty, is done by the sassy housekeeper as to keep some sort of heteronormative balance to the show. Even still, she’s biologically female, but coded as gender neutral.
(d) The biggest clue? Cryer’s character cleaning up Charlie’s ashes, as both a reinforcement that he was ridding himself of Charlie physically, but also, in the act of cleaning (see note c), reenforcing the idea that he is now able to act outside of traditional gender roles.