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Odd couple finds a happy medium in Sheen sitcom

When you look out the window of the "Two and a Half Men" stage set, you see an ocean vista that's as fake as the canned laughter wafting out over it. There's nothing slick or newfangled about this CBS sitcom, which stars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer as odd-couple brothers. It's just a thoroughly conventional multi-camera sitcom rooted in familiar Felix-Oscar shtick and that tried-and-true comic standby, a cute kid. It's old school.

And happy to be that way. "Two and a Half Men," which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4, has modest goals, but it achieves them confidently and without embarrassment or insult to the viewer. Like the many other sibling sitcoms this season, from the hair-impaired "Mullets" to the food-fighting sisters of "Hope and Faith," it doesn't aspire to anything close to the psychological sophistication and wit of "Frasier." It's just a pair of polar opposite brothers and the comic tension that ensues. Sure, Cryer's neurotic vaguely recalls the persnickety Niles Crane when he brings his own sheets to stay at his brother's bachelor pad. But he's such an unsubtle bundle of nerves and tics that he's really just a walking punch line.

The show is really Sheen's vehicle. He plays Charlie, a womanizing jingle writer living a blissfully single life in Malibu. His bubble bursts when newly separated brother Alan (Cryer) shows up with his 10-year-old son, Jake (Angus T. Jones), looking for support and shelter. Suddenly Charlie has to curb his narcissism and learn to share. The consolation prize? The kid's a babe magnet ("You're even better than a dog," Charlie tells him), and he also helps Charlie get a leg up on his poker buddies.

Sheen is calmer and more likable here than he was in "Spin City." Charlie is cynical and hedonistic, but he also has a quiet side, presumably from dealing with his agitated brother and their controling mother (Holland Taylor). And when little Jake finally touches his heart, he is able to pluck a heartstring or two without making you squirm from forced sentimentality. Sheen and Jones also develop a solid "Paper Moon"-esque rapport. Cryer is harder to take, as he plays the same high-strung note over and over again. Fortunately, he's not as central to the show as Sheen.

The "modern" twist in "Two and a Half Men" is that Alan's wife thinks she might be a lesbian. Played by Marin Hinkle, so appealing as Sela Ward's sister on "Once and Again," she's a brooder and doesn't quite fit in with the show's bouncy atmosphere. Taylor, as the brothers' snobby mother, is a lot more at home in this series. She's familiar, slightly cartoonish, and mildly amusing.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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