Joanna Weiss

Sheen gives us just what we want

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / March 6, 2011

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THERE WAS only a small difference between watching “Two and a Half Men’’ and watching the Charlie Sheen downward-spiral media blitz last week: When the sitcom is on, it’s clear that you’re seeing an act.

With the real-life Sheen, it’s hard to be sure. There is a theatrical quality to all of those ramblings about his “tiger blood’’ and his “one gear: GO’’ and his brain being “not from this particular terrestrial realm.’’ It’s gloriously quotable, as if he’s turned his life into performance art, trying to one-up the hedonistic guy he plays so convincingly on TV.

And while the spectacle has been equal parts fascinating and sad, Sheen seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

The operative word is “seems.’’ It’s far too easy to pop-psychologize about Sheen’s frame of mind; that’s why the coverage has been loaded with pronouncements from self-appointed “human behavior experts,’’ “addiction experts,’’ and “celebrity life coaches.’’ Indeed, some of Sheen’s most lucid statements have exposed the absurdity of the gossip-news machine. On CNN, he delivered a lovely rant against the ubiquitous Dr. Drew Pinsky. “To, like, have a prognosis about somebody you’ve never been in the same room with, based on his image in a media setting?’’ Sheen said. “He should be ashamed of himself.’’

That’s part of what made Sheen so compelling last week. Even in the midst of an extended public meltdown, he managed to speak some conversation-fodder truths — about how respected rehabilitation programs sometimes fail to rehabilitate; how Hollywood people coldly use each other for profit; how the celebrity machine lionizes people who don’t come close to deserving it.

Of course Sheen believes he’s a winner, after all. By every measure of pop-culture currency, he’s on top: He has the most money, the most sex, the most attention. For years, he made headlines for booze-filled benders and charges of domestic abuse, and paid no apparent cost. Now, at last, there are consequences — his show is off the air, the custody of his twin sons is in question — but the cameras are still rolling hungrily. When he joined up on Twitter, mid-week, he swiftly set a record for the fastest time to get to 1 million followers. Why should he want to sober up?

And why should he think we want to see him on the straight-and-narrow? The impulse that makes people tolerate Sheen is the same one that made “Two and a Half Men’’ the most popular sitcom in the country: We’re drawn to the tension between the life we have and the life we’re told to covet. Sheen’s role as the “bad’’ brother is the id personified — effortlessly rich, casually misogynistic. Jon Cryer as the “loser’’ brother struggles for the same sort of alchemy and always falls far short. There’s no redemption, no moralizing, no personal growth — just a repeated reach for more, followed by the backslide.

In fiction, this is funny (supposedly). We expect reality to be different. Presumably, we’re rooting for the real-life Sheen to see the error of his ways, draw life lessons, and get back on track. To the extent that this is instructive, it’s certainly not bad. Sheen has been making a pretty good unintentional case for the notion that addicts need professional help. Fairly or not, he’s raised some degree of public awareness for the scourge of mental illness.

But he has also demonstrated a certain savvy the mark of a seasoned performer who, even in an altered state, knows precisely what the public wants. A big chunk of the TV landscape is built around gawking at the defeated and delusional, whether it’s the bad singers who audition for “American Idol,’’ the people who admit to hoarding handbags and cats, the women who demean themselves on VH1 dating shows. It’s a kind of social contract: We get to think we’re better than them because we’re “normal,’’ and they get to think they’re better than us because they’re on TV.

With Charlie Sheen, we’re getting the same sort of deal. He still gets all of the attention he craves. We get to replace the usual celebrity-gawking emotions — hatred and longing — with sheer, unabashed condescension.

Everyone’s winning.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at