One way to avoid angry outbursts is to avoid stressful situations. And Charlie Sheen seems to be doing just that with "Anger Management."
The show's network, FX, airs some of the most challenging — and best — comedies on television. "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is transcendently offensive. "Wilfred" is an absurdist fantasy about a man and a talking dog. "Louie" operates at a higher level than almost everything else on TV.
(Both "Wilfred" and "Louie" return Thursday, when "Anger Management" premieres — though "Wilfred" had a new, "special preview episode" last week.)
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Sheen's new sitcom stands out from other FX shows for its total lack of ambition. Which is especially disappointing given his history: He started ripping his old show, "Two and a Half Men," when he grew tired of its easy setups and cheap jokes.
He bragged about staying out all night, then coming to the set and standing near pieces of furniture on set to avoid falling down. He sounded like a man on autopilot, eager to soar.
But Sheen is right back at cruising altitude with "Anger Management," based on the 2003 Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson movie. There's the old familiar laugh track, the same multi-camera setup, the same easy, slightly risqué one-liners. Only the cast and the premise are new.
"Anger Management" should make better use of them, because both are pretty good. Based on its first two episodes, it could be a much better show than it is. Its setup offers plenty of places the show can go if it's picked up for 100 episodes, as it could be under Sheen's deal with FX.
That setup is this: Charlie Goodson (Sheen) is a former ballplayer who ruined his career by breaking a bat over his knee during a tantrum. He became an anger management therapist, and treats a group of patients at his home, as well as a group of prison inmates.
He has a friend-with-benefits who also happens to be a great therapist (Selma Blair), an ex-wife who dates a lot (Shawnee Smith), a daughter with OCD (Daniela Bobadilla), and a reliable bartender, played by Brett Butler.
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Yes, bartender. Both Sheen and Butler are veterans of Chuck Lorre shows who have had issues with drugs and alcohol. (Sheen said this week that he's back to drinking after a period of sobriety, but that he doesn't use illegal drugs.)
Their scenes together at the bar sound like opportunities for the kind of intensely personal comedy that Louis C.K. does better than anyone. They present a chance for Sheen to push himself and make an emotional connection with people in the audience who may have demons of their own, and help them fight back those demons with laughter.
But no. Butler's character is the only one in self-examination mode. Or at least as close to it as "Anger Management" gets, at least so far.
"I was working my way through [college] as a stripper, and I started making so much money I dropped out of school," she says.
"I should have gotten my degree," she adds. "I was not planning on my forties."
And so the depressed bartender joins the show's series of stock, stereotypical characters: a fussy and narcissistic gay guy, a cantankerous veteran, a belittled slacker, and a spoiled party girl. All of them are the butt of often-mean and always surface-level jokes.
This is one of those shows where if a fat person appears onscreen, you'll hear a joke about donuts within seconds. When Charlie's bald neighbor complains that the party girl drove on his lawn and he'll have to re-seed it, she says, "You might want to throw some seeds on that bald head of yours."
Brian Austin Green, looking a lot more ripped than you remembered, shows up as the ex's new boyfriend. Because he's strong, he also has to be kind of dumb. One of the show's better jokes is that he likes citing statistics but always uses the same numbers.
Then there's this bottom-feeding moment, when Sheen addresses the prison inmates about almost losing his temper. Two of them are African-American cellmates, one very masculine, one very feminine, who are in a sexual relationship.
Charlie: "I almost lost it yesterday."
Feminine cellmate: "Ooh, honey, I remember when I lost it. It was a world of pain."
Charlie: "OK, I'm pretty sure we're talking about two different things. What I mean is, I almost gave in to a black rage."
Masculine cellmate: "No, we're talking about the same thing. Give in baby. [Making an angry face.] Give in."
If you find that funny, you'll like "Anger Management."
This is also one of those equal opportunity shows, where the lead character has to be the butt of jokes also. Since Sheen isn't black, gay or a woman, he has to have some other mockable quality. Besides his anger issues, he also suffers one of the most popular sitcom flaws: shallowness.
That's right: He only dates young, beautiful women. Way to make fun of yourself, Charlie Sheen. Real vulnerability there.
The second episode makes light of Charlie's narcissism when he has to — get this! — date a supposedly unattractive woman to show his daughter that he isn't so shallow after all. After several jokes about her looks, obviously.
Sheen promised a "torpedo of truth" during his tour last year, but none of his jokes have the depth of a torpedo. They're as thin as the T-shirts that bear his meaningless catch phrases.
With "Anger Management," he continues to favor self-referencing over self-exploration. The series opens with him staring at the camera, talking to a dummy upon which he's supposed to be taking out his aggression:
"You can't fire me. I quit," he says, in a reference you probably get. "You think you can replace me with some other guy? Go ahead. It won't be the same. You may think i'm losing, but I'm not. I'm … "
We're supposed to finish it for him: Winning.
But can you win without challenging yourself at all?