It’s true, I like Anger Management and no, it didn’t happen overnight. While I’ve been a major supporter of FX’s comedy lineup, it’s definitely not made in the same cloth as It’s Always Sunny, Archer, The League, Louie or Wilfred (all of which are vastly different from each other). It was never billed to ape a certain tone or look like any of its older siblings at FX, it was created to lure fans of Two and a Half Men who chanted for Charlie Harper’s return, as well as viewers looking for a simple, entertaining comedy. Why? Ratings for one. The series delievered 4.53 million total viewers (2.5 million in the 18-49 demo) for several weeks before the Olympics altered ratings in August. FX will take those kind of numbers any day. Louie dreams of those numbers. Anger Management got a 10-90 deal, which meant if it delivered promising results on the first 10 episodes, then FX would place an order for 90 more episodes. On Wednesday, Anger Management and Charlie Sheen got the good news they were working towards.
I was thrown by the first two episodes, stunned at the entire presentation and I doubt I was alone. Maybe it was the laugh track (a major pet peeve) or the frustration that the envelope wasn’t pushed enough even though they probably had the latitude at FX to do so. Or maybe after the public war with Chuck Lorre and Two and a Half Men, the meltdown, and hey, even that Fiat commercial, the expectations of a show fronted by Sheen were much different than the product we got. Who would’ve thought TV’s most volatile bad boy would partner up with the FX Network to create a tame sitcom aimed at a broad audience? There’s not much separating Anger Management from what normally passes on any of the major networks, TBS, or hell, even TV Land. But that’s not a bad thing.
FX strategically put Anger Management into the 9:30pm time slot, preceded by a repeat of the last week’s episode at 9:00pm. Most of FX’s original programming, drama or comedy, takes up the 10 o’clock hour. FX wanted to draw some of that primetime audience. For all the outpouring sympathy for Terriers or Lights Out not getting as sweet a deal, Charlie Sheen is bankable enough to attract an audience large enough from the start. It’s not easy launching original hour-long dramas and FX stands behind series that can muster up a consistent audience. The first season of any show is a challenge and the numbers were there for Anger Management. So why wouldn’t FX not want to make it easy on themselves, just this once, and work with Sheen and his strengths?
After some reconsideration, had FX launched a show with Sheen that was extreme, and reflected the devil his haters view him as, I don’t know if the numbers would have been as good. This should have never been a Joaquin Phoenix-gone-rapper type transformation. The warlock tried to tour the country as a stand-up comedian but after all the booing and refund requests, there was no reason to reinvent himself into something he’s not. Even though his character was murdered on Two and a Half Men, Sheen’s fans held out hope that he would come back. I’m not sure why; this last season of TaaHM is proof that high ratings don’t always equate to high quality. Sheen needed a singular win, badly, and it probably wasn’t going to happen by doing a radically different show. America knows how it wants to see Charlie.
Before TaaHM, there was Spin City. There’s no shame in making a long career in playing similar characters. Ask Jack Nicholson or Johnny Depp. And so we got Charlie Goodson, another version of the “Charlie” brand, an amalgam of all of Sheen’s best comedic roles like Charlie Crawford, Charlie Harper and Major League‘s Ricky Vaughn. Other stock “Charlie” traits include a busy bedroom, a divorce, a kid and more people depending on him. It’s Charlie managing chaos. Reality or fiction? The lines are quite blurred, aren’t they?
I stuck with the show because of the upside and I’m glad I did. Anger Management settled quickly into a groove and ended strong with its final five episodes, two of which, were written by actor/writer Brian Posehn (Mr. Show, The Sarah Silverman Show). The Simpsons‘ Sam Simon was brought on as an executive consultant. Getting past those first two episodes was key because they ironed out the wrinkles quickly, and FX proved it could expand its horizons in making a less vulgar comedy. Unfortunately, because of the Summer Games, the season’s strongest episodes were seen by its smallest audience, but here’s what I liked about Season One:
Charlie managing chaos
There are barely any scenes without Sheen. So yes, it should go without saying that you have to leave any personal resentment of Sheen or his “Charlie” brand at the door. Charlie Goodson juggles multiple relationships with his therapist/friend with benefits Kate (Selma Blair), his ex-wife Jennifer (Shawnee Smith), teenage daughter Sam (Daniela Bobadilla), neighbor/friend Michael (fellow Spin City mate, Michael Boatman), bartender Brett (Brett Butler), and two very different anger management groups. Each spoke shows a different angle to Goodson. There are more plates to spin, more entry points as compared to his last show, where he essentially enabled a leech of brother, eluded a stalker, bedded hundreds of women and wrote one jingle a season.
Selma Blair is the perfect opposite
Even when I was trying to convince myself to laugh harder while watching the first two episodes, I never had a problem with Blair’s scenes with Sheen. Visually they looked good on screen together and their characters seemed to fit better than most of the relationships the Two and a Half Men‘s Charlie had with his girlfriends–who always tried to change him and failed. The Anger Management Charlie and Kate have similar, twisted senses of humor, they’re blunt in joking about their line of work as many outsiders often do, and intellectually, they’re on par with each other.
Kate’s no-strings attached sexual encounters and therapist-patient conundrum with Charlie are the best things about the show and that Jennifer believes she is a lesbian adds a secretive element to their unprofessional fling. Their bed scenes consistently feel like the only things that feel like the mature territory FX is known for, cleverly tip-toeing the line and Blair has some great one-liners. Charlie and Kate’s collective insecurity led to an adorable place to start Season 2 and the subtle layers just keep folding upon themselves like the bed sheets in one of their scenes.
Shawnee Smith as the sad ex
It’s hard not to wonder if Charlie and Jennifer’s relationship doesn’t reflect a little bit of Sheen’s relationship with Denise Richards, but regardless if it is or not, we haven’t seen Smith on television since her days on Becker. As Jennifer, she shares custody of Sam, and is never afraid to remind him that Charlie cheated on her numerous times, but she’s learned to have a sense of humor about it. Charlie has an intellectual edge on her and she is constantly being lured by start-up businesses and scams. She resents Charlie for making her ideas seem dumb–but honestly, most of them are. She struggles to find a new man who’s as nice to her as Charlie but would never reconsider making the same mistake with him twice. Charlie cares about Jennifer, but she just some help getting there. It’s a realistic, mature and slightly complex relationship.
Brett Butler as… the experienced bartender
Like any good bartender, Brett listens and doesn’t judge. In many ways she’s a symbol for all of those who continue to give Sheen third and fourth chances–of course, we the audience have helped Sheen get additional chances. Brett’s upfront about her desires for Charlie that she’s going home with him one night. That would be a scene worthy of sending to Lorre who had his own nightmare run with Butler when her addiction to painkillers destroyed ABC’s Grace Under Fire. Hopefully having Butler on the set has been a positive influence on Sheen, and hopefully when they do scenes together they are both reminded how lucky they are to have this gig. Everything from Brett’s age to her manly voice have been fair game. She’s more of a minor character but a valued one.
The Patients and The Patient
Of all of Charlie’s patients Lacey and Ed consistently illustrate anger issues we can relate to, road rage and anger towards, well everyone. At first, Lacey looked like she would be that airhead we’d roll our eyes at, but by the end of the season we see she’s warmer and smarter than she’s led on and with Vietnam vet Ed, well, Barry Corbin is picture perfect as an old grouch. Noureen DeWulf is an incredibly fresh face on television, the body’s not bad either. Michael Arden and Derek Richardson have been limited as weekly whipping boys, but hopefully that will change. If not, they can always rotate in new patients, right?
The prison patients surface problems that have laid dormant in Charlie, while the anger group he invites into his home office is comprised of four one-note characters who constantly remind Charlie that progress is achieved in small steps. We never get tired or exhausted by any of the directions he’s pulled in. And Charlie himself, is the shows, biggest patient. So there’s plenty of material for 90 more episodes and best of all, we’re not bludgeoned by any one’s supporting character’s stupidity or desperation (*cough* Alan Harper *cough*).
By the season finale, all of these components were balanced well and I never again had to force the laughs that came from watching the second half. The jokes were clever, well-paced, when the scene needed an easy jab, Charlie took the punch. Guest stars came right out of Sheen’s home movies–the PG ones at least–as Martin Sheen and Denise Richards were notable surprises. Sheen still has his circle of support and it should be interesting to see who comes on board in future seasons, as Sheen continues to gain support.
Speaking of those 90 episodes, the AM crew goes back to work in September and will have two years to produce all 90 episodes–a very tight schedule. Hopefully, executive producer Bruce Helford can keep the ship sailing forward without incident. FX will have enough shows to spread out for three to four years, at least, but there’s no telling how they plan to release them. And you can thank entrepreneur Tyler Perry for the creative 10-90 deal, having made it a successful model for his TBS series. It was a risk-reward type of deal that benefits both sides.
Now I’ve chided the networks in the past for putting out similar comedies for years–minus a few exceptions of course, but I’ve never said I don’t enjoy some of the “same old.” Any hatred is rooted from so many of them getting recognized by the Emmys or Golden Globes–after so many of them are the definition of mediocrity.
Cable networks like FX has to be creative in finding easy ways to make money so that they can help make up for the time it takes for shows like Louie and Wilfred to grow their audiences. Like it or not, Anger Management is a part of the solution. Maybe today would be a better climate for FX to introduce Terriers or Lights Out. We’ll never know. In general, people fear change or the alternative. Maybe some of AM‘s fans will give Archer or The League a shot. I wouldn’t go so far to call it an evil, but FX has to believe that Anger Management is necessary.
When you stack Anger Management against other shows like it–and this is the most important comparison–it’s no worse than any network comedy of its kind and for many viewers that’s just fine. It gives job security for Sheen and company and there’s a fair amount of viewers who still care about his brand. In ten episodes, it’s has already become as good, if not better than many shows brought back for 2012-2013. The first season of Anger Management has turned out to be that one singular win Sheen needed. In 90 more episodes, maybe we can talk about winning again.