Good News, Charlie Sheen: TV Loves to Give Stars a Second (or Third) Chance

Why his new FX show, Anger Management, will probably be a hit.

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FX

When Mel Gibson's dark drama The Beaver premiered last March, the actor was turning himself in on charges that he had assaulted his ex-girlfriend. The film was widely praised, and Gibson's performance was called "the best of his career." It grossed just $970,816 at the box office. After Russell Crowe was charged with assault for throwing a phone at a hotel concierge in 2005, it took almost three years—and three flops— for the actor to regain box-office clout with American Gangster. Charlie Sheen is coming off one of the most tumultuous meltdowns in modern celebrity history. His next vehicle, Anger Management, however, is likely to be an unmitigated hit when it premieres on Thursday.

When it comes to disgraced celebrities, TV audiences are far more forgiving than movie audiences. Occasionally, TV fans even reward a star's bad behavior. When FX announced that it was picking up a new sitcom starring Charlie Sheen just six months after the star's tiger-blood-fueled year of debauchery, lunatic-speak, and all-in-all self-destructive behavior got him fired from his job as the top-paid actor on the highest-rated comedy on TV, critics thought the network was crazy. The "potential for catastrophe" far outweighed the "promise of dollar signs," said Kevin Yeoman at Screen Rant, responding to the deal which would force FX to order a whopping 100 episodes of Anger Management if the first handful received high ratings. But the "potential for catastrophe" is likely overstated: If television audiences' history of embracing falling stars is any indication, there's going to be a whole lot of Sheen in our future.

There's the oft-cited notion that there's no such thing as bad press, but that's just not true. It's quite common for stars whose reputations are tarnished by embarrassing scandals to be completely rejected—at least for a while, and often for a long time—by moviegoers. There's the examples of Crowe and Gibson. There's also Winona Ryder. She seemed initially unscathed by her 2001 shoplifting arrest when her first post-scandal film, Mr. Deeds, grossed over $100 million, but that was on the back of box-office star Adam Sandler. Since, she's popped up in extremely small roles and hideously grossing movies, and only recently with a cameo in Star Trek and supporting role in Black Swan has her career taken off again. After Woody Allen's affair with Soon-Yi Previn broke in 1992, it took another 20 years for one his films to match the box office success of hits like Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan (though critics and the Academy continued to embrace him). From Eddie Murphy to Meg Ryan to Lindsay Lohan, the list of recent film flops is populated by a bevy of stars whose off-screen behavior doomed their chances at box-office redemption.

The world of TV is a different story. When Robert Downey Jr. was looking to revive his career after multiple arrests on drug-related charges from 1996 to 2001 and a handful of stints in rehab, he took a part on Ally McBeal that allowed him to be finally forgiven for his travails. Oscar, Iron Man, and cemented A-list status followed only after Calista Flockhart made flirty eyes at him; it certainly wasn't post-scandal turns in The Gingerbread Man or The Singing Detective that paved the way to his comeback. Similarly, Rob Lowe didn't really recover his '80s-level of fame until his work on The West Wing won him accolades, leading to subsequent turns on hit TV shows like Parks and Recreation and... The Drew Peterson Story. Matthew Perry couldn't have been more warmly embraced when he was battling drug demons during Friends' run, while Alec Baldwin, Vanessa Williams, Anne Heche, Ashton Kutcher, and Charlie Sheen seem to be TV stars made of teflon: No matter what TMZ-baiting shenanigans they get into, the ratings almost always rebound. Even Lindsay Lohan, whose first slew of films after hitting rock bottom all tanked, found that turning to TV in her most troubled times has helped her recover some semblance of her career: She's appeared on Ugly Betty, Saturday Night Live, the telefilm Labor Pains, and now is staging another comeback with Lifetime's Elizabeth Taylor biopic Liz and Dick.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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