Louis C.K. vs. Charlie Sheen: The Best and Worst of TV, on the Same Network

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FX's decision to air Louie and Anger Management on the same night only highlights the dramatic difference in quality between the two shows.

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FX

There is no greater illustration of the gap between television's artistic ambitions and its supposed commercial realities than the new Thursday night comedy lineup on FX. Starting this week the network juxtaposes the premiere of Charlie Sheen's new, loose sitcom adaptation of the Adam Sandler franchise Anger Management with the third season of Louis C.K.'s astonishingly original comedy, Louie.

The Charlie Sheen business has been very valuable for FX in the past: The network has relied heavily on syndication of Two and a Half Men to bolster its investments in original programming since 2010. Anger Management, if it succeeds—and it seems it may, given the strong initial ad sales for the program—and reaches the number of episodes at which it could be sold in syndication to another network, the show would provide a nice financial base to the network. However crude the decision to hire a man with a long history of violence against women and addiction issues that lead him into wildly unprofessional meltdowns may be, the numbers behind it are clearly alluring to FX.

The chasm in quality between Anger Management and the rest of FX's original programming may be less quantifiable, but it's an embarrassment. This is a network that gave us sensitive and hyper-violent bikers in Sons of Anarchy, a talking therapeutic dog in Wilfred, a series where all the characters die in American Horror Story, and a depressive, middle-aged divorced father with weird sexual obsessions who may be the most appealing person on television in Louie. So there's something upsetting about watching Sheen be so derivative. Anger Management recycles both his womanizing persona from Two and a Half Men and the title and concept of the Sandler movie, in which Sandler's angry everyman was forced to enter therapy with an unconventional, invasive therapist played by Jack Nicholson.

Sheen's take does not elevate the material. He plays Charlie Goodson, a minor league baseball player who becomes a therapist after his explosive anger derails his athletic career. The sets where Charlie holds his therapy groups, raises his daughter, and romances women look so cheap it's like FX was trying to maximize profit up front. The characters who populate Goodson's therapy groups are cast-offs from decades-old shows: an effeminate gay man named Patrick, a bitter and homophobic Vietnam veteran named Ed, Lacey, a hot chick with no identifiable personality traits other than a violent hatred of men, and Nolan, a passive beta male attracted to angry people who mostly serves as a contrast to Charlie's sexual and professional success. In one scene, we're meant to think that Charlie is progressive because he makes Ed put a dollar in a jar for every time he uses the word "queer" in-session, but in another, he serves up prison rape jokes about gay men as if they're uproarious.

And then there are the women. Anger Management's women and Charlie's relationships with them are meant to be one of the artistic selling points of the show. FX President John Landgraf told me in a January interview that "Part of what the show is about, frankly, is a kind of comeuppance. For example, he has a teenaged daughter, he has an ex-wife, his ex-wife has questionable tastes in men, and he was the first of her questionable tastes in men. But now, as a co-parent, he has to deal with a series of men in his 13-year-old daughter's life." A show in which Charlie Sheen explored his relationships with women--from his fondness for prostitutes, to the fiancee he accidentally shot, to the ex-wife who obtained a restraining order against him--would be riveting television that would fit in well with FX's deep examinations of masculinity, violence, and sex. Anger Management is not that show.

Jennifer (Shawnee Smith), Charlie's ex-wife, reacts with great amiability to the news that he cheated on her in a prior life, and to the parade of unstable women he marches through their anxious daughter Sam's (Daniela Bobadilla) life. Kate (Selma Blair), is Charlie's fuck buddy, best friend, and therapist, the kind of woman who apparently loves to be told, "You're the best kind of friend, you know. No attachments whatsoever," and "If you're just going to stand there and drink beer and criticize me, you could at least take off your top." And the second episode of Anger Management is one of the ugliest things I've ever seen on television, an entire half-hour dedicated to mocking an unattractive woman for having the temerity to think that Charlie would be attracted to her.

Far from forcing him to reevaluate his relationships with them, the women in Anger Management are around to fulfill Charlie's needs, from sex to child care, perfectly. In the world of the show, Charlie's anger did damage only to himself, when he busted his own knee trying to break a bat after being heckled by fans at a game. If Anger Management was meant to be an artistic engagement with Sheen's own past, it would have to actually address his responsibility for the ways he's hurt other people, and to confront the fact that women exist for some reason other than to cater to his whims.

The treatment of actresses like Blair is a perfect point of contrast between Anger Management and Louie, a show that continues to grow and evolve in exciting new directions. Where Anger Management uses Blair to satisfy Charlie's needs, Louie casts Melissa Leo and Parker Posey, among other actresses, as grown women whose identities present serious challenges to Louie's sense of the world and of himself. Leo's character directly questions, in a funny and obscene sequence, Louie's willingness to accept a blowjob, but his total lack of desire to reciprocate. Posey's character drags him on an adventurous night around New York City that tests his desire for ease rather than connection.

In previous seasons of the show, Louie had a schtick where Louie interacts with younger, very attractive women with different worldviews than his own and tries to relate to them, as when he spent an evening with an abstinence advocate or charmed a professional cheerleader on a USO tour in Afghanistan. It was a device that let him communicate his openness to the world, but that also fell into a familiar trap of pairing middle-aged Louie with much more attractive, younger sparring (if not sexual) partners. This year, C.K. is paired up with equals, including a gay man who gives him a tour of Miami and challenges Louie's sexual comfort in ways the show has explored only fleetingly in previous episodes, and the show is richer, and weirder for it.

Much of the early third season of Louie feels, even more than usual, like an exploration of what it means to try to seize and transform one's life in middle age. "You get 45 miles to the gallon," a salesman tells Louie when he wanders into a motorcycle shop in a fit of crisis. "So it's actually smart to buy a motorcycle!" Louie says, charmed by the sudden appearance of a practical reason to make an impractical decision. He loves who his children are becoming, and shares a joke his daughter Jane told him with an audience at one of his performances. He explains that it kicks off with the line, "'Who didn't let the gorilla into the ballet?' And she said, 'Just the people who are in charge of that decision. Their judgement was that it wasn't a good idea to let him in.'..The whole story's in my head of people going into the ballet theater, and the gorilla with his head down, trying to text and not be noticed." Louie is relating not just the joke, but his pleasure that his daughter has grown up into an independent person who is creative in ways he never could have been himself, but that he admires not just as her father, but as a comedian.

By this point, FX doesn't really need to make an effort to sell Louie: It's an established critical hit, if not a vast generator of revenue for the network. But there's something particularly sad about seeing FX put so much energy into trying to sell the American viewing public a bland, ugly sitcom that would have been rejected by even its most milquetoast competitors, while Louis C.K. is making personally and artistically transformative television on a much lower budget, one time slot over.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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