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