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.
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.
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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.
Sheen himself has already benefited from the forgiving nature of TV. After establishing a successful film career that included roles in Wall Street and the Major League movies, the actor overdosed on cocaine in 1998 and was hospitalized. Having already been on probation for a drug-related offense, his probation was extended an extra a year and Sheen was forced to go to rehab. Yet his return to TV as Michael J. Fox's replacement on Spin City was met with nothing but good will—and a Golden Globe statue for his performance. He parlayed that success into his hit Two and a Half Men gig, which made him the highest-paid actor on TV despite reports off and on throughout its run about sporadic bad behavior.
Sure, Charlie Sheen may have been the poster celebrity for the phrase "train wreck," but that may turn out to be synonymous with "ratings gold." Television—and especially its audiences—is a sympathetic medium. And, in particular, it's a medium obsessed with stars. Yes, TV routinely embraces scandal-ridden stars that the film industry shuns. But it's also proved itself to be a refuge to other populations of ignored stars: actresses of a certain age who struggle to be cast in Hollywood films or are displeased with the roles being offered (Ashley Judd, Claire Danes, Kyra Sedgwick, Kerry Washington). It welcomes former A-listers whose stars are dimming (Dennis Quaid, Kiefer Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Christian Slater). On a less superficial level, TV is fiercely protective of its openly gay actors (Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Matthew Bomer, Jim Parsons), in contrast with a movie industry that has yet to prove that an actor's sexuality is inconsequential in casting, marketing, and budgeting decisions.
Early reviews for Anger Management have been tepid, with most critics pointing out that the traditional "here's a fart joke, now laugh!" format is out of place on a network known for brazen, boundary-pushing comedies like Louie, Wilfred, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But betting on Sheen will pay off, because viewers will tune in—just as they did to Two and a Half Men during his crisis, just as they watched the return of Kim Kardashian's reality show after her Divorce of the Century, and so on. Perhaps TV viewers just prefer familiar faces. That certainly explains why shows like Glee, 30 Rock, and Law & Order: SVU parade celebrity guest stars through their shows at almost maddening rates. With people like Charlie Sheen, there's also an undeniable level of intrigue: Can we tell that he's having a breakdown off-set when we're watching this scene? There's also the comfort of your own home to consider. There's a lot less in shame in changing the channel to watch Sheen's show on FX than there is in shelling out $13 at the movie theaters and saying, "I'd like a ticket to the Mel Gibson film, please."
When the numbers for Anger Management come in, it's very like that once again, Charlie Sheen will be winning.