Failure to Raunch: Two and a Half Men Is Being Put Out of Its Misery

The show, say what else you will about it, neatly captured a moment of cultural upheaval.

Here are the lyrics to the theme from Two and a Half Men, the song played as both an intro to and an outro from each episode of the long-running CBS sitcom:

Men men men men, manly men men men!
Men men men men, manly men men men!
Men men men men, manly men, oo hoo hoo, hoo hoo, oo.
Men men men men, manly men men men!
Men men men men, manly men men men!
Men …

It's rare for a jingle, given the limited time it has to bounce around in our ears, to be so effective at capturing the thing it's meant to summarize. But this particular song—a single noun and a single adjective, on jaunty repeat, oo hoo hoo—does that perfectly. Two and a Half Men is, indeed, about men. It is, indeed, simple. It is, indeed, repetitive and lazy in an aggressively nihilistic sort of way. If Nietzsche were to create a sitcom, it might well look like the show that started out as a Charlie Sheen vehicle and was transformed into an Ashton Kutcher vehicle with barely a second thought. It might well make use of the breezy equation that started with 2.5, subtracted 1, added another 1, subtracted the .5 … and managed to end up with zero.
This evening brings the final episode of 2.5 Y Chromosomes. The show had a long run, if not a good one: 12 seasons, with excessive syndication thrown in for good measure. Its premise, if you're not familiar, was this: Charlie Harper (Sheen) writes jingles (ooo hoo), which makes him very rich. Rich enough that he can live in a gorgeous beach-front house in Malibu, the surrounding landscape of which is as perky and unmoving as a Bob Ross painting. Charlie, as a lovable scamp, shares this house mostly with a series of women he has one-night-stand-ed. Until, that is, his brother Alan (Jon Cryer) gets divorced and moves into the house. Along with his son Jake.
One plus one plus one-half! Hilarity—"hilarity"—ensues.
Oh, and then Charlie (Sheen, not Harper) gets Dick Yorked, basically, and replaced with Ashton Kutcher, who plays a billionaire named Walden Schmidt. Who buys the beach house of the deceased Charlie (Harper, not Sheen), and then decides that, despite his billions, he would like to live with Alan and Jake.
One plus one plus one-half, all over again! More hilarity—more "hilarity"—ensues.
It would be nice for us all if there were some counter-intuitive redemption on offer from this extremely long-running, extremely money-making species of sitcom. The show could have been good; other products of the Chuck Lorre industrial complex have been. The Big Bang Theory is a consistent delight. Mike and Molly has its charms, too, and only 85 percent of them come from the comic wonder that is Melissa McCarthy. And Cybill, even! What a great show that was. The best thing that can be said about Two and a Half Men, however, is probably that it was raunchy during a time when Hollywood, and particularly network-TV Hollywood, was figuring out what "raunch" actually means. It dipped a toe into the tepid waters of "bad taste." It made jokes about sex of varying forms—during prime time! It pushed the envelope. It featured several celebrity cameos. Also, it had Holland Taylor.
The worst thing that can be said about Two and a Half Men, though, is that the show pushed the envelope it slotted itself into in pretty much the worst way possible. Subversiveness, when it is self-conscious and clumsy at the same time, can be extremely revealing. And Two and a Half Men, coming as it did in the early years of the 21st century—playing out on our screens as foreign conflicts, revolutionary technologies, and a whip-lashing economic crises played out in our world—offers a neatly encapsulated record of the changes that took place during its 12-year span. An extremely unfunny one, but hey.
There was the "Untainted by Filth" episode, which found Charlie and Alan waking up in bed together with a woman they'd met the night before. (Ménage à bro!) There was the time Walden and Alan tried to get married. (It's funny because they're men!) There was Charlie's funeral, which found an assortment of women he'd bedded recalling the STIs he'd given them. There was Charlie's stalker (Melanie Lynskey), who was—surprise!—a woman. As Salon's Daniel D'Addario put it, "Two and a Half Men portrayed sex as a constant war between men and women, all of whom were out to trick one another into sleeping together and all of whom spoke frankly to the point of vulgarity." The show's humor, for all its commercial concerns, seemed pitched squarely at the half-man demographic: the teenager who's obsessed with sex but who lacks the maturity to do much beyond wondering and/or laughing at it.  
As Angus T. Jones, who played the teenage Jake before leaving the show—on moral grounds—in 2013, advised: "Stop watching [the show] and filling your head with filth." He elaborated that the show was "making light of topics in our world that are really problems for a lot of people.” It's fitting that these criticisms would come from Two and a Half's designated Half. And it's fitting, too, that he would emphasize the pernicious real-world implications of the show's perniciously fictionalized universe. Sitcoms are not just entertainment; they're records of their times. This particular specimen offered, if not comedy, then at least some decent anthropology.