In January, John Landgraf, the president of FX, told the assembled writers at the Television Critics Association Press Tour why he’d decided to give Charlie Sheen a half-hour comedy, in which Sheen would star as an “unconventional anger management therapist.” “I think if Charlie wants to get his house in order, and that includes his issues with substance abuse and his relationships to his own family, it also encompasses his desire to have greater consciousness about his public persona,” he said. “[His character] is struggling to foster for a daughter a positive self-esteem and sense of how to be a woman in society. My opinion is that could be a really good thing. That could be a good thing for Charlie, it could be a good thing for society.”
When I talked to Landgraf after the session to clarify why he’d decided to work with Sheen, given Sheen’s record of violence against women and repeated relapses, he had this to say:
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, and that’s a kind of comeuppance for him. I can’t know what’s in Charlie Sheen’s heart. I can only tell you that as an artist and as a performer, he made a choice in terms of what he chose to do next that to me is indicative of somebody who wants to grow, and he wants to play a more self-aware, more dimensional character, and he wants to make a more complicated, more nuanced show.
I think you and [Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan] imagine that some of the same things that happened in the past will probably happen in the future, and therefore in your estimation, I’ve stepped into the role of an enabler that was exited by others like Warner Brothers and CBS. And in my estimation, we make a really good show and Charlie grows as a human being…
I don’t lack empathy or sympathy for [Maureen]’s point of view. But my point of view is I’m not Charlie’s judge, jury, and executioner. I’m not ready to declare him someone who should be banished forever from the public eye and from his work. If he’d come in and indicated no interest and ambition in progressing his work on-camera as well as no ambition to progress his life than I wouldn’t have chosen to get involved with it.
I quote Landgraf at such length here, because I think it’s important that people be clear on what FX said about Anger Management before it premieres tonight. It might have been one thing for FX to have baldly admitted that they signed up Charlie Sheen because they thought that even though his behavior was heinous and the pitch was not even close to their creative standards, they thought he would make a lot of money that would let them support their other programming.They could have even tried to sell the show as a solid but unremarkable sitcom. But instead they said “it could be a good thing for society.” That the pitch was “indicative of somebody who wants to grow…and make a more complicated, more nuanced show.” Sheen himself told Playboy “I’m done playing a drunken, womanizing, immature character. This time I’m playing an adult.” Networks always talk up their new shows. But the gap between the spin that Landgraf gave me and other critics to convince us to give Anger Management a chance and the reality of the show they’ve produced is unusually striking.
The two episodes of television they’re airing tonight suggest one of three options. First, that the spin was always nothing but spin. Second, the episodes that were turned in didn’t live up to the hopes that Landgraf had for the show. Third, and scariest, that they think the episodes they’re kicking off the season with are reflective of those high standards. That option is particularly frightening, given that the second episode of Anger Management is one of the ugliest, most callously sexist things I’ve ever seen on television.
The premise for the show is as it was reported to be: Sheen plays Charlie Goodson, a baseball player who turned anger management therapist after going through treatment himself. He has an ex-wife he gets along well with, if you count menacing her boyfriends and acting irritated about her sex life as well, and a daughter with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He confides in the female bartender at the watering hole where he brings dates who are much younger than he is, and who he’s clearly aware are stupid, embarrassing arm candy. And his best friend is a therapist named Kate, played by Selma Blair, who he tries to talk into sleeping with him even as she begins treating him for anger and control issues again. All well and mediocre. And if that had been it, the show might have been only the kind of thing that should raise serious questions for creators like Kurt Sutter and Louis C.K. about why the bar on FX is so vastly lower for Sheen than it is for them.
But I want to talk about the second episode in some detail, because I think it’s a really useful illustration of what nasty, casual sexism looks like, and of the myopic entitlement that’s baked into Anger Management. In this half-hour of television, the central joke is that a woman who’s not just ugly, but mutilated, and not just damaged by plastic surgery, but needy, and delusional, and stupid, has the temerity to think that Charlie would be interested in her.
We’re introduced to said woman, Mel, when she joins Charlie’s group therapy sessions. She tells the story of how, as a younger woman, she slept with a handsome baseball player, only to become the laughingstock of her small town when she was told she was a slump buster: an ugly woman a professional baseball player has sex with in order to break out of a rut. In an attempt to fix her shattered self-esteem, she’s lost weight, had extensive plastic surgery, and now she’s back—because the man who slept with her and then abandoned her was Charlie. And rather than tell the truth, attempts to convince Mel that she wasn’t a slump buster by asking her to dinner and trying to prove he was a nice guy all along.
The show makes every effort to emphasize what a freak Mel is. Patrick, a gay man who’s a member of the therapy group, tells her “I can see why you’re angry. You’re mad at your plastic surgeon. Sue that butcher for everything he’s got.” Over dinner, she makes conversation with Charlie by saying “Did I tell you they took off my nipples?” The episode makes fun of her allergies: “I’ll bring my Epi-Pen. You may have to jam it in my thigh,” Mel tells Charlie. It consistently emphasizes that she’s dumb: “They tell you just to have jello, but I had catfish jambalaya,” she says, explaining a projectile-vomiting incident after her Lap-Band surgery. And the show sets her up as unattractive down to her chemical makeup: “It’s the garlic. I sweat it. And you are making me sweat,” she tells Charlie at one point.
This vicious portrayal of a character is meant to be funny, as is the idea that she’s a curse inflicted on Charlie: if anything, Charlie’s view of Mel is a tiny bit more compassionate than the episode’s, but it’s still self-serving. “She’s not a stalker. She’s just a woman with pathologically low self-esteem, obsessive fixations, and a tendency towards grandiose delusions,” Charlie says. Throughout the episode, he wants credit for being nice to her, but is repulsed by the idea of actually having to follow through on the implications of any of his niceness. He wants his lies to her to be believed but not to have to stand behind the content of them. When Mel believesthat Charlie actually was attracted to her or impressed by her sexual performance, the show treats her like she’s dumb and like her response to Charlie’s statements, to him inviting her into his home, are a grostesque encroachment.
And even when Charlie takes some responsibility for his behavior towards Mel, he’s let off the hook by everyone around him. A bunch of this horrifyingly contradictory behavior takes place in front of his daughter (contra Landgraf’s assertions, from everything we’ve seen, Charlie’s daughter needs more protecting from his behavior than from his wife’s). And instead of having to explain himself to her, his daughter and his wife let him off the hook. “Mom already told me. How you wanted a deeper, more meaningful relationship, and Mel just wanted to sleep with you,” his daughter says. “How many times is this going to happen to me?” Charlie plays along. And when his wife points out that this is the first time she found out that he slept with someone while they were still together, Charlie insists “I slept with her for us! To break the slump! So I could make the big leagues.” When his wife points out there was another woman named Diane, Charlie says “That was for me. And a little bit for Diane.” The show lets him have it. It’s the end of the conversation, on Charlie’s justification and Charlie’s terms.
Even in the less-offensive pilot, this is a pattern. I wrote in my review of Anger Management and Louie for The Atlantic that everything in the show is set up to suggest that damage has been done to Charlie, not to other people, even when he’s clearly victimizing other characters on-screen: “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.”
That would have been a show FX could have been proud of, and that would have lived up to their stated creative reasons for putting the show into production in the first place. Instead, they’ve decided to introduce the show with a vicious, exploitive piece of trash that, as Maureen Ryan points out, literally pays Sheen to rehabilitate his own image. By any standards, the second episode of Anger Management should be an embarrassment for FX. And by the standards the network laid out for itself, it’s a humiliation.