Tonight, after 12 years and 262 episodes, CBS' Two and a Half Men will shamble to an end. You will not see many fond farewells.
Two and a Half Men is a Kudzu vine that embedded itself in CBS in 2003, infecting the entire TV landscape with its awfulness. It's the rock on which producer Chuck Lorre built his television empire, which continues full-steam with the similarly execrable Big Bang Theory. It led to Lorre-produced imitators like Mike & Molly, and numerous slipshod knock-offs aiming for a similarly sizable viewership, including CBS' own Two Broke Girls. Along the way, it wasted the talents of actresses as talented as Jane Lynch, Amber Tamblyn, Judy Greer, and Melanie Lynskey, who's finally getting the chance to play a real human being in HBO's Togetherness.
If Two and a Half Men deserves credit for anything, it's resilience. It has suffered losses that would have killed most shows, including the departures of two of its original cast members: Charlie Sheen and Angus T. Jones. Sheen, then the highest-paid actor on television, was fired from Two and a Half Men in 2011 after openly criticizing the show and its creator.
If Sheen's comments were an open salvo on the show, Angus T. Jones' were even blunter. "If you watch Two and a Half Men, please stop watching Two and a Half Men," he said in a religious-themed video in 2012. "I'm on Two and a Half Men, and I don’t want to be on it. Please stop watching it. Please stop filling your head with filth. Please." Though Jones later apologized, he quit the show, calling himself a "paid hypocrite" for continuing to act on a TV series he "wasn't okay" with.
For years, Lorre has gotten mileage out of the purportedly "offensive" qualities of Two and a Half Men — in most cases, the only real press attention the show received. The attacks have allowed Lorre to package himself as a kind of creative rebel, sneaking into the studio to lob subversive cannonballs at all the sacred cows, leaving humorless bores tsk-tsking. Over the length of its 12-year run, Two and Half Men has been dinged for being sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic. These complaints aren't unwarranted, but they miss the point. It's more accurate to say that Two and a Half Men is spiteful and bilious in its essence, tackling everything — including the sad-sack middle-aged white dudes at the center of its narrative — with an equal amount of sneering disdain.
But getting offended by Two and a Half Men is playing squarely into the show's hands. The truth about Two and a Half Men is that it's the kind of "offensive" that's too lazy to cause any serious offense. The show's toothless brand of envelope-pushing mocks everything without saying anything incisive or interesting about anything. Every joke ends with a wocka-wocka punchline; whereas a show with some guts might take the joke to a second level, Two and a Half Men lets the omnipresent studio laughter dictate the pace of every episode, keeping the series at a persistent choke point.
That studio laughter has long been a point of pride for Lorre; Two and a Half Men films in front of a live audience, and he swears the show has never artificially "sweetened" the laughter to make an episode seem funnier. (For what it's worth: I've attended a Two and a Half Men taping, and it's true, there are real people laughing — but with very specific instructions on when and how they should laugh, and with the explicit understanding that the show won't move on to the next scene until the producers are satisfied with the laughter.)
If all of this sounds a little archaic, that's because it is. Two and a Half Men is already a dinosaur, hearkening back to an era when syndication was king, and when a successful sitcom generally avoided forward momentum, so the episodes could be watched in any order. But many brilliant shows have been produced under virtually identical set-ups: I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Cheers, or Seinfeld. Two and a Half Men's problem wasn't the format; it was the maddening, persistent lack of interest in doing anything truly interesting with it.
Lorre is clearly inured to these kinds of complaints. In a recent interview with Vulture, he acknowledged the "miasmic cloud" that has surrounded his often-attacked series. "We never really had any dignity attached to the show," he told the show's writers while preparing the finale. "There's no reason to start now. Let’s try to put on an hour that's big and brash and vivacious and pisses some people off."
"Hopefully it's funny," he added, as an afterthought.