'Two and Half Men' a success without being cool or trendy

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At a time when traditional comedies are on the verge of extinction, CBS' "Two and a Half Men," which turns 100 episodes young tonight, is one of the last to remain standing, to the befuddlement of experts who dismiss it as a cornball throwback. It continues to be the most watched comedy series in network primetime by adhering to a fairly simple formula: Be funny. That's really all that it has aspired to since it hit the CBS air on Sept. 22, 2003. It hasn't tried to be hip, or trendy, or controversial, or ironic. Its only gimmick has been to make people laugh, and this it seems to be doing rather well considering the show's unflagging popularity as it races past the century mark.

It's clear that somebody forgot to tell the show's creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre that he's backing an anachronism, that he's stubbornly cranking out a multicamera show in an age when everyone knows single-camera is the way to go.

"You know, I don't think the audience particularly cares how many cameras there are," Lorre believes. "Saying that four cameras is no good is like noting that great old classic blues recordings are lousy because they used crude production techniques. The words and acting are the paramount concern, not the delivery. And our show happens to be blessed with brilliant writing and performers."

"Success in TV always comes down to the writing and cast," agrees Lorre's co-creator and fellow executive producer Lee Aronsohn. "It's also about launching on the right network in the right time slot in the right year -- which we did."

Yet Aronsohn concedes, albeit a bit tongue in cheek, that while there's plenty of vindication in being "close to the last one of our ilk that's still standing. We feel like we're residing in the best stateroom on the Titanic. We're not cool. We'll never be cool. But I'll take an audience that sticks with us over cool."

To be sure, most critics weren't foreseeing a 100-episode-plus run for "Two and a Half Men" when it set sail slightly more than four years ago. It was considered a good family-friendly fit with "Everybody Loves Raymond," which aired on Mondays at 9 p.m., and the lack of significant audience falloff between "Raymond" and "Men" a half-hour later told CBS it had a burgeoning hit on its hands. It earned a 9.9 rating and a 15 share that first season and grew in year two to 10.6/16, overtaking the departing "Raymond."

"Men" has now been TV's most popular comedy in total households for three years running, though its ratings have dwindled slightly -- a 9.7 average in 2005-06 and 9.2 in 2006-07 -- since moving permanently into the Monday 9 p.m. slot two years ago. But that's not a significant dip for a series that has had to compete head-to-head with the likes of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and, last season, NBC's "Heroes."

On paper, the premise of "Two and a Half Men" sounds either tried-and-true or hackneyed, depending upon one's perspective. It stars Charlie Sheen -- in a bit of art imitating life -- as a womanizing bachelor named Charlie Harper who lives in Malibu. (Sheen himself was married at the time the show premiered.) His world is turned upside down when his uptight brother Alan (Jon Cryer) moves in with his young son, Jake (Angus T. Jones) and madcap mixups ensue.

The extended "Men" cast is unusually rich and deep, featuring Holland Taylor as Evelyn Harper, Charlie and Alan's wealthy, controlling and eccentric mother (and Jake's grandmother, of course); Conchata Ferrell as the acid-tongued housekeeper, Berta; and Marin Hinkle as Alan's pain-in-the-butt ex-wife, Judith. Before her departure last season, Melanie Lynskey had also been a regular on the series as Rose, Charlie's calculating stalker-neighbor. She returns in a guest spot for tonight's 100th episode.

Yes, a show has to be a little bit warped to incorporate a feel-good stalker as a regular character. But that, in some ways, is what has helped separate "Two and a Half Men" from the larger comedy pack. It's formulaic, yet at the same time charmingly warped, perhaps to justify its 9 p.m. time slot.

The success of this concept in delivering viewers hardly comes as a shock to Wendi Trilling, CBS executive vp comedy development. "'Two and a Half Men' worked from day one and has never stopped working," she emphasizes. "That was true from our seeing the very first draft of the first script. We felt it was going to be a hit. Really. We could see how it aspired to have an emotional undercurrent and be smart and engaging. And that's been true all the way through."

Trilling notes that CBS is perhaps alone among American networks (broadcast and cable) in continuing to develop and schedule traditional comedy, from "Men" to "How I Met Your Mother" to "The New Adventures of Old Christine" to "Rules of Engagement." "We don't even ask the question of how many cameras a show has until the end of the pitch," she adds, "and even then it's almost an afterthought. It never changes whether or not we want to develop something, and thank goodness, because if it did we might never have seen 'Two and a Half Men.'"

Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, which produces "Men," recalls that not only was the show picked up despite any trepidation over its retro style, but it came with big expectations attached, "which puts a whole other series of pressures on you to succeed.

"Because of the quality of this dream cast, I think it would have been a major disappointment if 'Two and a Half Men' had not connected," Roth continues. "It clicked because of the acting, yes, but also because it's so consistently well written and because Chuck Lorre is one of the great showrunners ever to work in this business. He's proven that with compelling characters, extraordinary actors and consistently funny and relatable and well-told scripts, it doesn't really matter what format you happen to be telling your stories in."

Lorre appreciates the compliments but is quick to transfer nearly all of the credit for the show's success to his "brilliant" cast.

"I do a lot of yelling and screaming where I say, you know, 'Hey, check out these people! Look at how good they are! Pay attention to them!' But it happens to be true. They take the words and do amazing things with them. It's a nice feeling that, no matter which character walks through the door, he or she is going to make your words sing."

One of those guys who does the singing, Sheen, was fearful that he would be out of TV for a while following the cancellation of "Spin City" in 2002. "Then before I know it, every A-level showrunner in town is beating a path to my door with ideas for me," he remembers. "When Chuck came around, it was interesting, because he had a name and a concept and certainly a track record -- but no pilot script. And I said yes anyway because I thought the title 'Two and a Half Men' sounded like a hit.
"Now here we are sprinting past 100 episodes, and the work ethic and work structure are exactly the same as they were during that first show of Season 1," Sheen continues. "We've all just sort of surrendered to Chuck's guiding hand, and we've all been the better for it. I respect the man like crazy, and feel very lucky to have landed here on a show that's been such a stabilizing influence during a very rough time personally."

If Sheen is grateful, then his co-star Cryer is positively giddy to have become part of such a long-running gig that looks to have years yet to run. He admits to having accrued the label "Show Killer" for being part of the ensemble on so many failed series, not to mention stillborn pilots.

"I've had shows get off the launching pad and then literally explode in midair. But now I've finally hit the jackpot," Cryer says. "I'm on this show that people love, working with people I love to work with. As soon as we finish shooting our new episode every Friday, I'm jazzed to rip open the envelope and see what the following week's script has in store for me. Let me just say, Charlie and Holland and Conchata and I in particular have all gone through enough wrong to understand just how right this is."

Sheen, Cryer, Taylor and Ferrell each has received two Emmy nominations to date, though none has ever won. And "Two and a Half Men" itself has broken through to earn nominations for outstanding comedy series each of the past two years. So the show's level of respect continues to climb along with its episode count, which clearly puts a smile on Lorre's face.

"My pride in this show isn't just about the numbers," Lorre says. "What really resonates with me is the fact we aren't just cranking out sausages. We really care about what we're doing. We never just phone it in. We put a lot into making this a really great show. That's what feels best to me right now."   
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