How the Charlie Sheen Crisis Has Spread Overseas

Johanna Goodman

With "Two and a Half Men" one of the only successful U.S.sitcoms abroad, overseas buyers wonder whether the show can work without its notorious lead star.

Charlie Sheen’s exit from Two and a Half Men and the actor’s very public meltdown — the crazed online rantings about warlocks, trolls and tigers, the $100 million suit against Warner Bros. and Men producer Chuck Lorre — has broadcasters all over the world cringing.

Two and a Half Men is that rarest of beasts: a U.S. sitcom that works internationally. So every new twist in the Sheen story, every surreal tweet, sends a nervous shiver around the globe.

Now, as international buyers prepare to head to Cannes for the annual global MIPTV confab (April 4-7), the question facing wary programmers is whether Men can work sans Sheen.

“We’re in constant contact with Warner Bros. to see if Charlie Sheen will return or if the series is really finished,” says Manuel Cohen Scali, director of comedy at Comedie, the Canal+ subsidiary network that airs Men in France. “It’s an important series for us, so if it disappears, we’ll find other series, of course, but we’ll be affected by this affair.”

While most see the actor as key to the show’s success, Rudiger Boss, head of acquisitions for Europe’s No. 2 broadcasting group, ProSiebenSat.1, believes Men is strong enough to survive without its head warlock.

“Of course the show is very dependent on Sheen,” Boss says. “But if the format is done cleverly, and the writers prove every week how good they are, the format could work with another actor.” 

Men will not make or break any international channel — it’s just one show, after all — but the sitcom’s uncertain status is worrisome because it’s indicative of a larger trend. The future of a whole generation of made-in-the-USA global hits is uncertain. The biggest international shows — CSI, House M.D., Desperate Housewives, NCIS — are graying, and there are no obvious successors in the wings.

“Last year’s pilot season produced one show with international promise: Hawaii Five-0,” gripes one European buyer. “One show! What happens when House, NCIS and all the rest finally get canceled?”

After many ambitious dramas flopped last season (remember J.J. Abrams’ Undercovers or Jerry Bruckheimer’s My Generation?), many U.S. networks are betting on lower-cost sitcoms this year. But given U.S. comedies’ lousy success rate abroad — Men is the exception to the rule — this news doesn’t sit well with buyers heading to MIP.

“Not more comedies!” groans Jan Tibursky, a veteran European acquisitions exec. “[For international buyers] Two and a Half Men is really the only U.S. comedy out there, at least the only one that works in primetime.” Tibursky believes Men’s sex and bad-parenting plot lines translate better for foreign audiences than the bulk of U.S. sitcoms. “It’s a more universal show, not so American,” he says. “I mean, look at [ABC’s new Matthew Perry vehicle] Mr. Sunshine — it’s set at a sport stadium in San Diego. For a European network, that’s a hard sell.”

Making someone laugh with jokes dubbed in another language has never been easy. U.S. comedies that have gone global tend to have an easy-to-pitch, easy-to-grasp setup — whether it’s the “funny dad with kids” of The Cosby Show or the “title says it all” of Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. And crude trumps complicated. Viewers around the world loved Married … With Children. They’ve never heard of Arrested Development.

Which is why procedurals, whodunits and police dramas are the most popular American TV of them all.

There are still enough new episodes of Law & Order, Bones, CSI and Desperate Housewives to keep most foreign networks happy and to ensure U.S. fare retains its global hegemony. But there are whispers around the international watercooler that America’s time at the top of the global dial might be coming to an end.

The U.K. often leads the world in TV trends — see globe-conquering Brit formats Pop Idol, Got Talent and The X Factor, the latter of which Simon Cowell is bringing stateside this fall. So it should worry U.S. networks that, for British buyers, U.S. fare is so last year’s model.

In Britain, the excitement over shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost is long gone, and more recent outings such as Mad Men, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, while garnering critical acclaim, have pulled in tiny audiences.

In fact, the most-talked-about show of the year in England has been the Danish-language mystery thriller The Killing, which is airing on BBC4. A co-production of DR in Denmark with Norway’s NRK, SVT in Sweden and Germany’s ZDF, Killing’s dense plot lines, Nordic knitwear and terse acting style have made for a cult following, despite audiences having to navigate subtitles.

Since Killing reportedly cost the BBC just $1,600 per hour for the first 20-hour season, BBC director general Mark Thompson, a professed fan of the show, quickly got the Beeb to snatch up Season 2. What is surprising is that, for such a paltry price, the BBC has managed to pick a gem that rated comparatively to Boardwalk Empire despite being a fraction of the cost. British Sky Broadcasting shelled out $240 million in a five-year exclusive deal with HBO that includes the Steve Buscemi starrer, along with such buzz series as Game of Thrones and True Blood. And by using sheer buying power, Sky has outbid all British competitors to gobble up the rest of what it considers the best in U.S. drama, including Showtime’s upcoming The Borgias and AMC’s Mad Men.

But the new season of Mad Men continues to be pushed back as — in a less-crazy echo of Sheen’s struggle with CBS — creator Matthew Weiner haggles with Lionsgate for Series 5. This leaves Sky Atlantic and other international Mad Men buyers with yet another scheduling hole to fill.

AMC has dealt with the problem by buying, wait for it … The Killing, which will debut April 3. The U.S. cable network has also greenlighted a 26-episode English-language series based on the original.

AMC isn’t alone. This year’s pilot season is heavily accented, with four new shows based on British series: NBC’s Prime Suspect and Free Agents, ABC’s Identity and Fox’s Outnumbered. Similarly, the CW’s dramedy Danni Lowinski is based on a hit German format, while Netflix, in its first foray into original programming, outbid HBO and AMC for House of Cards, the political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and directed/executive produced by David Fincher, which is based on the acclaimed BBC miniseries.

The buzz ahead of MIPTV is also Euro-centric, whether it’s the six-part Titanic miniseries ITV is bringing to the market, the English-language France-Germany-Austria co-production Borgia (a competitor to Showtime’s series) or the medieval thriller Labyrinth, which Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Productions and Germany’s Tandem Communications is producing as a four-hour event miniseries.

And it will be an Austrian — namely ex-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who will generate the biggest headlines at MIP, when he announces the details of his new, ultra-secret TV project April 4.

So for broadcasters around the world, the Charlie Sheen media circus is more than just a freak show. To many global buyers, Sheen’s ego-driven antics sound like the death cries of the once all-powerful U.S. TV series. For now, the world television business remains in Charlie’s (and the U.S. networks’) corner. But for how much longer?

Says Tibursky, “I think everyone is hoping CBS and Warner Bros. settle with Sheen — there’s too much money at stake.”

Rebecca Leffler in Paris, Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Eric J. Lyman in Rome contributed to this report.

IN SEARCH OF THE NEXT TWO AND HALF MEN: Four upcoming sitcoms that could fill the global void left by the Winning One

Are You There, Vodka? (NBC)
Based on the book by party girl-turned-talk show host Chelsea Handler, this sitcom’s title alone suggests it could step into the hole left by Sheen’s debauched character on Men. Handler, however, will not appear, thus limiting the chances of any drunken behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

Other People’s Kids (ABC)
Reportedly focusing on a thirtysomething slacker (Jesse Bradford) who becomes an unlikely father figure to his older girlfriend’s kids, this sitcom mines the same comic terrain as Men’s take on Sheen’s endearing semi-dad Charlie Harper.

How to Be a Gentleman (CBS)
Two and a Half Men’s odd-couple dynamic is alive and well in this comedy about a straightlaced magazine writer coping with his less-than-gentlemanly friend Bert, played by Entourage’s Kevin Dillon.

I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox)
With sitcom vet and frequent Men helmer Andy Ackerman on board as director, Jaime Pressly (My Name Is Earl) and Julia Ling (Chuck) star as two lifelong friends struggling with the possibility that their kids might be jerks. Could it be the femme version of Men’s take on imperfect parenting?