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Who would have thought that Charlie Sheen’s new series, Anger Management, would be the only show on FX without a TV-MA rating?
No doubt people thought Sheen’s return to a television series after his well-publicized brouhaha with CBS and departure from Two and a Half Men would result in some kind of nude-hooker hootenanny with F-bombs aplenty and graphic content meant to offend.
But no. Anger Management is really just a slightly more content-dangerous network sitcom. Having watched the two episodes that FX sent along, it’s easy to wonder why the series isn’t on a broadcast network rather than FX, the ad-supported pay cable channel where even the animated series are TV-MA.
In Anger Management, Sheen plays Charlie Goodson, a former pro baseball player whose anger-management issues sabotaged his own career. He then goes to college to become a therapist specializing in, you guessed it, anger management. He has an ex-wife, Jennifer (Shawnee Smith), who is smart and sarcastic but has terrible taste in men (which frustrates the now well-adjusted Charlie) because the two share custody of a 15-year-old daughter, Sam (Daniela Bobadilla) with OCD issues. Charlie adores his daughter, respects his ex-wife and constantly worries about them. Meanwhile, he’s pretty happy where he’s at, having no-strings-attached sex with Kate (Selma Blair), who happens to be his best friend as well as a fellow therapist (and then his own therapist).
This new Charlie Goodson has changed his life in a way that works for him, including doing pro bono work at the local prison for inmates with anger-management issues. Combined with the regulars in the group therapy sessions run out of his house, Charlie has no lack of people to bounce one-liners off of.
As it turns out, it’s best to look at Anger Management in two ways. First, as a business decision on FX’s behalf. And secondly, as solid proof from Sheen that he can still be funny and even endearing in a network-styled sitcom with a laugh track. And if this kind of evaluation is important to you, then yes, Anger Management is consistently funnier than the current version of Two and a Half Men. It’s not even close.
However, that doesn’t make it an FX series. And it doesn’t make it the kind of series you’re looking for on a cable channel. Which is likely to be the problem greeting Anger Management.
Check that. It’s likely to be the critical reaction to Anger Management – odds are the reviews will be mostly negative, and the problem, stated or unstated, likely has more to do with the context than the show itself.
Translation: FX is the home of arguably the best half-hour comedy on television in Louie, the channel that allowed another great comedy, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, to grow from cult hit into demo-gold sensation. Plus, it launched the funniest animated series on television in Archer and released into the world the weird brilliance of Wilfred. You don’t toss a standard laugh-track-heavy sitcom into that mix unless it’s a fantastic business decision.
And here’s what a lot of reviews will probably skip: What if people actually come in droves to Anger Management? Everybody wants more eyeballs, and cable channels can’t afford to be snobby about their content. Comedy being super subjective, it’s foolish to suggest that someone who finds Anger Management funny won’t also stumble onto Wilfred or even Louie and think, “What a great night of television.”
Nobody can know that for sure. And it appears that’s a side benefit to a good business deal that FX execs can hope for.
It certainly looks like that’s the gamble FX is taking here with what on the surface doesn’t seem to be its kind of thing. As The Hollywood Reporter first reported, the first four episodes have sold out their ads, FX and studio Lionsgate have already given the nod to start writing the second season, and Anger Management is being prepped for 2014 syndication, with the show sold in Canada, Latin America, Germany, Scandinavia and Australia for roughly $600,000 an episode.
Although there are some iffy caveats regarding minimum ratings numbers that will trigger the official ordering of 90 more episodes after season one, it certainly looks as if the parties involved are confident those numbers will be exceeded, and you can see the dollar signs rolling in the eyes of everyone involved.
So there’s at least your partial answer as to why FX is involved. It makes business sense, particularly with Two and a Half Men reruns also on the network. Fine enough. But is Anger Management a good show?
Not for FX, at least qualitatively. With its classic sitcom pacing, intrusive laugh track and mostly predictable give-and-take one-liners, Anger Management feels like a fish out of water. Way out of water. On the surface, this show leading into Wilfred looks like a train wreck of people who like Sheen’s sexual snark and superb comic timing slamming into fans of a mind-bending series about an Australian guy in a dog suit. And in a world where the groundbreaking and inventive DIY approach of Louie gets hailed as freeing comedy from the constraints of old-school sitcoms, how in the world is Anger Management a fit that makes sense?
Beyond that, it certainly opens the debate about expectations being linked to circumstance. For instance, NBC has a string of oddball sitcoms on Thursday nights – all of them single-camera shows without a laugh track. They do well with critics and people who like their comedy inventive or at least unpredictable, but they do not do well with the masses. You could argue 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Recreation are niche shows better served on cable (and perhaps if NBC had been doing better for the past five to 10 years, it would never tolerate those low ratings). Similarly, most people who loved the Sheen version of Two and a Half Men have not traditionally sought out, say, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or even Archer to get their yuks. The point is, comedy fans seek out their own kind, and Anger Management is not like the others on FX.
And that certainly affects the judgment. Is Anger Management funny? Sure, in a big-tent, broadcast-network kind of way, where being a little more obvious has been the tendency because a greater number of people find that comedy funnier than, say, Wilfred. For his part, Sheen proves why he’s bankable. No matter what happens in his personal life, he nails his lines, uses his face and physical nature to make punch lines funnier than they might be, and commands a multicamera sitcom better than pretty much everybody in the business.
It also would be needlessly high-brow (and inaccurate) to say that Anger Management doesn’t have a string of funny jokes scattered throughout. But they are variations on what you’ve heard a million times and are, at the core, fairly predictable. That might be ratings gold on a broadcast network, but the guess here is that people search out comedies like House of Lies on Showtime or Girls on HBO because they want something different.
Anger Management isn’t different. It’s just airing in an unexpected place.
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