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Will audiences respond to a "Two and a Half Men" starring Ashton Kutcher the way they did to one starring Charlie Sheen?
Now that Ashton Kutcher is taking over for Charlie Sheen, we have to ask: Is "Two and a Half Men 2.0" a good idea?
In the short term, yes.
Because before one second of laugh-track-enhanced sitcomedy is shot, Chuck Lorre will be striking a huge blow to his nemesis, Charlie Sheen. Not only does he officially close the door to a Sheen return, he shuts down the Violent Torpedo's alleged cause celebre. If Sheen really cares about the "Men" crew more than anything (which he claims to), doesn't keeping the show running do more for them than some pointless and un-winnable, multi-million dollar lawsuit that has as much a chance of succeeding as Lindsay Lohan has of seeing the inside of an L.A. prison?
If I'm a "Two and a Half Men" camera operator, I'm more interested in getting a solid call time than I am sitting around waiting for the guy recording rap songs with Snoop Dogg to secure my future.
Not to mention that Lorre gets a less wild card actor (the most reckless thing Kutcher has done in the past five years was stand too close to Bruce Willis on a red carpet) at a discount - if the rumors are true, Kutcher's price tag will be almost exactly half of Sheen's reported $1.2 million per episode. Plus, Kutcher currently has 3 million MORE Twitter followers than Charlie.
But long-term success for the show is a much tougher thing to predict.
Because Sheen still has an ace in the hole - and that ace is the "Men" audience. If they turn off and ratings plummet, then Sheen can proudly back-up his claim that it was, indeed, he who spun Lorre's "tin cans into pure gold." It'll be a bit of a hollow victory, but a victory nonetheless. A mass exodus isn't really that unlikely a scenario, either. Despite Sheen's complete public meltdown and unhinged personal life of drugs, porn stars, and misfiring handguns, his greatest (and most baffling) strength is his likability. Sheen's roguish charm and the audience's ability to shrug off even his most vile behavior with a "Well, that's our Charlie!" is possibly the X-factor that has kept "Two and a Half Men" going all this time.
He may boast 6 million Twitter followers, but Kutcher can't touch Sheen when it comes to likability. In fact, Kutcher is downright unlikable. Smug where Sheen is naughty, gratingly ironic where Sheen is slyly winking, toothless where Sheen is edgy, Kutcher's public persona is that of a spoiled brat rather than a hard-partying bad boy.
When Sheen gets serious, people respond. Even the ridiculously-named "Torpedoes Against Tornados" web site (which Sheen started to raise money for victims of the weather disasters in the American south) is effective. People nod and say, "Well, at least he's doing something good with his notoriety."
Now compare that to Kutcher and wife Demi Moore's crusade against sex trafficking. They attempt to tackle a weighty issue with a flippant tagline - "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" - and an even more cutesy web video showing Kutcher mugging with a pair of dirty socks before clumsily linking the concept of "real" men doing their own laundry with the need to stop young women from being kidnapped and forced into a life of prostitution. Not surprisingly, tomatoes were chucked in Kutcher and Moore's direction over the thoroughly fumbled campaign.
And don't even get us started the Nikon commercials.
Is it because Sheen, pre-"Men," had a truly A-list career that he has a certain gravitas? He worked with the likes of Oliver Stone and John Sayles on Academy Award winning and critically praised films like "Platoon," "Wall Street" and "Eight Men Out," and even scored legitimate big time hits in broad comedies like "Major League" and "Hot Shots!" Meanwhile, Kutcher's post-"That 70's Show" movie career has been riddled with more bombs than Kabul. Sheen's made some clunkers, sure, but Kutcher has made nothing but. "My Boss's Daughter"? "The Butterfly Effect"? "What Happens in Vegas"? "Killers"? (alongside the equally unlikable Katherine Heigl). Maybe a return to the sitcom format is what he needs, because movie theaters have not been kind.
The "Men" dynamic was always Sheen as the nearly-burnt out "cool" uncle, Jon Cryer as the straight-laced straight man, and Angus Jones as the wise-beyond-his-years kid. What will it be with Kutcher? The straight-laced straight man, the wise beyond-his-years kid, and the…what? Harmlessly doofy prettyboy? Is it just "Two Men and a Kelso?"
But ultimately, whether the short term victory leads to a bold new chapter in the sitcom's future rests with Lorre. If he can step up and prove that it's the writing that makes "Men," and will make a man out of Kutcher, then he is set. He may not win over the Charlie faithful, but maybe he can secure a whole new audience. No matter what happens, the gauntlet has been thrown and we're at least guaranteed a few more months of comedy-related drama.