Far more sex-obsessed than Carrie Bradshaw and her three New York pals on HBO's Sex and the City and rivaling FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia as the most politically incorrect show airing on a non-premium channel-- essentially creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn's Two and a Half Men is a network television version of a Kevin Smith movie.
However, while Smith left absolutely nothing to the imagination-- the impeccable writing on this smash success Emmy award-winning series manages to aim simultaneously for the highest of the highbrow and the lowest of lowbrow in humor by throwing out enough obvious below the belt references to the masses that they can get away with on CBS (aka the Hallmark Hall of Fame network who brought us Jag and Murder She Wrote). And admirably they do this while at the same time wickedly layering their dialogue with the most innuendo possible to make the humor far richer.
Definitely a show that isn't for everyone as just two minutes of the program can send people running in the other direction. However-- and just like the aforementioned shows in tandem with other personal favorites like the witty discomfort of Ricky Gervais in Extras and BBC's The Office and Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm-- as far as this reviewer is concerned, I simply marveled first in shock about the jokes being leveled at the audience in Everybody Loves Raymond's old 9pm Eastern/8pm Central Monday night time slot. Shock that was until I picked my jaw up off the floor and became dazzled as a writer by the writers' amazingly acerbic style.
While most sitcoms go for a sarcastic line followed by an obvious joke, Two and a Half Men pulls a fast one on audiences every single time by riffing, picking up threads from jokes thrown out carelessly two minutes earlier and manage to keep topping the previous joke even though the moment's long passed and a different conversation is well underway.
Although I'd seen a majority of the first season and a few episodes here and there when work or college didn't get in the way (and sadly this was before the era of widespread and affordable access to DVR and/or TiVo), I managed to get hooked right into the familiar premise in this Warner Brothers release of the complete fifth season.
Due to the writer's strike-- Two and a Half Men's season five was truncated from its usual length to a mere nineteen episodes as opposed to the traditional twenty-four or twenty-six that typically run annually for a comedic series. And while some shows struggled to find their footing once again when the writers returned, Two and Half Men never made a false step by adding some multi-episode story arcs.
In fact these additions were extremely helpful in augmenting the running gag of the part time wealthy musician and full time womanizer Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) who spends most of his time drinking at all hours of the day and parading in and out of his gorgeous Malibu beach side home women half his age whose IQs are probably right in alignment with their bra size.
Essentially taking an Odd Couple approach-- the show's set-up is simple as in the earliest season, Charlie took in his younger brother Alan (Jon Cryer) and Alan's son Jake (Angus T. Jones) following his divorce from the still controlling and now remarried Judith (Marin Hinkle). Yet although the arrangement was supposed to be temporary, the threesome remain sharing the same roof to amusing effect as-- whereas Charlie's life is all fleeting hedonistic spontaneous pleasure where women and good fortune never fail to fall into his lap-- the uptight, neat freak chiropractor Alan never manages to have one tenth of his brother's success.
Thrown into the mix are Alan's exceedingly dim son Jake (Angus T. Jones) who seems to have ruined his brain with cereal the way that his uncle Charlie has done with booze and Berta (Conchata Ferrell) as the guys' loud, always inappropriate but comically dynamite housekeeper.
And, offering a true glimpse into just how Alan and Charlie's development went so wrong-- the series' frequent scene stealer Holland Taylor routinely swings by as their old manipulative cougar mother who works in real estate by trading in dirty gossip and helping arrange divorces to boost business (once by amusingly pimping out a clueless Charlie). Taylor's bravery is commendable as she launches headfirst into the unlikable role of a woman who is in every sense an older female version of Charlie except in lieu of toxic bachelorhood, she'd been married nearly a half a dozen times.
One of the comedic bright spots who pops up only occasionally in the fifth season is Melanie Lynskey's delightful contradiction of a sweet smiling devil with an angelic face in her embodiment of Rose-- a former stalker and girlfriend of Charlie who despite moving to England (allegedly) still sneaks back into Charlie's life from time to time. This is used to great effect in one of the season's kookiest episodes that finds Charlie and Rose reenacting Rob Reiner's Misery except with yarn knitted scarves and strong European tranquilizers instead of brutal violence.
Featuring some nice twists that find Charlie first trying to take a cue from Alan and date a woman his age (i.e. a brainy judge played by Ming-Na), which only lasts a few episodes-- soon he becomes an overnight children's singing sensation Mr. Waffles who uses his new found popularity as a far less talented version of Raffi to ignore his hatred of children and troll for single moms a la Hugh Grant in About a Boy.
While admittedly it is a tad repetitive as overall, most of the humor derives from the brothers' polar opposite sex lives as Alan suffers through a relationship with a neurotic, self-loathing weeper (Janeane Garofalo) whereas the promiscuous sex-addict in denial Charlie begins a twisted flirtation and intermittent affair with Jenny McCarthy just before her father (James Brolin) marries their mother.
Still fortunately, it's to the credit of the writers once again of switching things up with nice curve balls to lead you around the bases to a home plate you were never guessing would be there in managing to lessen the potential "ick" factor with a sinister twist for McCarthy and Brolin's extended cameo work.
Aside from wishing there would be more opportunities to work in Jane Lynch as Sheen (and Cryer's) terrific psychoanalyst and noting that the show always benefits from the additions of Rose and their mother (particularly in one episode when Charlie is shocked to discover he enjoys hanging out with her), one major drain on the show's humorous energy comes via the dialogue scripted for the overwhelmingly dim-witted Jake. In fact, as the season continued, I realized I began to pity poor Angus T. Jones so much that you feel the "half" portion of the men would be left out of a few more episodes.
While the series has always been synonymous with Charlie Sheen and his payday is long said to be the highest of any network television actor, when I began watching the fifth season in quick succession while preparing this review, I began to realize just how talented and underrated Jon Cryer is in the role of Alan.
Cryer, who will always be known to me as Pretty in Pink's Duckie, brings so much to the table since without Alan as his foil-- the Charlie show or God forbid, the Charlie and Jake show-- would've only survived a single season as opposed to the recent announcement that Men has been renewed by CBS for an additional three full seasons.
Although on television in its regular run, the show just ended its sixth successful season as one of the most watched and highest rated popular sitcoms on network television (and in my eyes, one that far surpasses the channel's previous contenders The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond)-- given some of the risks the writers took throughout this great slim-packaged fifth season set (which also contains the hundredth episode milestone mark) in trying to actively inspire change in the main characters, I'm hopeful that they'll have enough ideas to play with this more in the future.
Similarly, by showing their ambition for the men continue to grow (as much like Jake, it's only logical), I'm optimistic that-- instead of succumbing to the sad fate of so many long-running shows by remaining the same Odd Couple like types they were introduced as in the opening season-- they'll keep us laughing for a long, long time.