A Brief Personal History of the Sitcom Part I

under the yum yum tree

Two and a Half Men

I watched 15 minutes of Two and a Half Men last night. It was a syndicated rerun (with Charlie Sheen) after the early evening news. I have always disliked Two and a Half Men and never understood its popularity. This was not a particularly informed opinion since I had never seen the show. I based my view on my emotional revulsion at the promos for the show that I would see while watching something else.

Now I have seen it. I still think the show is dreck, but I have a little more understanding of its popularity. It seems it is a contemporary version of a classic American comedic form—the middle class sex farce. The middle class sex farce features a middle class man who is average in many ways. He has all the money he needs without working. He also has exposure to an improbable number of pretty middle class women who are interested in, or potentially interested in, making love to him. The form is decidedly unromantic. Love and connection are devalued on Two and a Half Men. Sexual pleasure, and a life of worry-free leisure and material comfort are valued highly. Two and a Half Men is a hit because it is an escape from economic and psychological depression. It is created to watch in an airport lounge near the end of an exhausting business trip wen you haven’t had a date in a year, or with a half gallon of ice cream when your weight is up twenty pounds and the unemployment checks are running out.

The show is very brightly lit. The set and costumes are brightly colored. The women on the show are very pretty but not so glamorous that the male viewer can’t fantasize that they are attainable or the female viewer can’t see them as reasonable objects for self-identification. The women characters sometimes pay lip service to commitment and marriage. This serves two purposes. It provides a little comedic tension and it lets middle-class women enjoy the show because they feel it has some understanding of their deeper desires of love and marriage.

Two and a Half Men most reminds me of American middle class sex farce movies from the mid-1960’s —Good Neighbor, Sam, The Guide to the Married Man, and Under the Yum Yum Tree come to mind. Two of these movies starred Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Robert Morse took the lead in Married Man. Two and a Half Men has all of the elements the sixties farces—average guy, with time and money and access to sex with beautiful women, but also adds new elements. The sex is spoken about more directly. There is no attempt to make Charlie Sheen’s character a nice guy. Jack Lemmon’s characters were always nice if flawed in these stories. Lemmon was even a little naïve about his opportunities. The sixties farces were disingenuous because they gave the audience the fantasy of sexual freedom with a variety of partners while offering an inorganic moral-of-the-story lauding marriage, fidelity and hard work.

Two and a Half Men knows that a big portion of the population (in the younger demographic that network TV prizes) now views the American Dream of Lemmons’ old movies as a straight jacket. Most of whoever is left is frustrated in finding the good job and meaningful relationship which was much more doable for more people in America in the 1960’s.

The creators of Two and a Half Men have made a cynical story and a very successful business model. The famous lowest common denominator of TV is no longer a reference to a low brow lack of intellectualism. It is now a reference to an intellectually-based but lazy nihilism that dismisses the possibility of finding meaning in life while trumpeting the appeal of base pleasurable sensations. Everyone wants to live in a big comfortable house and get laid a lot.

Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

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