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Charlie Sheen could really be #winning with 'Anger Management'

I don't like Charlie Sheen, and I thought the online mania over him last year after he was fired by CBS was a sign from God that American culture was in a very bad place and needed divine intervention to be saved.

Given the political landscape these days, I'm not feeling any better about American culture, but I like Sheen's new FX sitcom "Anger Management"  a lot more than I thought I would.

"Not only do I like it, as in, "Gee, that was a lot more fun to watch than 95 percent of the braindead network sitcoms I screen," I am impressed by it, as in, "Yikes, this thing actually looks like it might have something to say about American life today. Who would have thought?"

By the way, if you are one of the people who reads a preview and then sends an email or posts comments filled with anger, snark and outrage because you encountered a "spoiler," stop now and go lock yourself in the basement until Thursday night at 9 when the series premieres, because "spoilers" are going to be everywhere in the online world, and I am tired of trying to write around things because some people are too mentally lazy to do it for themselves.

(Do you get the idea I do not want to hear from anyone about spoilers? I know, I know, "Hey Z, maybe somebody else could use some anger management here, huh?" But that's kind of my larger point for this review: We are in a very angry place as a culture, Z included since I am part of that culture, and this sitcom speaks to that anger. And that's why I like it. But let's get back to me delivering some spoilers.)

The series stars Sheen as a therapist named Charlie whose in-home practice focuses on patients with anger management issues. Hearkening all the way back to "The Bob Newhart Show," a landmark sitcom that debuted in 1972, the core setting for the series is Charlie as therapist in a group therapy setting with his patients. They include a very angry and prejudiced Vietnam veteran, a gay man who expresses his anger in a passive-aggressive acts, another man who likes women to take their anger out on him, and a woman who is ordered by the court into Charlie's group for shooting her boyfriend.

One of the advantages about this formula is that because the characters are patients with impulse control issues they get a special dispensation to say things that otherwise might be off-limits or taboo -- even for cable TV. And they do, but I am not going there in this review.

(There is also a group of patients at a prison that Charlie works with pro bono, but I am not going there either in this post. I have some issues of my own with the way certain identities are depicted in that group, but I have not seen enough to make a call and lower the boom on the producers and writers.)

Charlie also has a 13-year-old daughter who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Of course, we meet her as she enters the livingroom and locks and relocks and relocks and relocks ad infinitum the front door.

There is an ex-wife in the picture, too. She's played by Shawnee Smith, and she is the saving grace of the series in terms of a providing gender balance. There's more female balance from Selma Blair as Charlie's therapist, but here it's more a matter of sexual balance than gender; she and Charlie are sexual partners. (Memo to therapists: Save the emails about patients and therapists sleeping together. I didn't say the series was enlightened. I wouldn't go near Charlie or her if I wanted real-life therapy. But this is sitcom, remember?)

I like the backstory, too. Charlie is a former professional baseball player, who after a slog through the minor leagues in backwater places like Beloit, Wisconsin, makes it to the major leagues only to ruin his career by losing his temper. After a fan a reaches over the field of play and grabs a foul ball that Charlie was about to catch, he picks up a bat and tries to break it over his knee, only to shatter his knee and his career instead. The injury sent him back to school to become a therapist.

After showing his patients the video of his career-ending act, Charlie piously tells them his mission now is to help them so that they don't do that kind of harm to their lives.

"Play it again," the woman who shot her boyfriend responds with piles of snark, "so that I can see if I care this time."

No sanctimonious moment is allowed to stand unchallenged in the two episodes I screened.

Here's the takeaway: Not only does the pilot, which premieres at 9 p.m. June 28th, speak to what an angry nation we have become, it picks around under the scab a bit to explore what's causing the infection. One thread of discussion involves whether or not it pays to go to college given the high cost and the lack of the jobs for young people.

It's set up by Charlie's ex-wife dating a guy who is telling Charlie's daughter she doesn't need college. Charlie doesn't want him telling his daughter that. The guy, who is far richer than Charlie will ever be, throws his success in Cahrlie's face.

Any series that even acknowledges the social reality of through-the-roof college costs and an econony that betrays the promise made to young people that they will find good jobs if they get a degree is one that gets my vote.

That's part of the takeaway, too: As crazy as he is, Sheen, and his producers (crazy as they might be for going into business with him), appear to have a better sense of where the country is at than either President Obama or Mitt Romney.
I'll have more of "Anger Management" as we get closer to the premiere. I want to talk about the way in which Sheen is a great sitcom actor in the tradition of network sitcoms. I also want to talk about the unique business model the producers and FX are using for this series, and what it might mean for the future of television.

As for the 46-year-old Sheen telling the New York Times this is his last series, while he talks to Rolling Stone about a foot fetish, this is one of Hollywood's great conmen playing the press and the beast of online gossip like almost no one else in the pop culture industry can.

You can hear a podcast of a review of "Anger Management" that I did on WYPR-FM, Baltimore's NPR outlet. It's linked on the left hand side of this post under the WYPR logo. Lisa Morgan produced it.

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