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Jon Cryer gives 'Men' its oomph

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two and a Half Men, an updated version of The Odd Couple with a 10-year-old kid added to the household, is one of the few new sitcoms that Madison Avenue is calling a hit. But don't get too excited by that.

Those predictions by advertising agency analysts are based more on when the show airs, (9:30 Mondays on CBS after Everybody Loves Raymond), than the quality of the program. Not that Two and a Half Men is a stinker. In fact, compared to a truly empty-headed sitcom like The Mullets on UPN, it's Noel Coward meets Mel Brooks. But there is nothing original, daring or especially exciting about the pilot.

As in ABC's now-defunct Spin City, the show's premise is rooted in Charlie Sheen's off-screen persona as one of Hollywood's more dissolute residents. Here he plays Charlie, a rich Malibu bachelor who writes advertising jingles, drinks a lot of hard liquor and seems to sleep with at least one gorgeous woman every night. In fact, he's so hot, younger women stalk him; one female stalker is a recurring character.

As he says in the pilot: "I make a lot of money for doing very little work. I sleep with beautiful women who don't ask about my feelings. I drive a Jag and live at the beach. And sometimes, in the middle of the day for no reason, I like to make myself a big pitcher of margaritas and take a nap out on the sun deck."

But just as Charlie is climbing into bed with one of those women who don't ask about his feelings, he gets a phone call from his brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), asking if he can come over because his wife has just thrown him out. Charlie barely grunts a resentful yes when Alan bursts through his bedroom door.

Alan, a chiropractor, is the opposite of Charlie. Whereas Charlie is laid back and cool, Alan is Woody-Allen neurotic and so tightly wound you fear he's going to snap at any second. He has none of Charlie's way with women, either.

When his wife does come to see him at Charlie's, Alan suggests they make a list with all the things they like about their marriage on one side of the page and all the things they don't like on the other. He likes his lists.

But his wife cuts that exercise short with, "Alan, sometimes when I think about coming home to you, I start crying in my car."

"OK, that would probably go on the 'don't' side," he replies.

Alan and his 10-year-old son, Jake, (Angus T. Jones) move in with Charlie, who doesn't hate kids but doesn't have much use for them, either. Then he gets to know Jake. (This is, after all, a Monday-night CBS lineup of family-friendly sitcoms.)

The Sheen persona wears thin after a while, and Jones is just another kid actor with a goofy-sweet face. But what could make this sitcom fly is Cryer. He injects Alan with a manic energy that literally lifts the pilot into a higher comic gear each time he begins to catalog or rant about all his anxieties and fears.

Cryer is not the caliber of Jack Lemmon in the movie version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. But he has the potential to match Tony Randall in the TV adaptation. The challenge will be whether Cryer and the producers can reach that high-energy elevation week after week.

Two and a Half Men premieres at 9:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

'Las Vegas'

Producers of the pilot for Las Vegas, a new NBC drama about life backstage at a Las Vegas casino, want viewers to feel as if something life-and-death important is happening. The show uses all the ticking clocks and breathless dialogue of series like 24 or the classic Mission: Impossible to heighten its dramatic tension.

But what's actually at stake is this: The casino security team led by an ex-CIA agent called Big Ed (James Caan) is simultaneously trying to catch a blackjack cheat while luring a high-rolling businessman to the casino so he will lose his money there. Who cares? It's not exactly a potential presidential assassination or possible terrorist attack.

Las Vegas, which in addition to Caan stars Josh Duhamel as Big Ed's protege in casino security, is all about superficial glitz: Pretty to look at, but utterly devoid of real dramatic meat on its bones. In the pilot, Duhamel's character is sleeping with Big Ed's flirty daughter, and Big Ed doesn't like it. I could care less.

As for a TV drama allowing viewers a backstage look into the world of Las Vagas casinos, been there and done that with Dan Tanna (Robert Urich) in Vega$ (ABC, 1978-1981), baby. Where's the Rat Pack when you need them?

Las Vegas premieres at 10 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

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