Molloy and Malone
by Alex Carnevale
Quietly and unobtrusively, like an elephant tiptoeing through a church, the No. 1 comedy in television is a show about which you’ll never hear critics crow. Highbrows phonies disdain the laugh-tracked adventures of philanderer Charlie Harper, his chiropractor brother Alan Harper and Alan’s son Jacob. For most of its audience, Two and a Half Men is a bunch of belly laughs from a bygone era where sexual innuendo and wry put-downs were enough to entertain a generation.
charlie and his nephew jake
But there is something deeper and more disturbing going on in Mssr. Harper’s shiny Santa Monica beach house, more Paradise Lost than The King of Queens. With a bare minimum of sets, props, and actors, the milieu emerges comfortably from knowing banter between familiars. Much of it is cheerful babbling between likeable fops, but there’s just as many vicious insults and moments of utter darkness. Without it, there would be little reason to watch the lives of spoiled whites.
alan and kandi
The show is really about Alan Harper, played by veteran sitcommer Jon Cryer. After his wife kicks him out of the house he spend years working to own, he moves in with his brother to create the latest version of Neil Simon’s battle of opposites. Alan is a desperate weasel, with an attitude towards sex that would push most men to abandon the idea of not paying for it. He loves being a father, but he’s not a very good one. And, burdened with alimony payments, he depends on his brother for most things.
On the surface, it’s a game setup. Alan is fastidious and repressed where his brother is loose and free. Each has something to learn from one another.
But they never do. On most shows, months pass, things are learned, life goes on. On Two and a Half Men, upwards of ten years has passed, with Alan’s son Jake turning from a cute kid to a pudgy preteen to a slim, handsome teenager to prove it. And yet even he has learned barely more manners than he began the show with. Though he has lost the pudginess that typified his character, neither his uncle or his father have noticed. For them, he is forever eight.
As a result, a strange Beckettian tone has taken over the proceedings. Many of the episodes have similar plots, and yet the characters learn nothing. It is the furthest thing from the expectations of traditional drama, and yet it happens again and again.
Charlie Harper is a boozer, and in one episode he even learns the word for what he really is: misogynist. He has to look it up in the dictionary, granted, but at least he is permitted to know what he is.
He’s taken the brief vagaries of a career in jingle-writing, and turned it into an existence that most men with a pulse should envy. If a beautiful woman walks and talks, Charlie Harper can wriggle his way into dumping her at some point down the road after the novelty of sex with her has faded into the bother of a relationship. He is constantly vacillating between two essentially male state of minds — the moments before sex, when a man will do anything to have it; and those moments after sex, where no matter the place, the woman, or the future you have with her, the man wishes she was still and lifeless between thousands of pounds of seawater and fresh air.
Between the bars, he has been given a chance to remedy the error of his ways. His first real chance came with a storyline that had him cozying up to his real-life squeeze, Denise Richards. You can wager a guess as to how that ended, although to be fair it was a good deal better than it did in real life.
Next was ballet dancer Mia. No woman was more reluctant to agree to Charlie’s advances; as a result winning her was even more special a prize. And yet at the final moment of embrace, Mia demanded he cut loose his brother on the world so that they could make a life together — and he refused. What could be a zanier version of ourselves?
Charlie at least has the barest reason not to want to change his life — it’s pretty great, even if the hangovers are dissipating a lot slower than they used to. But his brother navigates, in many ways, the same worn path. And yet he manages to choose even more disastrously than Charlie Sheen. This is a feat indeed.
Alan Harper’s last two serious girlfriends were castoffs from the freight train that is the Charlie Harper experience. The first was the lush, brilliantly opaque 22-year old, Kandi, whose limber body and less-than-limber mind took Charlie mere seconds to tire of. Alan was endlessly entranced by Kandi’s willingness to pursue intercourse with him, and he even married her. Divorce predictably came shortly after.
Next was Alan’s chirpy receptionist, a small little sprite who charmed her way in and out of his brother’s pants. She then “chose” Alan, and things were going on quite swimmingly until he ate a pot brownie and hooked up with her mother (Carol Kane). You see, these characters resist change in every form it offers itself. It reminds them suspiciously of their mother, who also wanted to change them, and is portrayed by Holland Taylor.
The gifts of modernity are empty to these two brothers. They never use the internet – Charlie is once amused to find there’s a defamatory website about his exploits with the fairer sex, but that’s all. Sometimes they watch television – Alan sipping wine and sampling his brother’s private jacuzzi plasma while he’s off on his latest conquest.
There is nothing of these two lives we would want, and yet they exist all the same. Like two sons of God, Alan and Charlie carry on completely differently, and yet neither is satisfied. No matter what we do, this riddle of a show tells us, we are doomed to be dissatisfied. When we are closest to our own idea of happiness is when we are farthest from it. Such creatures, humans, can never truly be balanced, lest they make up a fiction they can enjoy better than the pitter-patter of time coming to claim where they live, up against the ocean.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He lives in Manhattan, and tumbls here.
“The Magpie” – Bishop Allen (mp3)
“The Lion and the Teacup” – Bishop Allen (mp3)
“The Ancient Commonsense of Things” – Bishop Allen (mp3)
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