Charlie Sheen’s recent rehab stint doesn’t just mean tough times for the actor — or his fellow “Two and a Half Men” cast and crew members.
It might mean long-term trouble for the CBS hit itself even if Sheen returns to the set at the end of February, as has been reported.
That’s because returning to a role where he plays an over-the-top, substance-abusing character — something that mirrors his real life — could be self-sabotaging, according to psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman.
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“If a woman on a soap opera is playing a seductress, that’s not as much pressure as Charlie Sheen playing a character he resembles in real life,” she explained. “On his show, people laugh at that behavior and in some sense encourage it. Yet in his real life, it’s incredibly tragic. There’s that disconnect between what he’s being paid for and what’s destroying him on the other.”
Sheen’s popular character, also named Charlie, has been the subject of laughs on the show since the beginning, and audiences have remained forgiving of his real-life behavior, possibly because of that role. Reruns of the show continue to earn “Men” top ranking in its timeslot, and draw around 11.2 million viewers.
As for Sheen, a November E-Poll Market Research report, which measures the relative marketing effectiveness of celebrities, gave him a very high score — 86 out of 100. (By comparison, his Emmy-winning, more strait-laced co-star Jon Cryer got an 88.)
“That’s pretty amazing,” said E-Poll CEO Gerry Philpott. “(Sheen) gets a far more favorable rating from the general public than most people around.”
“People give stars a lot of latitude; they’re often seen as children,” said Tim Brooks, a former network and cable executive and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”
“Also, a lot of people don’t read the tabloids or follow this stuff. They’re busy with their jobs and lives and soccer practice. You’d be surprised just how unaware the public is,” he added.
But Sheen has reportedly chosen to do his rehab from home, a setup unlikely to produce long-lasting results — and there’s a lot of pressure on him to return to work sooner rather than later. That means he may be walking back into work again, playing a laughable man with an addiction, a situation that could provide fuel for another stint in rehab — and hiatus.
This one is already his second in less than a year. The actor went into a month-long rehab stay in 2010 after being arrested for alleged domestic violence after a 2009 Christmas Day fight with estranged wife Brooke Mueller, and the show lost two episodes.
Audiences may not be laughing a third time around.
No Sheen, no 'Men'?
That leaves the show’s writers stuck, as series creator Chuck Lorre has no intention of either recasting the part, or putting in an extended guest-star appearance to hold the spot.
“I can’t see the show surviving without Sheen because of the comedic dynamic,” said an ex-manager with close ties to the show. “And as far as I know, they’re not making any more shows this season.”
Yet this is an unusual situation in the TV world. Film stars like Lindsay Lohan or musicians like Britney Spears may routinely drive their trains off the rails, but TV actors can’t afford to party their nights away.
“It’s more like a job that you come to regularly, and there’s a lot more of a time commitment on the part of the actors,” said Brooks.
The show must go on
TV has had its share of actor disasters throughout the decades, though few have killed off the stars’ series. In 1984, Stacy Keach’s “Mickey Spillaine’s Mike Hammer” had to pause while he served time for drug possession, but the show went on.
On the flip side, even reruns of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” were yanked when star Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in 1991. More recently, TV stars including David Duchovny, Matthew Perry and Demi Lovato have all bounced back after rehab stints. Yet few have been as public about it as Sheen.
Networks usually have actors’ backs because no one wants to lose their investment in a scripted series — even when there are tragic circumstances. For example, the suicide of lead Pete Duel in 1971 failed to end the series “Alias Smith and Jones,” then in its first season. Both ABC and producers immediately found a new lead, and the show ran for another two seasons.
But trying to patch up or put on hold a hot show isn’t easy for anyone.
“It’s a terrible dislocation when a show is forced to go into hiatus,” said Gene Ritchings, who served as production coordinator on NBC’s “Law & Order” for 10 years.
“People are thrown out of work in a difficult economy; the writers have to find ways to prepare scripts for an uncertain future. It becomes a knotty problem to work out while they wait for someone’s personal problems to be solved so they can work again,” he added.
“Men’s” crew is likely to get some compensation — during last year’s hiatus they received partial compensation, and many likely work on more than one show. But after 13 episodes each season — and "Men" has already aired 14 of 16 finished episodes — the studio has no legal obligation to pay fellow cast for downtime.
Such details put even more pressure on Sheen to get back to work as soon as possible, which is not exactly a recipe for success, said Lieberman.
“He’ll be clean of any drugs quickly,” she said. “But the detox from the substance is just the first phase of rehab. And the more times you go back to your addiction, the harder it is and the more time you need each subsequent time.”
But if Sheen does manage to make it through a legitimate rehab stint, it’s possible that his wildly popular series could be the bigger winner.
“Everything has been so public,” said Adam Hanft, CEO of brand strategy firm Hanft Projects. “If he can battle this with any degree of success, the show may take on an added level of cultural significance — and take its loyal audience to a deeper level.”
Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.”