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'Two and a Half Men' Finale Review: Charlie Sheen Loomed Over It All

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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In the end, it all came down to Charlie. Two and a Half Men wrapped up its 12-season run Thursday night with an hour that centered on the idea that Charlie Sheen's Charlie Harper was still alive — even though Sheen himself never actually turned up in the flesh. Angus T. Jones as Jake did, though.

The finale began with Jon Cryer's Alan getting a letter saying Charlie was owed a lot of money in composer royalties: Two and a half (get it?) million bucks. Pretty soon, various women from Charlie's past, including Amber Tamblyn as daughter Jenny, were shown in a montage, each receiving a large-sum check to "buy yourself something nice."

Then Melanie Lynskey's Rose told Alan, Walden (Ashton Kutcher), and Evelyn (Holland Taylor) that Charlie wasn't killed and cremated, but has been kept for the past four seasons in a pit in the basement of Rose's house. She recounted this during a sequence featuring an animated version of Charlie.

The final hour was stuffed with self-referential jokes about the show itself. To quote just two:

Alan: "Start from the beginning." Rose: "You mean the pilot?"

Walden: "Amazing that you've made so much money with such stupid jokes." (The stars of the show all turned and looked pointedly at the camera after that one.)

In the final scene, a body-double meant to be Charlie, his back to the camera, approached Walden's house, only to have a baby grand piano dropped on him, obliterating the figure. The camera pulled back to reveal co-creator Chuck Lorre in a director's chair. He turned to the camera and uttered Sheen's trademark manic phrase: "Winning!" Then a piano dropped on him. Make no mistake, though: This episode was Lorre's revenge for having to put up with Sheen's real-life antics for so many years.

Lorre's full vanity card message:

Among the guest stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as a police detective who ran through most of the plot twists of the series' history, as though viewers were tuning in to Men for the first time. Christian Slater turned up in the police station, having been mistaken for Charlie Harper.

Two and a Half Men has always been a sturdy little sitcom. Co-created by Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, Two and a Half Men was, if you break it down, just another variation on The Odd Couple. (And proving there's little new on network TV, a re-worked version of The Odd Couple premiered on CBS just before the Men finale.) The difference between Men and a hundred other Odd Couple variations is the canniness Lorre and Aronsohn had in rejuvenating the premise, and its uniquely unpredictable casting. At the start, Cryer's Alan Harper moved in with Sheen's Charlie Harper, after the brother had been — a detail cribbed straight from The Odd Couple — kicked out of his house by his wife (played by Marin Hinkle). Alan brought along his son, Jake. From the start, the key dynamic was clear: It was prissy, insecure, neurotic Alan versus the confident, decadent, uninhibited Charlie. Charlie was wealthy, thanks to a career as a jingle writer; Alan was always grubbing for money and angling to stay in his brother's guest house for, basically, ever.

Related: 'The Odd Couple' Review: Are the New Felix and Oscar Funny?

The jokes on Two and a Half Men were simple, blunt, and frequently vulgar — if the show can claim any shred of originality, it was in Lorre's belief that the mass-American audience that composes the CBS viewership would enjoy humor that was more crass than most network shows dared. In many interviews, the delightfully self-aware Lorre frequently said that if Men had aired first on pay-cable, its content would have been perceived as tame, but telling jokes about private parts and sexcapades in primetime to the broadest audience possible placed Men in a context in which it came off as daring, in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge sort of way.

Coming into the show, Cryer was known mostly as Duckie in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty in Pink. Sheen was perceived as a once-serious actor (Wall Street, Platoon) who was lowering himself for a big paycheck. Soon enough, both men's pasts were overtaken by the popularity of Men.

In the early seasons, there was real spark in Sheen and Cryer's exchanges. Both smart, quick actors, they understood their characters and helped the writers shape and refine Charlie and Alan. As originally conceived, Men was to have been about two men parenting a third male, but, very quickly, the "half" man, Jones's Jake became little more than a short straight-man to the two stars, a kid shuttled in and out of scenes as quickly as possible. By the time Jones grew up enough to condemn his meal-ticket as "filth" (as he did in 2012), his presence was no longer needed anyway.

Related: Jon Cryer Breaks Down His Funniest 'Two and a Half Men' Moments

After eight seasons of increasing popularity, the wild life Sheen had been leading off-camera overtook Charlie Harper's swinger shenanigans. After loosing thunderbolt insults at Lorre and others, a stint in rehab, and a disinclination to play nice with CBS led to Sheen's exit: killed off in the ninth-season premiere. In a typically self-referential moment during Thursday's finale, Walden said his Internet search for Charlie turned up "a crazy rant about a former employer."

With Sheen's exit, the series might easily have been canceled. (Just last week, Alan remarked, "After we lost Charlie, I thought we were done.") But Lorre and company executed a remarkably smooth, assured switcheroo, bringing in Kutcher as a different kind of wealthy man — Walden Schmidt, a laid-back billionaire Internet entrepreneur. Walden, a more kind-hearted womanizer, gave Men a very occasionally warmer feel.

These days Sheen, looking orange and a little heavier, recently wrapped up the 100-episode run of FX's Anger Management. (Another in-joke from the finale: "Has he tried anger management?" "Yeah, but it didn't work.") In the last of Lorre's trademark, closing-episode vanity cards, he claimed that Sheen had been offered an appearance in the finale but turned it down. If true, Sheen was silly to do so.

Cryer is now finally free to never wear another boys-size polo shirt again and — I wouldn't be at all surprised — launch a third phase of his career in whatever he chooses; the guy has talent and charm.

Will Two and a Half Men take a prominent place in TV history? Not a chance. But it made millions of people laugh, and made its participants billions of dollars, so it will live on in syndication as a wise business enterprise that might elicit a few chuckles when you stumble upon a rerun somewhere.