'Anger Management' review: Charlie Sheen's comeback is all about business
The show will premiere on the cable channel Thursday night (June 28), and it will probably score pretty big ratings given Sheen's high media profile. But "Anger Management" is at least as much about its business model -- producing a syndication-ready 100 episodes in as short a time as possible -- as it is about making audiences laugh with Sheen and the other characters on screen. Anyone who makes a show obviously wants it to run as long as it can, but that's never felt like the motivating force for, say, "Louie" or "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." That "Sunny" has been around long enough to be syndicated almost feels like an accident.
"Anger Management," though, might not exist without the promise of getting into syndication: If the 10 episodes FX has ordered (at a pretty cheap price) score big enough ratings, the show gets an additional 90-episode order (it's the same model syndicator Debmar-Mercury used for Tyler Perry's TBS shows). Sheen and Co. will make those episodes in about two years, and FX will then have, as network head John Landgraf put it earlier this year, "the opportunity to fill in our schedule with another potent off net sitcom, if you will, even though it's weird calling it off net because it's starting on our net. That's really what the goal is."
Landgraf was speaking before he had seen any of "Anger Management," but it's notable that he didn't mention much about the show's potential quality. Now that finished episodes are out there, we can tell you that it's not great. Sheen knows his way around a setup and joke, and he's at ease in his role as Charlie Goodson, former baseball player-turned-therapist with an ex-wife, Jennifer ( Shawnee Smith of "Becker" and the "Saw" movies), and teenage daughter, Sam ( Daniela Bobadilla, "Awake"), who are frequently around.
The scenes with Smith and Bobadilla are easily the best part of the show. Charlie and Jennifer have gotten past their divorce and are more or less on the same page with regard to raising their daughter, and though most of the jokes are at Charlie's expense, they aren't barbed in the way sitcom humor about marriage and divorce often is.
Unfortunately, that's less than half the show. The other parts, involving Charlie's therapy group and his shrink-with-benefits relationship with colleague Kate ( Selma Blair) are as leaden and obvious as the family scenes are (comparatively) light. The therapy group is populated with paper-thin characters played by Noureen DeWulf (the angry hot girl), Barry Corbin (the crotchety old homophobe), Michael Arden (the gay man/target of Corbin's insults) and Derek Richardson (the doormat). Charlie also works with a group of prison inmates, and the less said about that the better.
As for Blair, she's a pretty strong comedic actress, but her casting here seems wrong. There's not much evident chemistry between her and Sheen, and the rhythms of a traditional sitcom don't suit her.
"Anger Management" also has a built-in meta-narrative involving Sheen's return to work after his meltdown and firing from "Two and a Half Men" last year. Charlie the character is trying to make up for past transgressions to his ex and daughter, and Charlie the actor -- recent hotel-trashing reports notwithstanding -- has been toeing the contrite line in the run-up to the show. "Anger Management" winks at some of the milder incidents in Sheen's recent past, but it doesn't really add much to the show.
It's not hard to see why FX made the decision to pick up "Anger Management" -- it's an inexpensive show in terms of up-front costs that could potentially provide the channel with a new companion to its other acquired sitcoms (including, not coincidentally, "Two and a Half Men"). But the easy and inexpensive business case also cheapens the FX brand a little bit.