Cultural Commentary: The Two and a Half Men Christmas Episode

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I'm as concerned about this as you are.I watched the Christmas episode of Two and a Half Men. Now, you must suffer as I have suffered.

The show is notoriously awful, and this particular episode featured a solid minute of Santa Claus sex noises. So why did I watch it? Good question. Great question.

I’m home for the holidays. I had grand plans. I was going to watch all of my favorite Christmas specials and movies, and write cheerful little reviews. Instead, I’ve been helping my mom with the Christmas shopping and decorating, while my brother monopolizes our one flat-screen TV. (Number of functioning tube TVs at my house? Two and a half. An ill-fated number.) Most of our interactions this week have consisted of the following:

“Can’t talk, playing Smash Brothers. Wanna play Smash Brothers?” (Answer: no).
Magic Tournament today. Wanna play Magic?” (Answer: yes).

On Saturday, we finally had some time to sit down and watch something as a family, and my mom and brother wanted to watch the Christmas episode of Two and a Half Men. Christmas is the season of togetherness, so it was very difficult for me to justify running from the room screaming. I stayed. I watched.

Backstory time: family LOVES sit-coms. I grew up on them: Family Ties and Family Matters during prime time, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler More on Nick at Nite. The only panel I gave a crap about last Comic-con was the emergency “Oh Sh*t Community isn’t cancelled, hey TV guide give us your panel” panel. Sitcoms are in my blood, though my tastes have grown increasingly sophisticated as I’ve gotten older.

My mom and brother’s tastes… have not. They like everything. They’ll watch Brooklyn 99 or Parks & Rec one night, and Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory the next. There is a dark secret buried in my past, as well. I voluntarily watched this show during the early seasons, because I had been a fan of Charlie Sheen ever since Hot Shots. He is really good at portraying a horrible human being who is still likeable despite all the f**ked up things he does, which kind of explains how he managed to trick Hollywood into letting him have a career for as long as he did.

Also, I actually liked Charlie’s relationship with Berta, his no-nonsense housekeeper, especially when things like this happened:

For those of you fortunate enough to have somehow survived the past decade with no knowledge of Two and a Half Men, the original premise of the show was that Sheen’s character “Charlie” shared a house with his brother Alan and Alan’s kid Jake, who was the show’s “and a Half.”  This is season twelve so obviously there have been some changes since then. Most notably Charlie Sheen’s character was killed off and replaced by Ashton Kutcher and Jake’s actor grew up and left the show. I had to process all this when I visited my family this Thanksgiving, when I was first subjected to this era of Two and a Half Men. My family was watching an episode where Kutcher’s character Walden adopts an adorable foster kid. I had a brief Q&A with my brother.

“So, the original kid is grown up and gone. Now they’re bringing in a new kid.”
“Right.”
“But the original kid has been gone like… a while.”
“Yeah.”
“So who was the half-man?”
“What?”
“It’s Two and a Half Men. It can’t just be about… two men. Or Three Men, which is why that other kid had to leave when he got too old.”
“Actually, he left because he decided the show was an unholy abomination against god.”
“He was right about that, but for all the wrong reasons. So was there like… a substantial amount of time where the show did not have a half man?”
“I guess so.”
“So they just had… two men?”
“Well, they did have Charlie’s lesbian daughter. She was there to sort of fill the gap between the kids.”
“You’re saying there was a period when the titular ‘and a half men’ was a lesbian?”
“Yeah kinda.”
“That’s… simultaneously horrible and awesome. Also, this conversation about the ontological significance of the title is probably the most interesting thing about this show.”

I clearly had some catching up to do. Yes, I did actual research on Two and a Half Men for you guys, because I AM A JOURNALIST, and wow… this show’s wikia is the most incomprehensible wiki I have ever used, including the fansite for a French animated series that I could only read via a combination of high school French and google translate. I powered through it, and here’s what I learned: when Charlie Sheen got too crazy for network television they killed off his character, and it was implied that Rose, the crazy stalker/wacky neighbor character may have murdered him. According to the episode that featured his closed-casket funeral, he fell in front of an oncoming train and – this is a direct quote – “his body just exploded like a balloon full of meat.”

Charlie Sheen’s reasonably charming rogue is out, replaced by Ashton Kutcher’s humorless nerd guy who has all the wealth and power one can accumulate, but who is physically incapable of enjoying anything about his life. As someone wrote on the wiki: “His looks, along with his vast wealth, have gotten many women attracted to him.[Sic]” Is that some extreme new version of the the passive voice? Is that even any known grammatical form?

Digression: this is irrelevant to the current season, but the wiki contains this summary of the plot of another episode from the Kutcher period. Reminder: these events happened on a sitcom that is presented as acceptable programming for families, and which airs in prime time on a major television network. They are dark tidings of Christmas episodes yet to come.

“It was found out they had an orgy with Jenny’s friends and James Franco. At that moment, Berta comes in the room and asked if they were going to talk about the orgy they had. Walden and Jenny were surprised to hear Berta was there. She said ‘I banged James Franco’.”

I’m almost a thousand words into this article and I still haven’t started talking about the episode I actually watched, probably because I’d prefer not to relive it. What I saw at Thanksgiving left me mostly unscathed, because it focused on introducing Louis – the child brought in during the final season to help guide this monstrosity into the grave. The kid they got is adorable, full stop, and he spends most of his time on screen finding the male leads bewildering and annoying, so I can totally identify with him.

I was not so lucky this time. I don’t think any human could watch this episode and come out unchanged. The premise is deceptively simple: Louis doesn’t believe in Santa because, as a foster kid, he’s gotten screwed out of Christmas a bunch of times. Walden is trying to get Louis to believe by buying him everything he wants for Christmas and hiring a professional Santa to get caught on camera delivering presents. Perfectly wholesome sitcom plot, right? Yeah. At one point the show engaged in a surprisingly crude ten-minute-long bit about Alan’s mother seducing Santa. Step right up, ladies and gents. The drinks are doubles and so are the entendres!

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The first third of the show sets up all these comedic dominoes. The fact that Rose is heavily implied to have murdered the previous main character apparently doesn’t prevent her from continuing to be the show’s requisite wacky neighbor, and she tells Kutcher that Louis wants a bike for Christmas. Alan goes gift shopping and his mother Evelyn comes over to visit and drink heavily.  Santa arrives ready to do his shtick, and things start to go south. The eggnog is spiked, the bike isn’t assembled, and the setups and punchlines are so well-telegraphed they coulda put the pony express out of business. Santa and Evelyn are getting drunk in the living room while our main characters try to assemble the bike. The instructions are unclear! Assembling toys is difficult! These are jokes that have never been told before!

At one point, they ask if the guy they hired to be Santa can help them put together the bike. He replies with a line that can only exist as a setup:
“Right now I’m too buzzed to have a tool in my hand,”
“I’m just buzzed enough to have a tool in mine.” Alan’s mother Evelyn says, punctuating her comment with a sip from her eggnog which is, we have established, pretty much pure rum at this point.

Is that even a double entendre? It’s barely a single entendre. Santa’s setup is certainly not something a human being would ever say naturally in context. After another three minutes of completely original bike assembly jokes,we cut to some rhythmic bell jingling that is meant to imply Santa sex is happening. In case this was somehow too subtle, Santa starts repeatedly yelling “Santa Claus is coming!” You know, in case we somehow did not get the first dozen jokes implying that these people were going to have sex. After a mild cardiac episode due to the exertion, and they have to call an ambulance to wheel their erstwhile Santa out. The ambulance leaves, and Louis (who mercifully slept through the worst of this… we should all be so lucky) wakes up and wanders into the living room to say
“I heard a noise! Did Santa come?”
“Sadly, no.” Evelyn answers.

That’s it. That’s the show.

The bike is still in pieces, Santa is in the hospital, none of the presents have been wrapped, and Walden and Alan have failed on every conceivable level. Louis asks them to stay with him until he falls asleep, and they do, falling asleep without having accomplished anything. They wake up anticipating a disaster of their own making, only to discover the bike has been assembled and the presents are wrapped and under the tree. Somehow, the camcorder has captured video of Santa delivering all the presents. Who is this mysterious bearded man? Was it a Christmas miracle?

Nope, it was Rose who saved the day. An ostensible murderer and stalker dressed as Santa and broke into their house to assemble the bike and deliver all the presents. She gives them a cuckoo clock that secretly has a camera in it so she can continue to spy on them. Roll credits.

I survived the Christmas episode of Two and a Half Men. I saw two episodes total this season, cringing at every line uttered by the male leads and hating every moment when they were the focus of the show. But I noticed something odd: the female characters are portrayed as weird and crazy and manipulative, but they’re also the only ones who get anything done or experience human joy.

Two and a Half Men is a show about two rich white dudes whose personal failings ensure that their privileged lives will remain full of pain and torment. They’re surrounded by smart, funny, interesting women who are the only reason anyone gives a single f**k about either of them. In the episode where Walden and Alan’s foster kid Louis is introduced, he only decides to stay around because their housekeeper Berta convinces him that our awkward and joyless leading men really do have good hearts, (and also that they’re really easy to con). In the Christmas episode, Evelyn gots the one bit that actually made me laugh, when she tries to get a six-year-old to fetch her rum by excitedly telling him it’s the bottle with a pirate on it. Rose saves Christmas by breaking and entering, showing how much more competent and organized she is than the people she’s stalking, and also that she somehow… has their best interest at heart? I’m getting a LOT of mixed messages here, show.

At one point in the episode, when Evelyn got a line that actually evoked human laughter, I turned to my brother and said:

“Evelyn is the best character.”
“No, she’s not.”
“Oh right, Rose?”
“No.”
“Uh, Charlie’s lesbian daughter?”
“Still no.”
“Who?”
“Berta, the housekeeper.”
“Oh yeah. You’re right! She was really great in the Thanksgiving episode, and she was so awesome in the early seasons.”
“She’s obviously the best.”
“I think it’s funny that we both agree that the best character is definitely not one of the guys.”
“Correct.”

It says a lot about the show that the best character was never meant to last past the second episode. Berta was created by a truly gifted character actress transforming a role that was written to be a stereotype. The result is the most real and relatable person in the whole show. This AV club interview with her is great, by the way.

I don’t really have an exit strategy for this round of cultural commentary. There certainly wasn’t any teachable Christmas lesson in this episode, besides “hey, you know stalkers have a lot in common with Santa, what with their ability to sneak into your house without being detected on Christmas. Well, GOODNIGHT KIDS.” Maybe I can wring something from the pure weirdness that is the show’s structure, with its incompetent, embarrassing male leads and their awesome weird female sidekicks.

What do all these female characters have in common? None of them were written to be conventionally attractive, so they’re allowed to be funny. They’re mothers, neighbors, friends. Early seasons featured a parade of hot actress girlfriends, but none lasted more than a single season. Maybe because they weren’t allowed to distort their features away from a conventionally attractive mask, or because they’re not permitted to deviate from the “female love interest in a male-driven comedy” template personalities.

But Berta is allowed to be the alpha dog. Evelyn can be Don Draper or Denny Crane. And Rose can save Christmas with the kind of seriously problematic hijinx usually reserved for male wacky neighbors.

I guess there are lessons to be learned from every mistake. Even if your family wants you to do something that you do not think you’ll this Christmas, give it a try in the spirit of the season. Worst case scenario, you’re just traumatized for life. Best case scenario, you get like two thousand words out of the whole business.

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