The most obvious reason is that young viewers, who increasingly eschew old media business models, get a fair share of their entertainment online. I don’t have any TV channels at my house — and have no plans to get them in the future — but I watch 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation on Hulu. I’m just finishing up Lost on Netflix Instant. And when I want to watch a movie, I turn first to my computer or Internet-connected Blu-ray player, not a physical DVD or a theater.
But Two and a Half Men has maintained an abysmal online presence. It’s not on Hulu, and Netflix only has the DVDs. That means that, despite wracking up a huge viewing audience for its weekly airing, it’s largely off the radar for everyone in the millennial generation.
Or at least, it was. What Sheen’s escapades have done is boost the show’s digital footprint. Whereas a few months ago it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to watch Two and a Half Men, now I’m sort of curious. I might add it to my Netflix physical DVD queue. If it comes back on the air, maybe I’ll even tune in. And most importantly, I’m sure there are a lot of other members of my demographic who feel similarly.
In essence then, Sheen’s behavior has stormed the strongholds of the digital natives. People who communicate online can’t avoid hearing about him, which for many is a 100 percent increase in their awareness of his current work.
But CBS’s digital stodginess probably isn’t the only problem Sheen’s outbursts are remedying. After all, even if the network didn’t want to stream Two and a Half Men, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have had a strong presence among blogs and TV critics, right? Wrong.
Oddly perhaps, for such a big hit, Two and a Half Men has generated very little TV criticism, good or bad. I spend a fair amount of my time combing the Internet for entertainment commentary, but up until Sheen’s turn for the ostensible worst, his show was little more than a blip on the radar. Similarly, Slate TV critic Troy Patterson recently wrote about how until this whole debacle, he had never even seen an entire episode. Not a single one — and he gets paid to watch TV!
That fact may be due in part to the difficulty of actually finding the show, but it’s also probably a consequence of the generally tepid critical response it generates. Apparently, it’s not awesomely bad, good, or even charming-but-polarizing (like Glee, for example, which is also on Hulu). As a result, the most prominent media critics and pop culture junkies generally leave it alone.
Sheen’s recent adventures, on the other hand, are absolutely fabulous. It’s a drama for the digital age, recited — mostly by Sheen himself — in epic language and harlequin hijinks. With Adonis DNA, tiger blood, and porn star goddesses, Sheen seems to be setting himself up to be a slummy cocktail of Paris Hilton and Homer. And best of all, everyone gets to take pleasure in the absurdity, pretension and genuine tragedy of the whole story.
Counter-intuitively, this sometimes painful online storytelling can also help propel Two and Half Men into new avenues. Whereas critics and entire demographics ignored the show before, Sheen’s behavior complicates the story. Plot lines, facial ticks, and set design are no longer just entertaining — they can now be prophetic, unlocking subtle signs that foreshadow Sheen’s eventual doom.
None of this is to say that Two and a Half Men is good or bad. I haven’t seen it yet, and I’ve got to send Waltz with Bashir — which I’ve had out for at least a month — back to Netflix before I can get the DVD. But it’s in sight and on my mind. Though before it may have been destined for the historical dustbin, now it will forever be remembered as the backdrop to one of our time’s most curious celebrity implosions.
In other words, as the show becomes history it’s making history, which is a mighty feat indeed.
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