For a brief period last summer, Charlie Sheen was inescapable. If you turned on your television or picked up a magazine, there he was ranting about "winning" in a series of increasingly unhinged interviews, losing his staring role in sitcom Two and a Half Men and crossing the US to give his side of the sacking in the Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option tour.
It was such a spectacular public meltdown that few observers would have been surprised if the next time we heard of him it was in conjunction with either rehab or death. But behind the gold-tooth grin and haggard cheeks lurks the soul of a survivor and so it is that Charlie Sheen returns to US television this Thursday not as a Hollywood statistic but as the star of a new show.
Anger Management, a new sitcom for cable channel FX (very) loosely based on the 2003 Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson movie of the same name, stars Sheen as a former baseball player-turned-therapist and is among the most anticipated new shows of the US summer season. A host of eager advertisers (predominately from the car and booze industries) have signed up to air ads during the breaks and the comedy has been sold everywhere from Germany to Australia (no British channel has yet committed, although talks are believed to be ongoing).
If the new comedy hits an undisclosed ratings threshold over the course of its 10 episodes then FX has committed to a further 90 episodes, guaranteeing a lucrative syndication deal. And the channel is so confident of success that it has asked the writing staff to stark work on season two before an episode has aired.
So is it actually any good? The answer is no, not really but it's probably going to be a huge hit regardless. For Anger Management is an old-fashioned sitcom by numbers. It features Sheen doing his Sheen-shtick complete with manic grin and wandering eyes. There are jokes about his character fancying young women. Jokes about male and female body parts. Riffs on Sheen's predilection for booze and brawls. It's supremely slick, entirely soulless and just watching it makes you feel a little bit dirty inside.
For there's something uncomfortable about watching the manic Sheen, now considerably more hollow of cheek than he was in his Two and a Half Men heyday, mugging for the camera with the desperation of the damned. Yes, he can still deliver a punchline and muster a bit of the old wild boy charm but it's hard not to see the Sheen phenomenon as little more than a celebration of addiction fuelled by the actor's oft-stated desire to keep the big bucks rolling in.
It's also a strange fit for cable television. It's easy to see this tame, tepid sitcom on a channel such as CBS, home of Sheen's previous hit Two and a Half Men, less clear to see where it fits alongside edgy, boundary-pushing shows such as Louie, Archer, Wilfred and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Not that FX will care. It wants Sheen to drive a new audience to their channel, and bring network numbers to a cable show. When it signed him it was for his public persona as much as his ability to sell an over-ripe punchline. And in that sense Sheen delivers. As the knowing promos for Anger Management have it "Everyone deserves a 24th chance". Sheen has survived cocaine addiction, brothel scandals and being replaced in movies by Tom Cruise – at this stage in the game he just has to stand upright to be considered a success.
Anger Management might be uninspired, dated and out-of-place but it will draw an audience regardless. That's winning in Sheen's terms, quality of product be damned.