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Angus’s Beef: The Trouble With ‘Two and a Half Men’

“You cannot be a true God-fearing person and be on a television show like that,” he said. “I know I can’t. I’m not OK with what I’m learning, what the Bible says, and being on that television show. I’m on ‘Two and a Half Men’ and I don’t want to be on it. Please stop watching it. Please stop filling your head with filth.”

For many, those words from Angus Jones regarding his hit CBS sitcom are easy enough to follow, even if they didn’t watch the show themselves. For the last decade the show has managed to keep a sizable audience, but events in recent years, such as former star Charlie Sheen’s epic midlife crisis, have cut into the program’s viewership. Still, it can’t help but be a cash cow for the stars involved; Sheen and Jones, along with Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher, who slipped into the Sheen role once Charlie cut out. Even though the former child star has already attempted to walk back his comments, the controversy that arose, along with the subtext, merits further discussion and analysis.

The case against the show: it is vulgar, broad, and goes for cheap and easy humor. The jokes are lame and tawdry; the characters are so stock they should be behind the Wal-Mart layaway counter. No one of any intellectual heft admits to watching the show–not even to be “ironic”. In that context, it is surprising that Angus Jones’ evangelism-infused attack on this show was a source of such controversy–unless one sees it as an attack on faith itself.

Writing at ESPN’s offshoot site Grantland, Amos Barshad makes the secularist hipster counter-argument to Jones’ angst: “From one point of view, we have just another child star warped by early success. Instead of pills and booze, though, young Angus has gone deep into religion. Meanwhile, we rational people know that, yes, of course ‘Two and a Half Men’ is [execrable], but it’s not evil. Basically, Angus T. Jones lost it; for neatness’s sake, he did so in a manner that’s the polar opposite of the indulgences of his ex-co-star Charlie Sheen.”

Comparing a religious awakening to Sheen’s extended version of the Lost Weekend is about what would be expected from the folks at ESPN. The same holds for Gawker, where a writer snarked, “it wasn’t until a recent bout of soul-searching that the child star had a full-blown Kirk Cameron-esque awakening complete with the renouncement of his Godless past as a Hollywood heathen.” Even the former child star’s own mother says that he was “brainwashed” by his Church. To accept her words at face value, of course, it would require one to believe that “Two and a Half Men” is wholesome entertainment, or at least wholesome enough for her to continue profiting from her son’s work.

There is a case to be made in that direction. “Two and a Half Men” plays footsie with taboos, similarly to how “Three’s Company” did in the 1970s, and Bob Cummings’s “Love That Bob” did in the 1950s. Womanizing, rakish rogues never go out of style. Women love the bad boys, and men want to be them. This holds especially true for the target audience for shows like this one–“average Americans,” living lives of quiet desperation. If one is trapped in a cubicle for nine hours a day, it is easy enough to see how escapist entertainment like this would serve as a diversion. Those who watch “Two and a Half Men” know–from the promos, the opening scene, and whatever else–that the sordidness of the show is part of the package, and it is a sordidness that is part of the culture now.

Even if one subscribes to that viewpoint, does it mean that Jones’s views have no weight? Even if, as some critics have said, he’s just an ugly former child star trying to be the next Kirk Cameron, it doesn’t mean that what he says isn’t true. The American entertainment industry has a long history of having children grow up on camera. The results have been mixed.

We can consider a show like “Honey Boo Boo”, in which an overweight cracker child and her buffoonish kinfolk are made sport of on a weekly basis, a kind of exploitation. Undoubtedly, her parents appreciate the money that is coming in. But it is not hard to imagine the young starlet herself having an epiphany about the process to which she was subjected, once it is finally concluded.

It is very easy to find other examples about the corrosive effects of childhood fame. Golden Age child stars, like Jay “Dennis the Menace” North, have made a second career out of spotlighting what they perceive to be the exploitation in the industry. Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato of “Diff’rent Strokes” offer more cautionary tales. Lapsed Disney nymphets Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan’s tabloid exploits likewise suggest that the price of childhood and adolescent fame ultimately is paid on the installment plan. It is hard to develop an independent identity in the entertainment industry, especially when parents like those of Angus Jones, who had run-ins with the law before their son went big time, become aware that their child is their cash cow.

Angus emerged from all of that, though hyper-religious in a way that most find unseemly. Perhaps it is spiritual awakening, or an attempt to cash in, or simply a need to fulfill an innate craving for structure and ultimate authority, perhaps because he spent as much time with a coked-up Charlie Sheen as he did with his parents. Whatever the case, when he says the show is filth, one can either call him a liar, or suspect that he might know more about the subject than anyone on the outside. The production meetings, the internal memos, the backstage antics–these are things to which outsiders are not and cannot be privy.

The show trundles on, of course, unkillable, as hardy as a cockroach. It survived its biggest star’s departure because the formula is the draw, and the players are more interchangeable than they might have seemed at the start when Charlie Sheen was the straw that stirred the drink. The show likely will survive the exit of Angus Jones also, though he hasn’t left yet. Even if the show does disappear from air, don’t worry. Hulu is your hookup. And besides, a reasonable facsimile of it will soon take its place. It always does.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Florida. 

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