x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Charlie Sheen fate proves that the pen is mightier than the sword

The forthcoming death of Charlie Harper in the series Two and a Half Men is just the latest demonstration of the vengeful power of the TV scriptwriter.

Charlie Sheen, right, with Jon Cryer in an episode from Two and a Half Men.
Charlie Sheen, right, with Jon Cryer in an episode from Two and a Half Men.

It doesn't rain, but it pours in the topsy-turvy world of Charlie Sheen. Only a year ago he was celebrating a new contract for the US comedy Two and a Half Men: at a reported US$1.78 million (Dh6.5m) per episode, it made him the highest-paid actor on television. But times have swiftly changed for the fallen warlock. Not only has he been dropped from the show following a very public meltdown, while Ashton Kutcher was handed the lead role, but when the next series begins screening in September, his character Charlie Harper is to be killed off.

The "moral turpitude" (in the words of CBS and Warner Bros Television) shown by Sheen in his rants against the show's creator Chuck Lorre in various interviews last year was clearly not only enough to warrant just his dismissal, but bad enough that the producers wanted to ensure he could never, ever return. How violently his character dies in this final insult is likely to reflect how those in the scriptwriting room felt about Sheen.

But while killing off Charlie Harper may help finally put a nail in the coffin of the Sheen saga, it is likely that the producers also had one eye on the ratings. Although many diehard Two and a Half Men fans might be upset about Sheen's departure, you can bet your bottom dirham they'll all be tuning in for the first episode of the new season to see how he kicks the bucket. Even Sheen himself is likely to be watching, although he'll probably not admit to that.

Killing off a character, particularly one central to the main plot, is a tried and tested tactic for giving a multi-series show a shake-up. Sometimes it takes audiences completely by surprise. There cannot be many fans of The Sopranos who foresaw that the actress Drea DeMatteo's mob-girlfriend character Adriana La Cerva would get "whacked" in the fifth series of the HBO show for cooperating with the FBI. But it was one of the most talked-about storylines on TV for some time, cementing the status of The Sopranos as one of the greatest shows around. Eventually the episode went on to win several Emmy Awards.

Then there was The Wire's Omar Little, the trench coat-wearing shotgun fan who had remained nearly invincible for five seasons as Baltimore's king of the stick-up, until he was shot in the head by a small boy.

Sometimes it's not even the gun-toting baddies and their associates who die unexpectedly. Fans were stunned and upset at the fourth-series finale of the US crime drama Dexter, which saw Rita Morgan, the wife of the title character, bleed to death in the bathtub at the hands of a serial killer.

Usually, however, given all the media attention given to the career moves and contract grievances of popular actors these days, most of the time audiences have been tipped off that a fatal change is on the way. Nicollette Sheridan announced her plan to leave Wisteria Lane long before her character's car encountered an electricity pylon in the fifth season of Desperate Housewives - fifth seasons seem to be particularly deadly. That is also when George O'Malley met his surprising demise, as a disfigured John Doe in a bus accident on the American drama Grey's Anatomy, amid rumours, which had been rumbling for months, that the actor TR Knight would not be returning to the show.

Unfortunately for the scriptwriters, neither Sheridan's nor Knight's on-screen deaths did much for the ratings, both Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy seeing slumps in viewing figures for the sixth seasons. While bumping off a main character can sometimes do wonders for a show, more recently such devices have been seen as a cynical ploy to attract interest and have come too late to revive much momentum. By the time Mischa Barton's troubled character in The OC uttered her last "hey", most people had long since forgotten the drama existed and it only lasted for one more season.

Whether a Sheenless Two and a Half Men survives for any longer than other series remains to be seen, and it could be argued that at eight seasons and 177 episodes, the story potential was already stretched to the limit.

Although Sheen might well grimace at seeing his most profitable character cash in his chips, it is also likely he won't be frothing about it for too long. Apparently, he's already signed up for a new show with Lionsgate in a role that is "similar" to but "racier" than the one he played on Two and a Half Men. Don't hold your breath, however, that he'll last past season five.