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Men Behaving Badly

The existential hell that is CBS's Monday night lineup

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How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement | CBS

It goes without saying that the average sitcom is never going to make you laugh. The only question is what form of humorlessness a particular show will take. Will it be bold and cheerful and stupid, the way classic sitcoms like My Three Sons or Bewitched used to be--like loud uncles at family reunions who tell you their wheeziest knee-slappers as they elbow you in the ribs? Or will it be soothingly mirthless like The Cosby Show or Family Ties, where every joke seemed to have been designed by teams of scientists and educators as a synthetic humor substitute?

With the flourishing crop of sitcoms on CBS Monday nights, we seem to be moving into a newer and more menacing way of not being funny. How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement--they're like a row of drunk men at a bar telling sour jokes about their wives and girlfriends while laying down the law about life. The longer you listen, the more you feel like you're staring into the abyss. You don't laugh with them, and you can't quite bear to laugh at them--only because you're just not capable of being that dark.

Two and a Half Men is the most brutal of the bunch. It's about two brothers whose contrasting sufferings reveal the fundamental hell of American masculinity. One brother, Charlie (Charlie Sheen), is a "typical guy"--which is to say he's a raging horndog who spends every waking moment pursuing, bedding, and discarding a succession of gorgeous women. The other brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), is Charlie's opposite--he's a failed horndog, basically a doofus, who spends every waking moment longing for, and striking out with, gorgeous women. He has to settle for bedding female doofuses and is perpetually hoping that they're secretly slutty. Only they keep turning out to be, in Charlie's courteous words, "crazy bitches."

That's it; that's all that ever happens: a weekly dance of horndogs, doofuses, sluts, and crazy bitches. One week Alan is drawn to a female doofus (Allison Janney from The West Wing), but she proves to be a crazy bitch who leaves him tied to the bed and dressed in drag. End of episode. In another, somewhat more contemplative one, Charlie undergoes a spiritual crisis when he realizes he's becoming middle-aged and can't keep up with his current, achingly nubile girlfriend. His solution is to go to a bar where senior citizens hang out and find a hot older woman (special guest star Morgan Fairchild). She restores his confidence by promising that if he takes her to bed she'll have multiple orgasms. Problem solved.

If this horndoggy triumphalism is too much for you, stick around for Rules of Engagement immediately afterward. It's the same show, only more morose--essentially a meditation on marriage as a form of spiritual death. Lead character Jeff (Patrick Warburton) is a horndog emeritus--he's married, which means that he's watching the last flickering traces of his joie de vivre fade in the embers. His wife, Audrey (Megyn Price), is a curdled version of the classic sitcom wife--consumed with bitterness, contemptuous of her husband, and retaining only a somber satisfaction in her ability to torture him by withholding sex. But, as Jeff explains, that's only to be expected: they've been together for several years, which means of course "the sex part of our marriage is pretty much over."

Meanwhile, Jeff's younger friend Adam (Oliver Hudson) is terrified by the thought of his impending marriage to Jennifer (Bianca Kajilich), who's a sort of Audrey in training. Jennifer has Adam in total thrall while flashing all kinds of warnings that she's going to make his married existence a hell on earth. In one episode, Adam coaxes her into revealing her fantasy of the perfect birthday. She confesses that it involves taking a nap while he cleans the apartment. "No crazy sex?" he asks, his voice tremulous with dawning horror. There'd be no point to fantasizing that, she tells him: "Sexwise, I figure I can get anything from you any day of the year. I mean, I'm a girl and you're a guy, after all." He nods glumly, fully grasping at last the misery ahead; it's as though he's hearing the clods of dirt fall on his coffin.

But the most sinister show of them all is How I Met Your Mother--if only because it's the one most determined to come off as upbeat and kicky and light. The premise is that sometime in the future our hero Ted (Josh Radnor) is filling his children in on the absurdly complicated chain of events that led to their procreation. Every episode is simply another piece in the grand design of destiny: Ted was frantic to get to the airport to catch a plane for a job interview but was sidetracked by goofy complications involving jumping subway turnstiles and making a court date and running the New York marathon, and thus didn't get the job and stayed in New York, and thus met . . . and so on.

It might be almost charming if the story lines weren't such slack, stupid exercises in post-Seinfeld absurdism--the producers have forgotten, or aren't capable of following, the Seinfeld rule that this kind of surrealist plotting must look as rigorously logical as a Restoration farce. (If you knew you were due in court, why would you agree to a job interview in another city on the same day?) But the deeper problem is that underneath the cheeriness is an unarticulated horror: the show is really about the psychopathology of the nice guy. Ted might seem harmless and goofy, but deep down he's a doofus version of Raging Bull.

The episode that exposes his soul is about a fight he has with his girlfriend, Robin (Cobie Smulders). She wants him to clear his apartment of mementos of former lovers. He agrees, but only if she'll do the same with hers. She tells him there's a problem: the only gifts she's kept are her beloved pet dogs. You might think that a chivalrous man would at this point drop the whole issue, but not our nice guy Ted. He's now consumed by fantasies about the dogs; when he looks at them he sees Robin's ex-lovers. He pictures her leading these men around on leashes--a scene heavy with suggestions of both bestiality and S-M, and way kinkier than anything I've ever seen on Cinemax. He demands that she get rid of the dogs, and to save their relationship she sends them off to an aunt upstate.

But, wait, we're not done! Robin then finds out that Ted lied; he never got rid of his mementos. What are living creatures like dogs worth, after all, compared to his prize collection of inanimate objects? Ted and Robin have a ferocious argument--mercifully presented as a high-speed montage--and then at the close of the episode, in a resolution that tops any J-horror extravaganza for bloodcurdling doom, they decide . . . to move in together.

Not scary enough for you? Then consider the kicker--which, as in all true horror classics, is never stated directly but left for you to work out for yourself. Faithful viewers will have already picked up clues in previous episodes that Robin is not going to turn out to be the mother of Ted's children. This means that even after Robin gives up her dogs, her self-worth, and her sanity in order to live with this transcendent jerk, he's going to move on to somebody else.

Then again, a revelation like that might actually be worth a laugh. Because if the show isn't pure nightmare fantasy and somewhere in the world there really are guys like this finding women to reproduce with, then the joke's on all of us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): clockwise: How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement, Two and a Half Men photos/Monty Brinton/CBS, Greg Gayne/Warner Bros..

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