The Two and a Half Men series finale was a masterpiece of contempt.
The only multi-camera sitcom in television history to run for 12 seasons bowed out Thursday, February 19, on CBS, after 262 episodes and a growing sense that it hated television, its audience, its characters, and especially itself.
The series that turned its co-creator Chuck Lorre into one of TV's top comedy kingpins trended more and more toward this sort of sprawling misanthropy as it grew older and older. It had always been a show laced with cyanide and cynicism, filled with the smuttiest of jokes, but especially after the departure of original star Charlie Sheen (amid horrific accusations and a public relations meltdown), the series occasionally seemed to be laughing at viewers for continuing to tune in.
In a way, you almost had to admire its sheer willingness to follow its vision off the cliff.
The series finale, "Of Course He's Dead," follows this idea to its logical conclusion. It's an utterly bonkers episode of television, one that barely cares for the fact that it's a series finale and seems intent on careening off the face of the Earth.
This is an entire episode about the possibility that Sheen's character, also named Charlie, was not killed after being hit by a train (as previously established in the series' ninth season premiere, its first after Sheen's departure). Instead, the episode suggests, he was kept alive all this time in the bottom of a well by his former stalker-turned-lover Rose (Melanie Lynskey, who probably deserved much better from the show).
Rose got to re-enact the "or else it gets the hose again" scene from Silence of the Lambs, because why not?
The episode also took lots and lots of time to acknowledge the fact that the characters had realized they were living in a television show and would break the fourth wall with impunity. Here, Walden, played by Ashton Kutcher (Sheen's replacement), sighs that he can't wait to be done with this. You only have about 35 minutes left, Ashton!
The episode's main conceit — that Charlie had apparently returned from the dead to murder both his brother Alan (Jon Cryer) and Walden — was definitely not the sort of thing you'd seen in the finale of other long-running sitcoms. And it was a little weird to have the episode largely revolve around a character who hadn't been in an episode since 2011, even if the show and Lorre, in particular, seemed unable to shake Sheen entirely.
But other than that, the episode was almost "normal." Or, rather, it was until Rose showed up to tell everybody how Charlie had been alive all this time, complete with a computer-animated sequence where Charlie, mistaking sugar for cocaine, vacuumed it up via his nose.
Also, Porky Pig was there.
And, hey, whaddaya know, when Alan and Walden went to report Charlie's possible murderous intentions to the police, who should be the officer on duty but Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Schwarzenegger summarized the overall plot of the show — the better for the writers to mock how unbelievable the whole thing was — then later ran into Christian Slater.
Walden, upset, tells Stamos the handsome actor is only famous because he got lucky with a sitcom. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment throughout the episode. These characters are trash. This show is trash. Television as a whole is trash. It's weirdly, bracingly honest in a way only a show on its last legs can be.
At times, the show gleefully mocks the concept of series finales themselves, as when Alan and Charlie's mother, Evelyn (Holland Taylor), departs the series by bidding farewell to Walden. He was always like a son to her, she says. She then turns to her actual son, Alan. "Good luck," she says, undercutting every sitcom finale sapfest you've seen before.
Though Sheen did not reappear, the show did wrangle one long-running cast member into a return engagement. It was just Angus T. Jones, who formerly played Alan's son, Jake (the half-man of the title). Jones left the show after saying it was moral filth after a conversion to Seventh Day Adventism. (The backstage history of this show is going to be fantastic.)
Jones turned up to openly mock how stupid the jokes on the show could be, complete with even more of the cast turning to camera, as if begging viewers to put them out of their misery.
It all concluded with a Charlie look-alike arriving at Walden and Alan's home, ringing the doorbell, only to be killed by a piano falling from the sky. The camera then tracked back to reveal Lorre sitting in a director's chair. Lorre turned to camera, then said, "Winning!" in reference to something Sheen said during his protracted exit from the show.
Then Lorre, too, was crushed by a piano. The message was clear — pride goeth before a falling piano.
In the final image most viewers would see of the show — the title card for Lorre's production company — Lorre attempted to explain the show's efforts to get Sheen to return, to no avail.
I was never a huge fan of Two and a Half Men, but I am struck with a weird respect for this episode, which realized it was in a hole and just kept digging.
Most American sitcoms end with big group hugs and couples reuniting. But the Two and a Half Men finale is an utterly whacked-out tribute to the series it caps. It gives absolutely no shits, and it's kind of glorious.
Or, put another way, the other day, in a longer conversation about sitcom finales on Twitter, I suggested the following:
Obviously, few sitcoms have featured murder-suicides prominently in their finales.— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) February 17, 2015
Chuck Lorre had apparently read my mind, because Two and Half Men literally just ended with a murder-suicide, the creator killing a stand-in of his former star, then himself.
Well played, Chuck. Well played.