TV Eye: That's Entertainment?

Why are we so interested in watching a TV star self-destruct?

<i>Two and a Half Men </i>star Charlie Sheen
Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen

I was content to ignore the whole Charlie Sheen debacle. But then he had to go and give it a local spin by calling Austin-based, syndicated talk show host Alex Jones. It was that call that finally shuttered Sheen's popular TV series, Two and a Half Men (CBS), which had been on temporary hiatus since Sheen's very public health crises.

Why Jones? Sheen apparently considers him an ally among the handful of entertainment journalists the actor has directly contacted at TMZ, Fox Sports Radio, Good Morning America, and ABC News, among others, since his troubles with CBS and the Two and a Half Men producers began. In the past, Sheen and Jones discussed 9/11 conspiracy theories on Jones' talk show, and Jones has been a guest at Sheen's home, something the host remarked on several times during his Feb. 24 chat with the actor.

Following the call to Jones and similar shows, Sheen then promised an "exclusive" interview with ABC's Andrea Canning to air on 20/20 Tuesday, March 1. The network was pleased to boast online and in promos after the Academy Awards Sunday night that it was hosting "the first broadcast interview" with Sheen – one in which, one hoped, Sheen might shed some light on why he left a drug rehab facility early; his name-calling of Two and a Half Men producer Chuck Lorre, CBS, and Warner Bros.; why he said he had an HBO deal in the works (which HBO reps quickly said was untrue); his trashing of Alcoholics Anonymous; and how he cured himself of his addictions, as he puts it, "with my mind." But then Sheen made a hairpin turn. He threw the "exclusive" to NBC's Today Show, in an interview that aired Monday, Feb. 28. In public relations terms, Sheen dissed ABC; by Monday afternoon, his longtime publicist Stan Rosenfield had "respectfully resigned" from the gig (soon thereafter, Sheen pulled the you-can't-quit-you're-fired move). Bad publicity is the least of Sheen's problems, and I was content to ignore this train-wreck-in-progress, but apparently, I'm in the minority.

"It should be a terrific ratings grabber for NBC," opined Scott Collins, who writes about TV at The Los Angeles Times' media blog, Show Tracker – the tagline for which reads, "What You're Watching."

Yup. Someone out there is watching this whole Sheen mess – a lot of people, I'd wager. What I wonder is, why? I'm not entirely convinced it's schadenfreude – the pleasure gleaned from someone else's pain. That would imply a level of awareness. For all the media clatter around Sheen, it seems to me that the roots of his troubles are being paraded in plain sight, yet are unacknowledged by those who are providing him a platform or consuming this spectacle as sport.

When it comes to a star's troubling behavior, whether it's caused by mental illness or addiction, the media's response tends to tip between willful obliviousness (remember the ratings!) or a self-righteous mix of pity, scolding, and outright wrath. True, it can be difficult to show compassion for someone whose behavior almost gleefully plants land mines set for his own self-destruction, yet that may be the time when he is the most in need of it.

After listening to Sheen's interview with Alex Jones and reading the transcripts of others, it's clear to me that he's very bright and deeply troubled. Enabling Sheen's rants may be "a terrific ratings grabber," but it's not entertainment. I'm not saying that all media attention on him should cease. The fact that his behavior has shut down a billion-dollar franchise, putting a cast and crew out of work, is news. But honestly: Isn't there a more humane response?

In Other News

Last week, Austin's enormously witty and self-effacing fledgling TV personality Zach Anner was crowned one of two winners of Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star. I watched the finale at a viewing party at the Alamo Drafthouse; check out my thoughts at the Picture in Picture blog (austinchronicle.com/pip). As always, stay tuned.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men, Chuck Lorre, Alex Jones, Andrea Canning, Zach Anner, Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star

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