John Landgraf, president and general manager at FX Networks, sat with his team in the glass-walled conference room of the network’s Los Angeles offices last October to hear a pitch for a new series from Bruce Helford, veteran TV writer, producer and co-creator of The Drew Carey Show, and his newest creative partner, Charlie Sheen.
The idea would go on to become the series Anger Management, which debuts June 28 at 9 p.m., anchoring the network’s Thursday comedy lineup. But at the time, a skeptical Landgraf had agreed to the meeting largely as a professional courtesy. Just eight months earlier, Sheen’s five-alarm flameout got him fired from the CBS smash Two and a Half Men, throwing the show’s future into chaos. With a season average of 11.6 million total viewers, the sitcom commanded a monster $200,000 per 30-second spot.
Since FX airs Men reruns, the shutdown hit close to home. Partnering with the self-proclaimed “assassin warlock” was a long shot, Landgraf recalls. There was “a fairly high bar and a certain amount of nervousness in getting back into business with Charlie,” he says.
Sitting comfortably side-by-side, Helford, 60, and Sheen, 46, served up the concept: The actor would play Charlie Goodson, a baseball player with temper issues turned anger management therapist. The duo had their routine fairly well mastered, since they’d already shopped half a dozen or so companies en route to the 12 to 14 that would hear their pitch—among them, Hulu, Netflix and all the broadcast networks save Sheen’s old stomping ground, CBS. With Helford clad in a polo shirt and Sheen in a sport jacket, the writer delivered the formal pitch while the main attraction cut in with comments, jokes and thoughts about how the show related to his own life.
As the duo continued, it became clear there was more to the show than a Charlie Sheen meta-joke about anger, including complex and loving relationships with women who were not the one-dimensional bimbos Sheen’s character, Charlie Harper, cycled through on his old program. At one point during the FX pitch, as Landgraf recalls, Sheen said: “I don’t want Two and a Half Men to be my legacy. I want to do something that I can be really proud of on every level—creatively and personally.”
After the meeting, the FX team was excited. Helford’s setup was more than just one-note shtick. It was a clear, optimistic and nuanced vision of the next phase of Sheen’s life. Chuck Saftler, evp, FX Networks, calls it “a perfect articulation of where somebody goes after such a public debacle.”
Adds Landgraf: “What an actor chooses to play tells you a lot about where they’re at emotionally. If you think about Charlie on Two and a Half Men, he was bulletproof, gliding through life with no responsibilities or consequences. [In Anger Management], this character’s entire life is structured around the consequences of his anger. Charlie’s decision to play a character struggling with consequences is directly connected to his desire to struggle with those issues in his personal life.”
FX was so impressed that it ordered 10 episodes without even a pilot in a 10/90 deal, with a promise for 90 more in the next two years if the show hits its ratings threshold, adding up to the magic syndication number of 100. “It’s a very astute move,” says Brad Adgate, svp, research at Horizon Media. “This could be the highest profile show of the summer.”
By essentially bringing Sheen “back from the dead,” says Adgate, Anger Management builds on the actor’s implosion, generating coverage like upcoming Newsweek and Rolling Stone covers. “Not only is FX getting Charlie Sheen, they’re getting all the interest that was front and center a year ago,” Adgate explains.
While Sheen now seeks to elevate his persona beyond a celebration of partying and womanizing, the repair of his image to date shows how boorish behavior and scandal don’t necessarily end a career. Chris Brown, Christian Bale and Alec Baldwin are just a few of the others who’ve shown that a celebrity can behave like a brute and escape almost immediately with reputation—and brand value—intact.
At this point, the public feels so intimately involved with famous personalities that short of allegedly committing murder (O.J. Simpson) or wiping out people’s life savings (Bernie Madoff), there is little someone can do to become irredeemable to the American public.
“The public cares less and less about scandal,” says PR guru Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. “They look at it as that’s something juicy—let me read it. Then they move on. The general public expects wrongdoing [in celebrities]. If you don’t murder somebody, everything else goes.”