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PEOPLE's TV Critic Declares Ashton Kutcher a Surprisingly Good Man

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Matt Hoyle/CBS

CBS’s Two and a Half Men is now actually one man, played by Jon Cryer, one near-man, played by Angus T. Jones, and one manchild.

That would be Ashton Kutcher, who made his debut Monday night on the de-Sheened sitcom as Walden Schmidt. Walden is nearly the opposite of Charlie Sheen’s now-dead sleaze king Charlie Harper: Sweet, unsarcastic but – here we stay true to the show’s gawping bawdiness – possessed of an astounding anatomical endowment that he soon puts to use.

The instant verdict: Kutcher was not at all bad. He was quite likable.

First, though, we must dispose of the corpse. I think if creator Chuck Lorre could have had all the cast and crew come out shrieking and tear apart a lifelike effigy of departed star Sheen, with blood and viscera and intestines tossed into a vat of hot oil, he would have. It’s not as if anyone would blame Lorre: Sheen’s outrageous behavior earlier this year left a top-rated sitcom without a completed season, without an anchor – and, regardless of how you regard Sheen personally, without one of the best sitcom actors in prime time.

And so the first half of the episode practically danced with sadistic, vengeful glee in explaining how Sheen’s character, the irredeemably low-life womanizer Charlie Harper, had perished: At a memorial service, crazy Rose (the very funny Melanie Lynskey) hinted that she had shoved him under the Paris Metro after she caught him cheating during their honeymoon.

“His body just exploded,” she said, “like a balloon full of meat.” The only memories Charlie’s many lovers shared were about the sexually transmitted diseases he’d given them, and one woman regretted not being able to spit on the body. None of this was funny. It probably wasn’t supposed to be. It was a shiv, and it was being stuck in Charlie Sheen.

Enter Ashton

Then Kutcher showed up as Schmidt, sopping wet from having tried to drown himself over a broken heart. (He gave up, he said, because the water was too cold.) With his long hair, scruffy beard and hippie-dippy, somewhat stupid sincerity, he seemed at first to have wandered in from a production of Godspell. Except that, as mentioned, he is apparently better endowed than Young Frankenstein and, unlike Mr. Sheen, possesses a body that can be paraded around naked with a preening, unembarrassed confidence.

He’s very nearly a character out of porn. Did you think you were tuning in to Downton Abbey?

And the fact is that Kutcher, despite having spent so much time over the past few years branding and Tweeting himself, is a good comic actor. Not great. His limit may be that he knows how to play a doofus while subtly reminding us that he really isn’t – he likes to clown, but he probably doesn’t want to BE a clown. His self-love may not allow that.

Sheen, on the other hand, had the cold toughness of loathing, anger and regret, a comic style almost radical (for prime time) in its thin ash of contempt. True comedy doesn’t require a smiley face. How else could Sheen have managed to sell tickets for something called the Violent Torpedo of Truth Tour?

But you see where we are now: Kutcher on Sheen’s old sitcom. Sheen, appearing on the Emmys, wishing all the best for Two and a Half Men, seemingly purged of his acidic irony. It was like watching the rebel Winston from Orwell’s 1984 after Big Brother got through with him.

Kutcher is the one known for punking. Sheen, one might say, is the one who ended up punk’d.