Charlie Sheen Lost His Job but Won the Week

After a week of non-stop, wall-to-wall winning, it seems pretty clear that we all have a much better understanding of who Charlie Sheen is: a shallow, boastful, immature, self-centered public relations genius. I know, it’s creepy and unsettling watching Sheen unspool himself in public. Hearing him contradict himself and tilt at his foes was almost worse than the regular punctuation of news reports that the “highest paid star in television” had been rushed to the hospital again for exhaustion or some other euphemism.

Even though Warner Brothers fired him late this afternoon, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Sheen got the upper hand through his disciplined and relentless publicity campaign. That is because though Sheen was ostensibly pleaded for his job and livelihood back the real object of  his assault was to continue to bully and dominate the suits with his bad behavior.

Several moralizers were quick to jump on the Sheen-o-rama as an opportunity to score their own preening PR points describing the media’s fascination–and ready availability to Sheen–as another form of parasitic enabling. Booking him was sad evidence of a sick media. Of course, it’s true that the media were opportunists but they were hardly victimizing a helpless Sheen who seems to be interested only in flouting all social conventions.

From the morning shows to TMZ to Piers Morgan to Howard Stern, everybody wanted in on the ratings bonanza. Could you blame them? Especially after Sheen came on and delivered the eyeballs and water-cooler comments.

The New York Times ran an excellent story yesterday by Brooks Barnes that captured the full paradox of Sheen’s behavior. The only thing missing from the story was a reminder that Sheen’s personal philosophy and penchant for untrammeled self-destruction has all the elements of a classic anti-Bourgeois work of art. Though actor’s strange philosophy seems to be half Hieronymus Bosch and half Nietzsche where the ubermensch refuses to accept conventional morality even as he shows them up at their own game.

Reveling in his libertine ways, Sheen comes off as both the consummate professional as well as a world champion party monster.

[I]t was not just Mr. Sheen’s iron constitution that allowed him to keep working. Ask people who have worked with him what they remember about him and the answer almost always involves generosity on the set and an almost otherworldly degree of likability despite his demons.

The depth of Sheen’s skills were on impressive display last week. Here’s a guy who schooled his publicist in how to run a full-on, flood-the-zone saturation campaign just as the flack quit in frustration.

Even though the short hand description of Sheen’s appearances is that they’re a train wreck, the opposite is true. The actor’s self-knowledge may be laughable or sad or contain an inflated sense of himself. But none of the interviews had the rambling, out-of-touch, volatile or even dangerous quality of any of the reports that have come back from Sheen’s benders. Other stars have certainly cracked up more spectacularly in public. Not Sheen. He was on message all week.

It’s a loopy message but he stuck to it. As television, Sheen’s interviews were boring, repetitive and predictable. As PR, they were devastatingly effective. He won the week and turned the tables on his “tormentors.” Warner Brothers assumed a defensive stance in their announcement of Sheen’s termination by claiming that their informal polling was running 70% against Sheen. (If that were true, why bother to stick the knife in such a pathetic character.?)

Even Les Moonves ended up making an open-ended statement last week that the show might indeed return next year. (This evening that was clarified as Moonves hoping the show would return without its star.)

It doesn’t really matter what is at the root of the conflict–real or imagined–between Chuck Lorre and Charlie Sheen. The actor was able to make it seem like his own indiscrete comments that precipitated the show’s hiatus was just a stray and inadvertent comment. Instead, Sheen tried to goad Lorre into re-engaging by suggesting that Lorre “took his ball and went home” after a simple misunderstanding.

Watching several of these performances, it is hard not to have sympathy for Lorre, Warner Brothers and CBS. They’re faced with an accomplished comic actor who refuses to bend to any appeals toward reason or morality. By withdrawing from the field, the suits had hoped that Sheen would make such a spectacle of himself. Then they would have been released from the excruciating position of being seen as Sheen’s enablers.

Diabolically, Sheen has done everything but self-destruct in public. (Well, not including the Saturday Night Massacre of his webcast.) Worse, Sheen has increased the pressure on the network, the production company and Lorre without giving them any easy way out. As Sheen liked to say repeatedly in his rapid-fire delivery, “the scoreboard doesn’t lie.” Even unemployed, Sheen’s value is greater this week than it was two weeks ago. He’s demonstrated the ability to draw a huge audience–one million Twitter followers in 25 hours–and rare composure under fire. If he weren’t such a lout he would almost be admirable.

That may be the cruelest irony of Sheen’s great talents. He places them in the service of complete nihilism. He stands for nothing than anyone can support: the right to fry your brain and screw up everyone around you. But he’s doing a very effective job of making a strong case for his right to be that way.

Sheen wants to win but without a sense of what winning would mean. Or, to put it in a somewhat cliched manner, winning for Sheen only seems to come if everyone else around him loses.

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