Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

FX’s ‘Anger Management’: This is winning? Sort of.

Prashant Gupta/FX - Charlie Sheen and Kerri Kenney recall Lady and the Tramp.

I could never work up much of a theory about Charlie Sheen’s whatever-it-was — flameout? Rebirth?

That saga seemed to explain itself easily enough through the available gossip: a lot of money, a lot of substances, perhaps mental illness. (Banal explanations, but there you go.) What was trickier to decipher was the whole celebratory fervor — the re-tweeting, the interviews, the concert tour; watching Sheen’s fans and admirers surf giddily in the wake of his diatribes and unhappy departure from CBS’s “Two and a Half Men.” The “winning” thing — what was that, besides weird?

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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Turns out it was all part of an elaborate personal journey from one mediocre sitcom to a slightly less mediocre one— a journey for Sheen, but also a journey for captive America. In a relatively short time, we’ve arrived at “Anger Management,” Sheen’s new show premiering Thursday night.

It’s on the (rather gracious) FX network, which has entered into a cool and calculated deal with the unpredictable actor: If “Anger Management” makes it through its first 10 episodes without a complete ratings disaster, the network will automatically order 90 more episodes, goosing a syndication deal that would keep Good Time Charlie at 30,000 feet.

Now, if possible, let’s just deal with the fact of a TV show: “Anger Management” (which is based more or less on a 2003 Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler film) casts Sheen as “Charlie,” a former baseball player who became a therapist after he injured himself during a tirade on the field.

Having learned to control his own anger, Charlie now hosts group therapy sessions at his home with new patients, including, among others, a gay personal shopper (Michael Harden) who is given to fits of passive-aggression; an old cuss (Barry Corbin) trying to control his anti-Obama fits; and a pampered Daddy’s girl (Noureen DeWulf) who tried to shoot off her cheating boyfriend’s private parts. They all take turns punching Bobo the inflatable clown.

Including Bobo, that would usually be enough characters for a sitcom, but “Anger Management” has quite possibly the largest cast I’ve ever encountered in a half-hour pilot episode: There is also Charlie’s ex-wife and teenage daughter (Shawnee Smith; Daniela Bobadilla); Charlie’s favorite bartender (the much-missed Brett Butler); and a wisecracking next-door neighbor (Michael Boatman). And — as if they’re in a whole other show — there is a group of prisoners that Charlie also counsels.

The prison seems like a more interesting place to set an FX sitcom starring Charlie Sheen, but maybe it makes Sheen too nervous for it to become the show’s permanent milieu. I have no idea why so many people are in one show, unless the producers are thinking like managers so they can later decide who and what to toss overboard, all the while repeating the mantra: “10 episodes equals 90 . . . 10 episodes equals 90 . . . ”

Oh, and I missed one more significant co-star. Selma Blair plays Kate, another therapist with whom Charlie’s having a no-strings affair. When certain events lead Charlie to decide that he needs refresher work on his own anger-management issues, he asks Kate to be his therapist. Fine, she says, but they have to become “friends with no benefits.”

“Can’t we hang on to some benefits?” Charlie begs. “The COBRA plan, if you will?”

See? The jokes aren’t all bad.

Nothing in “Anger Management” is all bad, but not much of it is better than half-good. Even with the added freedom of FX’s saucier language and adult situations, Sheen is essentially still in a version of “Two and a Half Men,” which becomes especially clear in the second episode, when a woman shows up to anger-management therapy with 20 years of built-up resentment — turns out Charlie had a one-night stand with her in his baseball days.

Thus “Anger Management” becomes a run-of-the-mill sitcom, filled with perfectly adequate actors telling prefab jokes. It’s a missed opportunity to do something naughty or even innovative. Sheen seems very much like the chastened employee who hopes for a clean slate from HR, and you can see the math scribbles also passing before his sobered eyes: “10 episodes equals 90. . . 10 episodes equals 90 . . . ”

Anger Management

(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on FX.

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