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Odd Coupling

Someone once said that smoking a cigarette is as near as you can get to doing nothing while technically doing something. If so, watching Two and a Half Men, the new sitcom on CBS, must come a close second. The good news is that it’s not habit-forming, it won’t kill you, and it may even make you laugh. But be warned: It will never, ever, make you cool.

The main character in Two and a Half Men is Charlie Harper, a wealthy jingle writer comfortably ensconced in a girl-friendly bachelor pad in Malibu. Harper, who’s played by Charlie Sheen, has about as easy a life as one can imagine. He comes down to breakfast in shorts and a T-shirt and remains in them all day. He drinks a lot, sleeps with women a lot, and he has the Pacific Ocean to stare at when there’s nothing good on television.

Into this unstrenuous existence arrives Alan (Jon Cryer), Charlie’s neurotic fusspot of a younger brother, along with Jake (Angus T. Jones), his 10-year-old son. Alan, a chiropractor, has just been dumped by his wife and needs a place to stay. For some reason, so does Jake; perhaps his mother, who’s decided to take up lesbianism, has dispensed with maternal feelings along with her feelings for men. At any rate, there Alan is, and there Jake is too, and Charlie’s blissfully selfish life has suddenly been turned upside down.

So the stage is set for a West Coast update of The Odd Couple, with a little ’un thrown in. Charlie is exasperated by his brother’s obsession with tidiness, and Alan’s driven up the wall by Charlie’s inability to do anything around the house. When the maid quits one morning (she’d agreed to clean for one person, not three), Charlie’s appalled. “She left before she made the coffee!” he says, staring at the coffee machine as if he’s never seen one before. “So we’ll make our own coffee,” Alan replies. “How?” Charlie asks. He seems genuinely perplexed.

As sitcoms go, Two and a Half Men is about as traditional as they get, despite the sapphic back story that brought about the situation in the first place. It’s the sort of standard comedy fare that’s only really enjoyable when you’re ill, exhausted or depressed, and grateful for anything on TV that’s mildly diverting and demands less intellectual activity than it takes to fall asleep. Which suggests that a lot of Americans must be having a rough year, because this is the most popular new show of the fall season.

If you’re one of those apparently rare birds who like your TV watching to have a little more emotional heft, you might take a gander at the Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, last seen on the (big) screen when David Lean filmed it in 1965 with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the leading roles. This time around we have Hans Matheson (Mists of Avalon) playing the titular poet-doctor and Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean) as his great love, Lara Antipova.

One thing you can say about this four-hour British film (PBS, November 2 and 9) is that it doesn’t romanticize the Russian Revolution in the least. (Nor, of course, did the novel, which wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1988, one year before the whole rotten empire started to collapse under the weight of its own wretchedness.) Although the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, emphasizes relationships more than politics (there are love scenes aplenty), the horror of the first revolutionary years (1917–22) comes through loud and clear.

The film is particularly good at showing how ordinary Russians were transformed by the revolution into rats, tattletales, turncoats and sneaks. And those are the relatively harmless ones. In the meantime, Lara’s shy, idealistic first husband, Pasha, turns into a murderous Bolshevik monster almost overnight, and Zhivago’s best friend, Misha, becomes a calculating party hack. Then there’s Sam Neill’s (The Piano) brilliant star turn as Victor Komarovsky, a sinister politico who periodically swoops down on Zhivago and Lara like an angel of death.

But mostly this is the story of two epically star-crossed lovers, and as such it’s often very moving. Taking on a role last played by Julie Christie is a tough assignment, but Knightley, who was only 17 at the time of filming, is a natural actress who makes a bewitching Lara. Matheson, playing a man torn between fidelity to his wife, Tonya, and passion for his muse and mistress, Lara, ends up conveying a noble fidelity to everyone — to both women, to his patients, to himself. And not least, to the viewer, too.


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