When the gal next to me asked actress Holland Taylor, who plays Evelyn Harper, what TV shows she watches in her spare time, she said something to the effect of "I don't want to get in trouble with CBS, but I really like the cable shows: Mad Men,
The Walking Dead, Homeland Dexter, Nurse Jackie..."*
Interestingly, co-creator Lee Aronsohn gave a similar answer.
It got my wheels turning, especially since I was set to be in this reporters pit 24 hours later for Paley's Mad Men event. Both Two and a Half Men and Mad Men are considered massively successful shows, but that's about where their similarities end. The former has ratings through the roof, while the latter is critically acclaimed. It made me wonder -- in a world of seemingly infinite choices of what to watch, which accolade is more important? And if I were a top-notch executive TV producer, which would I really be after?
Two and a Half Men is like NCIS: a wildly popular network show the whole world is apparently watching, except for you, and everyone you know. In its ninth season, Two and a Half Men, now starring Ashton Kutcher, rakes in about 20 million viewers every week. Its ratings have dipped since the departure of Charlie Sheen, but the show is still clearly holding strong.
Though I attended a few PaleyFest panels, gravitating mostly to the shows I'm a major fan of, I signed up for Two and a Half Men despite only ever seeing a handful of episodes. Mostly I was curious to figure out why this show, which somehow manages to be on everyone's and no one's radar at the same time, has so much appeal. After an hour of elbowing reporters, catching a screening and taking in the panel discussion, it became a little clearer.
People watch Two and a Half Men, I think, for the same reasons they read Dan Brown books or eat fast-food burgers or valet their cars: Because it's easy, and they can.
Two and a Half Men is entertainment, pure and simple. It is fun to watch (so I found out) but it doesn't challenge you. It's dick jokes and pot references, and before you know it, the half-hour is over and it's bedtime. You will sleep well, and you will not think about it in the morning.
Even during the panel, there was a great deal of penis talk. Kutcher, whose character Walden Schmidt is known to be well-endowed, took the stage walking bow-legged, and a fair amount of time was devoted to discussing the prosthetic penis he uses during scenes in which he's supposed to be naked. The crowd laughed heartily. This was exactly what they came for.
Conversely, Mad Men is the high art of television. The story is complex and the characters are layered -- you can barely miss a scene, let alone an episode.
Let alone a facial expression, in some cases. During the next night's Mad Men panel, executive producer Matthew Weiner talked about the importance of Don Draper's ear-to-ear smile when he announced his engagement to his secretary, Megan, in the season four finale. He hadn't written it in, but Jon Hamm had been perceptive enough to understand that this engagement wasn't just an event, it was a major turning point for Don Draper's character. He was happy, for once. The significance of that grin was that it made the audience realize they'd never seen it before.
The plot points on Mad Men, such as Don's aforementioned engagement or Roger Sterling's fall from grace, genuinely surprise you, yet they're never unbelievable. In the upcoming season-five premiere, (which I've seen but am sworn to secrecy about) the intensity, and deep weirdness, of Don and new wife Megan's relationship is unearthed, and for the audience, it's simultaneously tantalizing and confusing, and all you want is more. You lie awake thinking about the episode -- questioning motives, trying to understand the characters' point of view -- and continue to do so into the next day.
Despite this, Mad Men has about a fifth of Two and a Half Men's ratings, just shy of 3 million for its most recent, and most viewed, season-four premiere. This is low when you compare it to, say, The Sopranos, for which viewers had to pay a premium to watch, and still managed to peak around 12 million viewers.
Yet Mad Men has won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series for each season it's been in existence. That makes it, arguably, the best show on television, despite garnering such a small share of the audience. Two and a Half Men has won mostly technical Emmys for editing and the like, with Jon Cryer able to claim one Best Supporting Actor nod. It's never won Outstanding Comedy Series. In fact, it hasn't even been nominated in the category since 2008.
So who wins?
I'm certainly no high-art snob, although I have argued that even though we may enjoy the less challenging TV shows, substance and complexity do matter. Which is, of course, what Mad Men is all about. There's nothing complex about Two and a Half Men. It's funny in an elementary kind of way, but it's forgettable. (Hell, we've already forgotten about Charlie Sheen.) Whatever character development they attempt to weave in gets lost between the quick fix of raunchy jokes, so it will never rise above them.
Unlike Two and a Half Men, Mad Men will be remembered. As will plenty of comedies -- like 30 Rock and All in the Family -- that employ whip-smart humor. Two and a Half Men, however, relies on toilet jokes. Vulgarity is fun, and clearly gets ratings, but is never really revered.
Which is not to say the cast and crew of Two and a Half Men shouldn't be proud of what they do. They certainly seemed to be, as they sat onstage being honored by the Paley Center in front of a horde of adoring fans. Watching Two and a Half Men is a good time, so they're doing their jobs, and likely laughing all the way to the bank.
It's also not to say any of the 20-some million who are tuning into Two and a Half Men each week should feel an ounce of remorse. In fact, I may join them more often. We do watch TV to be entertained, do we not? Plus, every once in a while you need a good dick joke. If every show were as nuanced as Mad Men, I'd never sleep.
*Holland Taylor reached out to us via Twitter, which we so appreciate, correcting the specific cable shows she listed. Her quote has been updated.