Oh where to begin?
Charlie Sheen’s bizarre, rambly, manic, and deeply delusional interview on “Good Morning America” hit the 24-hour media cycle like an atomic bomb today. Facebook, Twitter, cable news, gossip blogs all lit up with some variation of OMFG Charlie Sheen WTF?!!1!? In recent days, Sheen’s gone from a “lost weekend” here and there to just plain lost. But people can’t get enough of it, and I find the endless appetite—and endless “news” coverage—alarming, callous, and exploitative.
Charlie Sheen may have TV’s highest rated show, and be the son of a beloved actor who played the best president this country never had. But he’s a profoundly troubled individual, with a long history of substance abuse and domestic violence, both of which have been overlooked so often by the entertainment industry that his employers can fairly be said to be Sheen’s biggest enablers. In an op-ed this weekend, the New York Times‘ David Carr referred specifically to many instances of Sheen’s violent behavior and concluded:
Hollywood has long had a soft spot for male misbehavior and, in claiming to parody childish misogyny, it seems to provide an excuse to indulge in it further. Hollywood likes to pretend it has grown up and taken its seat in corporate America. But it hasn’t when it comes to violence toward women. Mr. Sheen may have gone off-script last week. But in his attitudes toward women both on and off screen, he’s right on message.
But what ultimately did Charlie in with CBS was not his history of menacing or attacking women, or his obvious, life-threatening addiction to drugs…it was biting the hand that fed him, particularly his rants directed at Chuck Lorre, the producer who ultimately writes his paycheck. Several news sources pointed out Sheen’s choice references to Lorre as “Chaim Levine”—his Hebrew name—and suggested anti-Semitism was what got him canned. Was Sheen being anti-Semitic? Yeah, maybe. But a splash of anti-Semitic subtext is, frankly, the least offensive thing Charlie Sheen’s said or done recently, so…whatever. Maybe someday he and Mel Gibson can get coffee after a 12-step meeting. I think that as soon as Charlie started biting the hand that fed him and it was clear he was too sick to shoot the show, that’s when CBS pulled the plug. They obviously didn’t care about his health—he’s been hospitalized for drug-induced psychosis several times prior to this incident. They didn’t care about his violent behavior towards women (particularly since many of those women were prostitutes or porn actresses). No, CBS wasn’t going to kill their golden goose until it was so damn stuffed with cocaine it was no longer of use to them.
What I find especially dismal and alarming, though, is the enormous amount of entertainment value people seem to be finding in his downward spiral. “Good Morning America” didn’t have Charlie Sheen on in the hopes that he’d have an insightful conversation. They were hoping he’d provide them with “good television”*, and he sure did: twitchy, sweaty, delusional, paranoid, grandiose, glassy-eyed, motor-mouthed, and making absolutely no fucking sense at all. It was a ratings bonanza for ABC, just as it’s been for TMZ and every radio show he’s called into in the past week.
And that, gentle readers, is what’s fucked up about this situation. Watching someone with a life-threatening addiction spiral downward into delusion and mania is being passed off as “news” when it’s really being served up as trainwreck entertainment. Producers are dying to put Charlie Sheen on the air so that his crazy cokehead antics will gin up ratings. Guess what? That shit ain’t funny. Serious addictions and mental illness are about the least hilarious thing you can imagine. If your parent, spouse, child, or someone you love is sick the way Charlie Sheen is sick? In my experience, that’s the closest you’ll get to Hell in this lifetime. Despite all the TV cameras and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here, at the center of this media circus is a human being and father of five who is desperately ill, and likely to die soon if he doesn’t get intensive treatment.
Let’s not forget, if Charlie Sheen was still just plain Carlos Estevez with no famous daddy and no hit TV show, his ass would have been in prison a long time ago. In some ways, his privilege has protected him. But by being famous and mediagenic and now the nation’s greatest living trainwreck, Charlie Sheen’s addictions and illness are being enabled by the media simply to keep providing us with entertainment, no matter what the cost to him personally.
*Many years ago, I went to a New Yorker Festival event where Jon Stewart said, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you never want to be part of something people refer to as ‘good television.’”