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Why We're Watching Charlie Sheen: Waiting for the Crash (UPDATED With New Video)

by Caryn James
March 2, 2011 1:14 AM
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The country has been riveted to Charlie Sheen. The newest twist: late yesterday his twin sons were removed from his house after his ex-wife got a restraining order, and this morning Sheen turned up on the Today show with his lawyer to argue his case.

Here's part of Sheen's live Today interview:


Over the past days, his catchphrase, “Winning!” has become a national punch line. When Piers Morgan interviewed him the other night, the show's ratings were the second highest since it began a little over a month ago; only the premiere with Oprah topped it. Opposite Morgan, a repeat of Sheen’s now shut-down sitcom Two and a Half Men led the TV ratings. Are we watching because the culture is really that shallow? Well, yes, but that’s not the only reason.

As the interviews arrived over the last week, with the persistence of a dripping faucet, at first we watched with natural curiosity. (The first batch included the most startling clips, here). There was the porn-actress menage, the claims to have “tiger’s blood” – who could resist a glimpse at a guy who bragged about out-drinking Sinatra and out-drugging Keith Richards? That curiosity has given way to something creepier and more visceral, but just as ingrained in celebrity culture: we’re waiting for the crash.

If Sheen at first seemed like some bizarro clown, now we watch with the same impulse that makes us watch a tightrope walker, trapeze artist or knife thrower at the circus -- the possibility for lethal danger, that it won’t end well. With a circus there’s merely the illusion of danger; we don’t really expect an accident. In other cases, waiting for the crash has become part of pop entertainment. You can’t doubt that the Broadway musical Spider-Man is drawing some theatergoers who hope to be there when the next actor tumbles from the air.

Last night’s 20/20 interview with Sheen, recorded on Saturday and announced by ABC as a great exclusive, finally landed like a familiar recap (and even so, it was the top-rated show of the hour.) Here's an excerpt, with Sheen and his two girlfriends trying to sound like some ordinary household. We now know that the children in the clip had been removed by the time this aired.


Sheen has sounded less manic since he recorded the first interviews. With Morgan, who proclaimed himself a friend and said he was giving Sheen the chance to set the record straight (I’m not sure straight was the best word to use) Sheen didn’t make much sense, but he seemed less out of control and was even on target about one thing: so-called experts like the odious Dr. Drew Pinsky should stop trying to diagnose a man they’ve never met. Morgan just seemed like an enabler.

And yesterday, Sheen began tweeting. His tweets have been unmemorable but his profile includes the words that have made him a joke: “Winning . . . Bring It . . . ” Whether he thinks he’s joking or not, he isn’t backing away from the gibberish he’s been spouting.

But now it feels like we’re watching him the way we watched Anna Nicole Smith, slurry-voiced and insisting she was fine. They’re disasters waiting to happen, horror-movies in the making. And while some people hide their eyes at the goriest parts of horror movies, most of us at least peek.

Craig Ferguson had the most humane take when he said during a monologue that he wasn’t doing Sheen jokes anymore, comparing the whole carnival to the Victorian hospital Bedlam, where the public could pay to gawk at the mentally ill. He may be right to say we’re doing that to Charlie Sheen; maybe we’re all enablers. It’s also true that the media today is zooming-fast, the public expects all-access, and the spectacle won’t end until Sheen either stops talking, or crashes.

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