Admit it: you envy Charlie Sheen

The reason we're so fascinated with Sheen's ongoing story is not that it's scandalous, but that he's unapologetic.
Charlie Sheen has been doing the media rounds lately after CBS cancelled the current season of his hit sitcom, Two and a Half Men. ((Rick Wilking/Reuters))

I’m no fan of Charlie Sheen’s acting, and I’m even more dubious about his moral character. But the one thing I’d say he’s got going for him is an acute self-awareness.

The sybaritic star of Two and a Half Men has owned the news cycle the last few days, after talking smack about CBS for cancelling the latest season of his hit sitcom due to a contract dispute. Already the highest paid actor on television, Sheen is demanding a raise from $2 million US to $3 million per episode, and he’s not shy about touting his worth.

"I’m tired of pretending like I’m not special," he told NBC’s Today morning show. "I’m tired of pretending like I’m not bitchin’, a total fricking rock star from Mars." (Sheen’s Martian roots might account for his lack of social grace.)

As we all know, money isn’t the only reason Two and a Half Men has halted production. CBS also raised concern about Sheen’s self-described "epic" parties, which tend to include prostitutes and copious amounts of booze and drugs.

Why does Sheen’s story fascinate us so? How has it managed to overshadow the Academy Awards and become such a pressing diversion from the predicament in Libya? The lazy answer would be that Sheen is merely this week’s Crazed Celebrity, fulfilling our unquenchable appetite for bizarro behaviour.

It’s true that for a news-starved media, Sheen is a gift. He’s not only loquacious but wonderfully hyperbolic. In the last few days alone, he’s given us a number of indelible quotes. My  personal fave: "Yeah, I’m on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen! It’s not available, because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off, and your children will weep over your exploded body." (For some time-wasting fun, check out the inevitable Charlie Sheen quote generator.)

Sheen’s impudence and profound lack of contrition have led some media observers to suggest that he’s mentally unstable. In the absence of a psychiatric report, I have no way of verifying this one way or the other. Another emerging theory is that this whole crazy escapade is Sheen’s calculated attempt to get out of his contract. It’s a tempting premise.

Whatever his gambit, I suspect Sheen knows what he’s doing. What distinguishes Sheen’s shenanigans from the public meltdowns of Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson and the late Anna Nicole Smith is precisely this: it’s not a meltdown.

We watched the footage of Britney Spears’ infamous buzzcut with a mixture of curiosity and pity, knowing that we were witnessing a stage-managed multimillionaire pop star at the end of her tether. Sheen is different. He’s not vulnerable. And he’s definitely not apologetic. He is unequivocal about his talent and he boasts about his decadent ways, claiming them as the spoils of fame.

We read the stories about Sheen the same way that we read the stories about Hugh Hefner’s engagement to 24-year-old Playboy bunny Crystal Harris — with a grudging admiration. For one thing, these guys are unburdened by doubt — they indulge their basest fantasies without worries about social mores or accountability. It’s not noble, what they’re doing, but it is kind of impressive. (Cognizant of the comparison with the Playboy founder, Sheen has said that his epic partying makes Hefner look like an "amateur.")

In Sheen’s case, he’s also taking his labour grievance to the media in the hopes of winning support. He’s called Two and a Half Men producer Chuck Lorre a "clown" and a "turd" and said that CBS owes him an apology: "A big one. While licking my feet." Who hasn’t at some point in their life dreamt of trash-talking their boss in public? Is Sheen’s dissatisfaction justified? Is he really undervalued? Who cares! Yesterday, he created a Twitter account to help promote his cause. (First post: "Winning..! Choose your Vice.") What’s sustaining this story is the man’s chutzpah, which is indeed epic and shows no signs of flagging.

Now let me be clear: Sheen is not a role model. Based on the evidence, the man is selfish, vindictive and  possessed of a frightening temper. Yesterday, Sheen’s estranged wife, Brooke Mueller, won a restraining order that forced the actor to concede custody of his 23-month-old twin sons. Mueller has claimed that Sheen has made violent threats; a December 2009 incident between the couple ended up with Sheen in jail on an assault charge.

There’s no excusing violence, and it’s obvious that Sheen has a lot of issues to work through. But he’s clearly aware of why you care about his story:

"I don’t understand what I did wrong except live a life that everyone is jealous of."