Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen is like one of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns.’ You know he’s going to do something absolutely crazy but you never know quite what.
Currently Charlie is waging war on CBS and Warner Brothers which produces the top-rating programme as he demands, in his more lucid moments, an extra $3m per show. He already gets $1.8m or would do if the current series of the show hadn’t just been cancelled.
In the midst of all this he’s been doing the rounds of US celebrity chat shows leading some commentators to aver that this is just a freak show, an unpleasant reminder of how debased the currency of television has become.
Now there’s no doubt that Sheen’s dispute with his broadcaster is newsworthy and the star’s original eagerness to discuss his problems with tens of millions of TV viewers was bound to guarantee him as much airtime as he desired.
Now he’s threatening to sue the shows he appeared on for something or other, not a suit with much chance of succeeding you would have thought although that won’t stop a gaggle of lawyers trying.
So the whole affair has become an even bigger mess than it was when it started and it was a bit of a car crash then.
The real issue is: was the news cum celebrity media just holding a mirror up to life (its job by most definitions) or actively encouraging Sheen to damage himself? And, if so, how precisely, given that he seemed psychologically damaged goods in the first place.
Leaving Sheen aside for a moment, what is undoubtedly happening is that TV is aping the behaviour of its communications elder brother newspapers in wholeheartedly embracing tabloid practice. Noise and sensation are assumed to generate sales (or in this case ratings) while restraint and cool analysis are shoved to one side.
This is the product of competition. The TV networks in the US are under pressure from cable and internet broadcasters so feel they have to make more noise to be heard. Fox News, for example, has discovered the potency of (in its case right wing) opinions in place of supposedly dispassionate reporting.
Fox owner News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch would say that these opinions have a right to be heard and, on the wider issue of tabloidisation of television, there is simply a split between popular programmes and less popular programmes.
This is the tabloid journalist’s argument too, one that Murdoch has espoused in terms of UK tabloid papers the Sun and the News of the World (although not of course for the resolutely unpopular The Times).
But for once his enemies can’t blame Murdoch for this one, the Charlie Sheen phenomenon.
So is Sheen a victim of tabloid television or his own demons, if such they are?
It’s a bit of both we say, in our coolly analytical way. Not that, in this context, that will make any difference at all.