Much hyped, lumbering, and tired, Two and a Half Men is back on our screens, Sheen-free and with extra-added Kutcher. Let’s leave aside that Australian audiences are pretty much fatigued from this show, what with back-to-back episodes of it screened by Channel 9 on a regular basis. The interesting question is whether the show can survive sans-Sheen.

It isn’t often that a sitcom can successfully replace the lead character without dropping a juggling ball – Sheen himself was part of one after Michael J Fox departed from Spin City – but in this case the absence is going to be felt a bit more. While Two and a Half Men is an ensemble show, there’s no denying that Sheen was, as in real life, the center of his own little universe.

I can’t say that I was an avid fan of the program before, but it’s pretty hard to escape the most casual exposure from it, and now it just seems to have become a parody of itself. It’s made a new art of being self-referential, beginning with a funeral that is as much saying good-bye to Charlie Harper as it is to Charlie Sheen – there were no tears, there were many snide remarks about sexual deviance and drug use, and if anything people were just happy to see him gone. Even without his on-screen presence, the show can’t seem to function without him.

Jon Cryer barely keeps the show going without his wingman, the little fat kid (when did he grow up?!) is reduced to an understated fart gag (which in all fairness, was probably the funniest gag in the show), there’s one too many celebrity cameos… and then Ashton Kutcher enters. He lasts a scene fully clothed.

I can see the appeal in putting Ashton Kutcher in a show like this. He’s got street cred, he’s vaguely popular in an unoffensive kind of way, and he’s marginally affordable for the show. He strides through the door and it’s like Charlie never existed – and I’m sure that’s the way Chuck Lorre wants it to be. He settles in to Charlie’s home, takes his family under his wing, and seems to be living up to the challenge of shagging all the girls he can.

The difference? Ashton isn’t self-referential. He wants to be admired, he wants us to find him funny, but there will never be that blur of lines between actor and character that you had with Charlie Sheen. If Kutcher’s character (Wally?) starts making jokes about being attracted to much older women, then I’ll be prepared to take it all back, but somehow I can’t see it happening. Kutcher will just continue with the blank, stilted acting he’s known for, and let the momentum the show has built up drag him through the next season. At this point it’s up to Jon Cryer to do the heavy lifting, and I’m not sure he’s up for it.

Will it succeed? It’ll be a ratings bump, as people tune in purely out of curiosity. Other than that, it probably doesn’t matter. The show has gone for eight years already, which is a decent shelf life. I’m sure somewhere in the bottom drawer, Lorre has his escape plan all worked out already.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge that Channel 9 has set the bar pretty high now with the concept of ‘fast-tracking’ by playing the new Sheen-free Two and a Half Men the same day that it’s aired in the United States. But then again, it’s the least they can do after playing two repeats in a row.

Catch new episodes of Two and a Half Men Tuesday nights, 8pm, and old episodes every other bloody day of the week.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzY9B5G4WHo[/youtube]