For some actors, AA is not a 12-step program. It's a 13-step one.
That extra step comes when an actor who has become a punchline for Jay Leno and David Letterman acknowledges his sins and confesses them - as the studio audience laughs in knowing recognition and forgiveness. That's what happens in this week's "Spin City," when Charlie Sheen joins the cast and tries to fill the void created by the departure of Emmy winner Michael J. Fox.
Sheen plays Charlie Owen, a womanizer who has been hired as deputy mayor of New York. This is pretty much his last chance, although you wouldn't know it by his tardiness on his first day.
His bad-boy reputation precedes him with the press, his colleagues and even the mayor (Barry Bostwick). Although dense as ever, the mayor says he has read the tabloids: "The drinking. The carousing. The honky-tonking." To which Charlie deadpans: "I'd like to think I did more tomcatting than honky-tonking."
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When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Heather Locklear, Barry Bostwick
Later in the episode, when Charlie must face a former girlfriend whom he doesn't even remember, he 'fesses up: "I barely remember 1994. I'm still trying to figure out why I have the words 'Ace of Bass' tattooed on my ass. Back when you knew me, I drank heavily and I was good at it. ... I know that I hurt a lot of people."
Sheen, whom reporters liked to describe as "fast-living," is willing to let his off-screen problems become part of the on-screen joke and rehabilitation. And it works. Let's face it, no one is likely to cast Sheen as a celibate priest; that ship sailed a long time ago.
The 35-year-old actor faces a tough challenge: He must step into an established show, now entering its fifth season, and try to replace an actor who wasn't just beloved but who left the show because of highly publicized health problems. If there were any doubt about how much everyone misses Mike, the mayor keeps calling Charlie "Mike."
Sheen, it turns out, is up to the task. He slides easily into the ensemble, especially in his scenes with Heather Locklear as Caitlin, who nails the reason why he's late on first try. The blonde is back, along with Bostwick, Richard Kind as Paul, Alan Ruck as Stuart and Michael Boatman as Carter. Gone this season are Connie Britton, who played Nikki, Alexander Chaplin as James and Victoria Cooper's Janelle.
It's hard to applaud "Spin City" for playing off Sheen's rep - he once ran up a tab of $50,000 with Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss - and then object to some of the jokes. But "Spin City" doesn't need to make everything about sex, a problem rampant on "Third Rock From the Sun" and "The Drew Carey Show," which precedes "Spin City" on ABC.
For instance, the mayor advises Charlie: "Word of advice, son. There is no 'I' in orgasm." This isn't an 8 p.m. show, but that seems inappropriate. Late last month everyone was up in arms about violence in movies, but what about unsuitable material on television?
ABC says future episodes will deal with Paul's marital difficulties, Stuart's evolution into a feeling human being and Carter's reaction to the arrest of his dog, Rags. No word on the offense.
Sheen may be handsome and smooth and possessed with good comic delivery, but he also is a fine actor who starred in the Best Picture of 1986, "Platoon," and helped to anchor Oliver Stone's "Wall Street." Let him breathe a little instead of delivering one-liners about flight attendants and Baldwin brothers, although that latter joke works well in light of the Sheen-Estevez clan.
In fact, Sheen will be competing against his father, Martin Sheen, who plays the president of the United States on the excellent "West Wing" Wednesdays at 9 on NBC. Charlie won't be enough to lure viewers away from the best drama of the year, but he can give the sitcom a boost and new shot at life.
In 1996, when Sheen was promoting a sci-fi thriller called "The Arrival," he talked about his "return to the dramatic fold. I want to remind people of where I came from," he told the Los Angeles Daily News.
"So any writers out there reading this, don't send me any comedies," he said. Someone ignored that advice and it worked out to everyone's advantage.