May 14's Two and a Half Men finale perfectly captured the spirit of Season 9: It was erratic, it was occasionally funny and it completely negated the episode before it. That's not really a positive or negative, just acknowledgement that the episode happened at its regularly scheduled time slot. With Season 10 confirmed for next Fall, that's not necessarily how a show, especially the "new" Two and a Half Men, should go out.
Swapping in the polarizing Ashton Kutcher for show mainstay Charlie Sheen was never going to be the perfect solution — as those who follow the show with an eagle eye will tell you, Two and a Half Men was all about Charlie — but the successful, modern sitcom could have done a heck of a lot worse. Creator Chuck Lorre saw something in Kutcher, a performer with the potential to internally reboot the series for a younger audience. A former TV regular, a seasoned comedian, and an actor with warped sensibilities aligning with the show's off-the-wall antics, Kutcher was a logical choice that still felt drastically different than Sheen's approach.
The experiment worked: 27.5 million people tuned into Ashton's debut and its 24-episode run warranted the rewired series a tenth season (not to mention a pay bump for Kutcher). Creatively, Season 9 was hit or miss — not a far cry from the past eight years of Two and a Half Men buffoonery. Charlie Sheen's boozing, cruising womanizer defined Men, but Kutcher's Walden Schmidt threw an interesting wrench into a show that was running on autopilot. The death of Charlie put Jon Cryer's Alan front and center, dealing with the ramifications of losing his life crutch while attempting to raise his dimwitted son Jake. Walden, when he wasn't slipping into full-on manchild mode, was a sensible, mellow companion for Alan. That's a feat for a show that's all about caricatures and off-color humor, and when a Season 9 Two and a Half Men episode missed the mark, the fault was rarely Kutcher's.
That said, Two and a Half Men went an entire season without figuring out how to consistently and effectively use Walden. In his prime, he was complicating Alan as a steadfast companion, or delving into his own past by digging up old friends. But at his worst, he was just… there. He was a background player to whatever silly, usually crass adventures Alan found himself in that week. For its finale, Two and a Half Men focused on Jake's graduation and decision to enlist in the army. A bold choice, as Jake has been basically nonexistent for the entire season, a year of episodes carried by an A-List newcomer. There's little constancy in the choices made by the writers of Two and a Half Men and it keeps the show from hitting any comedic stride. Creating arcs for characters may be too much to ask of an audience (see: the fate of the-too-clever-for-its-own-good Arrested Development), but Two and a Half Men had an opportunity with Walden that was squandered. Introducing major plot points and then not paying them off is just sloppy.
There's hope for Season 10 (unless you're still waiting for Charlie Sheen to return… then you're out of luck). While Angus T. Jones' Jake seems like a lost cause, a character whose gone off the deep end into a bottomless pit of stupidity, the rest of the cast have the chops to bring the funny with their established characters. The solution is the show caring about those characters. Two and a Half Men opts for lowbrow potty humor (see: the episode about vomiting) when it has a colorful ensemble to draw from. There's a distinct chasm between Alan and Walden, both men sporting their own strengths and flaws, but this season's episodes of Men pack so much zany plot, the relationship has barely been mined.
With Jake now in the military (which I'm hoping is the show's strategic move to write him completely off), Men has an opportunity to turn down the wackiness for Season 10. Give the duo a few longer-term problems to fix over the course of 24 episodes and let the dynamic go to work. Give the girlfriends' meatier parts too — Courtney Thorne-Smith and Sophie Winkleman as Lyndsey and Zoey are stronger than Alan's Mom, Berta or Alan's ex-wife Judith will ever be. Throw the remnants of the Sheen days out the window and truly reboot the show.
Those who stuck out the transitional Season 9 without relying too much on Sheen praise/Ashton Kutcher hate found something to like. The show has its moments. With a full slate of episodes under their belt, here's hoping the creatives behind Two and a Half Men understand how to use Kutcher's Walden and the characters that surround him, and pump out a solid season in Fall 2012.
Follow Matt Patches Twitter @misterpatches.