The Trouble with Ashton: Can He Keep ‘Men’ on Top?

Ashton Kutcher on "Two and a Half Men" (Photo: CBS)

Is the bloom already off the rose with Ashton Kutcher and his swooping in to save “Two and a Half Men”?

It might be premature to ask that question after only two Ashton episodes of the star-crossed sitcom have aired. But this show and this star are special cases. This is the most closely watched series of the new fall season because it is serving as a kind of experiment that will determine if it’s possible to replace a top star with another star on a hit series so far into the show’s run.

Ashton came on board on a tidal wave of publicity for the ninth season of “Men,” replacing Charlie Sheen in a series that’s been on TV so long that it has become one of a handful of sitcoms – “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The King of Queens” and just a few others – that are among the most ubiquitous of all TV shows currently on the air.

These are all shows you cannot escape, thanks to their almost constant airing in syndication on local stations and cable networks such as TBS and FX. Here in New York (and probably elsewhere), it’s possible to see “Two and a Half Men” (or any of these other comedies) on a local station and, at the same time, come across a different episode of the same show airing “next door” on a cable channel.

Watch a scene from “Two and a Half Men” with Ashton Kutcher here:

[iframe—I-Like-It-On-Top/embed 580 476]

The point is: Whether we like it or not, the vast majority of us think of “Two and a Half Men” as “that Charlie Sheen show.” To many of us, Kutcher is just that guy from “That ’70s Show,” which, come to think of it, is also on TV a lot lately.

The question is: Can Ashton keep “Two and a Half Men” on top? We think that’s not at all a certainty. Consider this:

Ratings, while sky-high, fell 28.6 percent in Kutcher’s second week. If you’re keeping score, “Two and a Half Men” drew 28.74 million viewers (many of them curious first-timers) for his debut Sept. 19. A week later, the tally was 20.52 million – a loss of more than 8 million. At this rate, if the show loses audience by the same percentage, Kutcher’s third episode will come in at about 14.65 million this coming Monday night (Oct. 3). That’s still great for a network TV comedy these days, but the downward trend will begin to trouble CBS if it continues.

Ashton’s huge popularity is starting to show some cracks. We can’t quantify this, but if the rumors flying around in the past week that have Ashton cheating on Demi Moore are true, we have to wonder if his “nice-guy” image will take a hit in the court of public opinion. Remember, Ashton Kutcher was widely seen as a celebrity who could do no wrong. Now, whether it’s true or not, he’s looking unfaithful and disloyal to his wife.

And there was also that story about how he “snuck” decals of social Web sites he’s invested in into “Two and a Half Men,” by attaching them to a laptop computer his character – Walden Schmidt – was using visibly on the series. CBS was reportedly angered by this move, which comes across to us as under-handed – again, if it was true.

And then there’s the biggest question: How’s he doing on the show? Though the introduction of his lovelorn billionaire character was the kind of complete contrivance that could only happen on TV, we’re not troubled by that – that’s what TV does. The real issue is: Is Kutcher funny enough to make us forget about Charlie, who had this effortless way of stealing every scene he was in? The jury’s still out on that.

“Two and a Half Men” airs Monday nights at 9/8c on CBS.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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