Have you heard about the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper? No, not the version in Aesop's Fables fed to children in order to scare them into a mould. I mean the version written by William Somerset Maugham. Using the same metaphorical characters and reversing their destinies, Maugham asks a simple question: do sincerity and hard work really deliver an agreeable winter? Paraphrasing, the question becomes: is the carefree grasshopper privy to a secret of the universe that has eluded the industrious ant?
It's a powerful question that challenges our pre-conceived notions about the nature of Life. Chuck Lorre - the Executive Producer of this and other sitcoms I've come to love - takes this reversed fable and delivers it with panache in Two and a Half Men.
At first glance, the format of the sitcom seems self-limiting. After all, it has only three primary characters. The first is Alan Harper - the hardworking chiropractor - representing the Ant. Secondly, there's Alan's dim-witted, gluttonous son Jake Harper who seems destined to remain half a man. And finally, we have the central character - Charlie Harper, Alan's elder brother - representing the Grasshopper.
And what a fabulous grasshopper he is. Charlie goes through life smelling of conditioner and bourbon. He barely does an ounce of work but owns a beach-house in Malibu, California. Gorgeous women fall on his lap like his birthright. And it never occurs to him that it's sinful to follow-up a 14-hour snooze with a liquor-soaked nap. Charlie is vain and shallow, and given the influence of his equally vain and shallow mother, too afraid to contemplate lasting happiness. To his credit, he redeems himself with his generosity and honesty.
Alan, on the other hand, has the irresistible urge to do the right thing. But when his wife kicks him out of his own home, he has no option but to seek refuge with Charlie. Alan both loves and resents his older brother, which provides plenty of comic fodder over the years. He blunders along as he watches Charlie saunter through a meadow of artificial tranquillity.
Neither brother is emotionally equipped to, when required, confront a woman, be it the alpha female housekeeper (Berta) or Charlie's stalker (Rose) or even Alan's vengeful first wife (Judith). Alan cowers into submission while Charlie escapes wherever he can. In this recurring theme, one discovers a hidden dimension of the sitcom: the evolving gender equation. The genders, it appears, have no meeting point. And Charlie must determine why this is so. He must navigate a labyrinth of neural landmines in order to find true love.
As always, drama in the real word accentuates the make-believe world. Despite the fact that Charlie Harper is played by the real-life brat Charlie Sheen, one finds the character alluring. Perhaps even more so.
I myself was disgusted by my first viewing of this sitcom. I couldn't understand why such a frivolous program was garnering top ratings in the Western world. And then I went through a phase of life wherein I began identifying with very many aspects of Charlie Harper's existence. For instance, an Indian writer-freelancer's routine can be remarkably similar to that of a Malibu grasshopper. As other parallels made themselves evident, I found within me a veritable dark-skinned facsimile of Charlie Harper. Along with that discovery came the desire to be released from the archetype.
Like Charlie, I wanted to escape an abyss of my own creation. And like him, I'm inching towards that goal.