I Think I Know Why We Give a Sh*t About Charlie Sheen
My daughter and I were watching YouTube. She's been on a singing and dancing kick lately and after an embarrassing incident looking for ballet videos - "Bikini Ballet" delivers exactly what it promises - I thought she might like some clips from "Kids Inc."
I remembered it was about a group of kids who run their own soda shop/dance club after school. (As Wikipedia says, "the show did not aim for strict realism.") I figured it had to be fairly toddler-friendly since it was from the early 80s, before tween girls regularly used stripper poles in their acts. But as my little girl danced to adolescent covers of "Neverending Story" and "Goonies," I got choked up. Not because she's so freaking adorable (she is) but because I remembered with perfect clarity what it was like to be 13 years old watching the premiere of this show that I never even liked that much.
And that's when I figured out why anyone gives a good goddamn about Charlie Sheen.
It's not just fat chicks and date-rape fans, no matter what Andrea Peyser says. Like you, I've been following Sheen's catastrophic failure as human being and viable business model. I've been pretending to be above it all even as I've sucked down the delicious cocktail of schadenfreude and moral superiority.
But it keeps nagging at me in the back of my skull: why the hell do I care about this drugged-out wife-beater?
The answer goes back to all of my seminal experiences -- most of which involved either a TV or a movie screen.
Sometimes I think of Generation X as the test subject of a wildly unethical experiment, sort of like the people dosed with LSD by the CIA. The people behind MTV, the Brat Pack and Nickelodeon were all just learning how to screw with our heads, and though they may have had the very best of intentions, they were pumping out stuff that could seriously mess up a young mind.
There's evidence we're wired to treat stories just as seriously as reality. Whether that's to blame or not, there are a lot of people out there -- myself included -- who have had fuller, richer and more meaningful experiences with what's on TV than what's in their real lives.
We developed irony as a defense, but it's a garbage-can lid against armor-piercing bullets. TV goes right past the intellect and burns its way into a deeper part of our brains. McLuhan underestimated the power of media by a few orders of magnitude. The medium isn't just the message: media is our life now.
So when Sheen said, "I'm so tired of pretending like my life isn't just perfect and just winning every second," he was speaking into those neurons holding the delusion he made out with Jeannie Bueller and fought in Viet Nam and is best friends with John Malkovich and lives in Malibu where he has lots of sex and drugs with an endless parade of disposable balloon-breasted women. Since adolescence (both mine and his), Charlie Sheen has been a citizen of a dreamworld where success means Ryan Reynolds screwing Scarlett Johansson on a pile of money every night.
In every way, our real lives fall short of that world.
It doesn't matter that Elvis died on a toilet and Michael Jackson overdosed. We're still watching TMZ for glimpses of low-rez cell-phone video. People line up for days to get a chance to play the most crapulent versions of themselves on reality TV.
That's why the audiences turn on Sheen so quickly when he's boring or incoherent or exhausted. They didn't pay to see reality. They paid to see someone who would tell them the dream is reality.
We've all got something invested in that image of him. If Charlie's not having a good time, that means someone has been fucking lying to us for most of our lives.
Now the lie is wearing his skin as a suit. And from all visible evidence, it's killing him.
The Charlie Sheen Show is a test of how much metaphor a human being can tolerate before reaching a fatal dose, and we've got front-row seats.
Christopher Farnsworth spends most of his time figuring out new and better ways to kill monsters and bad guys. His new novel, THE PRESIDENT'S VAMPIRE, will be available April 28 at bookstores everywhere.
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