Charlie Sheen to Oprah, TV's dramatic year

Coming and going . . . going and coming: Our own lives can change dramatically, but why are we surprised when the lives of the rich and famous do? Maybe because those lives can suddenly turn into volcanic eruptions of booze and drugs, those verbal emissions best described as insane or, more charitably, unbalanced. We watch in astonishment, then amusement, and finally -- because public self-beheadings are horrifying as they are rare -- we look away.

For that reason, 2011 belonged to Charlie Sheen, even though he'd probably like to give it back. Fired from TV's top comedy in March, Sheen's became one of the highest-profile derailments in TV history. CBS salvaged "Two and a Half Men" by casting Ashton Kutcher as one of the "Two," but the memory of "winning (duh)," "Tiger Blood" and "goddesses" almost makes that incidental..

Also on the subject of going, going, gone, Oprah Winfrey's stage-managed exit from the afternoon carefully excised surprise and to some extent spontaneity because it was in service of an even larger goal -- the launch of a network. OWN remains tightly glued to that word "troubled" in just about every published reference, as the magic that O was supposed to bring remains more promise that reality..

And Simon Cowell left "American Idol," which was reinvigorated in his absence while his own second act -- "The X Factor" -- has had some success but hasn't yet proven that it's anything more than a glorified version of "America's Got Talent." (We also now await the second act -- or is it the fourth, fifth or sixth? -- of Regis Philbin, who left "Live! With Regis and Kelly" after 28 years; and of Katie Couric, who will host a daytime show for ABC next year.) In a broader angle view of the year of transition, there was also this: Under new management, NBC stumbled through one of the toughest stretches in almost eight decades on the air, while TV viewers became increasingly adept at avoiding, or managing, the commercial network pipeline. There's a direct link here because ABC ("Modern Family"), CBS ("NCIS") and Fox ("Idol") have proved that the best way to corral restless viewers who have thousands of options is with a bona fide hit..

To that end, the commercial networks decided once again that the tried-and-true sitcom was the surest way to that goal because viewers effectively told them it was. ABC and Fox spent lavishly and well on pilots for shows about the extinct -- Pan Am and dinosaurs -- but a predictable retread ("Last Man Standing") starring a beloved TV veteran (Tim Allen) got the viewers. CBS ("2 Broke Girls"), Fox ("New Girl") and NBC ("Up All Night") each scored with girlcoms, romcoms and newmomcoms. Even Sheen, who made 2011 so effortlessly memorable, has a new sitcom in the works for FX -- "Anger Management." At least the year ends on a funny note.

Here's the year's best:

--VERNE GAY

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