Let's get this out of the way. "Two and a Half Men" is a horrible show. It's a horrible, no-good, very bad, I'd-rather-watch-milk-spoil-then-drink-it kind of show. The writing is lazy, the jokes are obvious and none of the characters are particularly appealing. The fact that it lasted 12 seasons (and spent many of those seasons as the top-rated comedy in the United States) is a testament to the triumph of mediocrity and how appealing to the lowest common denominator is not only a #winning strategy but a highly lucrative one. By all accounts, the show is a vertiable cash-cow and does well in syndication, which means we'll never be able to escape it.
That being said, the "Two and a Half Men" finale was a fascinating meta-episode that doubled as a prolonged "f-you" from series creator Chuck Lorre to his many, many detractors. CBS's most valuable asset poked fun at all the criticism the show has taken over the years and responded with a simple shrug of the shoulders while using a proverbial hundred dollar bill to light one of his victory cigars.
Departing completely from the traditional tone of the show, the "Two and a Half Men" finale was a self-referential, fourth-wall breaking hour of television that was actually a lot of fun to watch. The nominal plot was that presumed-dead Charlie Harper (original series star Charlie Sheen who was fired in 2011 after a very public meltdown) was still alive and was threatening to take his revenge on his brother Alan (Jon Cryer) and Walden Schmidt (Sheen's replacement, Ashton Kutcher). But the episode was really about saying stuff like this:
"Amazing that you made so much money with such stupid jokes." Walden says to Jake (Alan's son - the original half-man before he had a meltdown of his own), after which everybody looks at the camera and smiles.
Lieutenant Wagner (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger): "This whole thing has been going on way too long."
Alan: "Yeah, a lot of people have been saying that."
Walden: "Haters gonna hate."
Alan (in reference to Jake): "He wasn't dumb at the beginning. He got dumb later on."
Wagner: "What happened?"
Alan: "Well, turned out it was funnier."
And of, course, there were tons of veiled and not-so-veiled digs at Charlie Sheen. The episode made reference to his drug habit, his hooker fetish, and his various arrests involving drugs, hookers, hotel rooms and whatnot. There were multiple jokes about the circumstances surrounding his departure from the show and subsequent public meltdown (Walden got a letter from Charlie Harper filled with references to tiger blood, ninjas and assassins). The show wasn't just about Lorre getting even, Cryer and Kutcher also got in some shots in response to various things Sheen has said about them since his departure (Cryer got in a good line about how Charlie was upset because he didn't think Alan could go on without him and saw him as a supporting character when he was really a co-lead - a reference to Cryer's Emmy win in 2012 for lead actor).
Ultimately, Alan summed it up best by noting that the circumstances behind his brother's "death" weren't so mysterious. “He was taking a lot of drugs and pissed off almost everybody." Despite that, Lorre noted that they still tried to get him to make an appearance in the finale. Probably the most fascinating thing to come out of the episode was the revelation that, according to Lorre, Sheen refused to do what the writers had planned and, instead, wanted a scene with Cryer so that it would set the stage for a spinoff called "The Harpers." The fact that Sheen thought he could waltz back into CBS and do business with Lorre and Cryer after everything that has happened says a lot about his level of delusion, as well as the depths of his desperation. Sheen's sitcom "Anger Management" was cancelled in December and, well, those porn stars and drugs won't pay for themselves.
The biggest reason why the finale was so enjoyable to watch was because it was such a departure from the norm. After all, a typical "Two and a Half Men" episode was some variation of "Charlie gets into a jam because of his womanizing and hilarity ensues" or "Alan gets in a jam due to his cheapness or lack of success with women and his more handsome and confident brother/best friend bails him out but not before Alan gets mercilessly teased by his son, niece, mother, housekeeper, and said brother/best friend." It was nice to see them try something different, and seeing them take the meta approach was a huge, and pleasant, surprise. Going meta is something shows have to do in moderation ("Boston Legal" found out the hard way that going meta all the time ended up hurting the show). For "Two and a Half Men" it was just the right amount and at the right time.
After all, why shouldn't Lorre and company use the show's final episode to settle some scores while touting its success? It's easy for people like me to say "'Two and a Half Men' is a terrible show that none of us will miss" except it clearly isn't true. Based on the ratings, plenty of people will miss this show (although they'll have lots of chances to watch it in syndication). By most standards, the show was a rousing success. 12 years on TV (longer than "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond"). 45 Emmy nominations (and nine wins, including two for Cryer). Consistent viewership in excess of 10 million per episode (over 16 at its height of popularity). People who love "Big Bang Theory" owe "Two and a Half Men" a huge debt of gratitude - "Two and a Half Men" gave Lorre clout at CBS, and the network probably only took a chance on a sitcom centering around a bunch of nerds because Lorre had his name on it. Lots of shows would have killed for that kind of run.
None of that changes the fact that, for many people, "Two and a Half Men" was a bottom-feeding show that always went for cheap laughs. I, myself, went through a phase when I hate-watched the show (and the undercurrent when most people say they hate-watch a show is that they actually like parts of it and one of the reasons they get so infuriated is that they can see the potential for a good show). I'm sure I'm not alone in that regard. After all, "Two and a Half Men" definitely had potential. Charlie Sheen, despite his faults, is a funny comedic actor and his life is an endless goldmine of material. And the show was good in that it gave a showcase to Jon Cryer, a talented actor who is, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Additionally, the underrated Holland Taylor was always funny and did the best with her material. The pieces of a good sitcom were there, but it was easier to dumb it down and take the path of least resistance. And much more profitable.
In the end, the enduring legacy of "Two and a Half Men" is that it was the sitcom equivalent of Jay Leno: widely despised by critics but inexplicably loved by the masses. The finale proved that Chuck Lorre and Co. weren't just fine with that, they reveled in it.