A little reunion unfolds late in the premiere episode of Bookie, the new Max comedy created by Chuck Lorre. Beleaguered bookie Danny (Sebastian Maniscalco) and his muscle/assistant, Ray (Omar J. Dorsey), pay a visit to Freedom From Bondage House, a ritzy Malibu rehab facility and current home to a deadbeat who owes Danny money.
As it turns out, the deadbeat is one Charlie Sheen, star of Lorre’s long-running hit CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. “I’ve gotten sober here many times,” a deadpan Sheen explains, before forking over his luxury watch in lieu of cash and returning to his card game. Also at the table: Angus T. Jones, who was all of 10 when he was cast in Men.
The scene is good for a laugh, one of many sprinkled throughout the episode (the only one provided to critics). In the course of 27 minutes, Danny receives a pummeling from a trans woman who doesn’t have his money (“You should see the other girl,” quips Ray); collects from a client who, judging by the smell, seems to have literally wiped his ass with the cash; and helps deliver a new TV to Ray’s grandmother, who is irate that she won’t get free HBO: “How am I supposed to see all that dragon shit?”
There’s a shaggy looseness to the episode, and a lot of the boys-will-be-boys humor that has been Lorre’s stock in trade. The leap to premium streaming means Lorre’s characters get to swear, and the lack of a laugh track means they can act more recognizably human. There’s a comical bleakness to this L.A. milieu, a scuzzy quality that breaks through the ample punchlines. Written by Lorre and Nick Bakay, Bookie occasionally tries too hard; it’s usually not a great idea to have characters laugh at each other’s jokes. But it’s generally quite comfortable in its own skin.
That all could change in forthcoming episodes; it’s hard to judge a series’ long-term prospects based on the opening bell. But you can see some themes developing. One is the changing nature of gambling, especially the legalized variety, which is certain to encroach on Danny’s business. “The days of breaking legs are over,” he says wistfully. What to do when all the vices go legit? The question also vexes Danny’s former pot dealer (Jorge Garcia), now a Lyft driver who carries a grudge. En route to Malibu, he stops at a weed dispensary and busts the window open with a baseball bat.
The appeal of Bookie will rest largely on the broad shoulders of Maniscalco, and his old-school, can-you-believe-what-this-world-is-coming-to persona. Early returns are promising. He sells Danny’s inherent contradictions—he’s a tough guy who enjoys listening to Michael McDonald—and he has enough goofy vulnerability to walk around most of the episode with a busted-up face. He also seems to have the self-awareness to know that, deep down, he’s a meathead, and rapidly becoming an anachronism. It’s hard out there for a bookie. Good thing for him the world will never run out of degenerates.