Unless you’ve been living under a rock without a television set, you don’t need me to tell you that Charlie Sheen, movie star and lead actor on CBS’ Two & A Half Men, has busted loose of his handlers and any reasonable influence, and is currently stampeding through popular culture with a relentless barrage of rants and raves.

I’m not unlike anybody else:  I understand the fascination.  Charlie Sheen is compelling, charismatic, and ridiculously quotable.  Looked at in a certain light, it’s refreshing to hear a celebrity speaking so far outside the usual clichés, platitudes and concessions that publicists dictate for celebrities every day.  Charlie Sheen is speaking to a certain kind of honesty, the honesty that he is living in at this moment.  Will that moment change for him?  Will he feel very differently at some point in the future?  Well, that’s another story.  It seems very likely that Charlie Sheen is speaking to a very subjective and very temporary truth, one he may one day soon wish to retract, but of course that’s up to him.

As a movie fanatic and an independent thinker in my best moments, my interest in Charlie Sheen begins and ends with his professional work, as I believe it should.  I’ve appreciated him as a promising serious actor in movies like Platoon and Wall Street, as a stabilizing factor (ironically) in enjoyable schlock like The Wraith and Navy Seals, and as a deft and knowing comedic actor and scene-stealer in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Major League, and Being John Malkovich.  So he’s a talented guy.  That’s a nice thing to remember in all of this madness.  We’re not talking about a Jersey Shore trainwreck here.  He’s not a reality-show footnote, so let’s try to keep that vulture Dr. Drew at bay.  Charlie Sheen isn’t a joke.  There is some legitimate talent being squandered.

That’s the first sad thing.

The second sad thing is that Charlie Sheen is mentally ill.

That’s a fact.  I have mental health professionals in my family, and of course I’ve asked them about this, and they have explained to me that what we are watching unfold so loudly and publicly (thanks to the ever-classy American news media) is absolutely, unquestionably, a manic episode.  Whether years of drug abuse have brought on this outburst, or whether it was always there, is not apparent (and not really any of our business, by the way), but you can take it on authority.  He needs help.  The people who I asked about this have no agenda; they don’t obsessively follow popular culture like I do, and are only even aware of this story because of its absolute cultural saturation.  These are people who spend all day helping mentally ill people, their motives are pure and noble and completely uninvested, so I am more interested in their assessment than that of any “entertainment journalist” or media expert or even movie blogger (myself included).

The American mindset has no sympathy for the mentally ill, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our movies.  (Which is the subject I will stick to, because you don’t want to get me started on the pathetic and inhuman lack of sympathy and funding on the part of public authorities.)  The public may neglect them, but it’s the movies who sell out people afflicted by mental illness with thoughtless presentation and oversimplified perception. We will depict the mentally ill onscreen as either heroic morons or sadistic killers, but there’s no real interest in the varied shades and the everyday realities of mental illness.  Playing mentally ill is an opportune chance to show off for an actor.  Writing mentally ill characters is a writer’s attempt to attract those actors by writing the next Regarding Henry or Silence Of The Lambs.

Meanwhile, back in reality, mental illness is usually a much more subtle thing.  There are dramatic flare-ups, but there is also a lot of difficult tedium and painful day-to-day dealings, and it’s always there.  There’s no easy fix.  You can’t magically cure most mental illness, certainly not in two hours, and you can’t shoot the bad guy to make it go away, unless of course you’re some kind of selfish, hypocritical, monstrous demagogue.  Mental illness is something that a family can suffer with for years, which is one reason that all the blowback on Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez and even Denise Richards is so fucked-up.

Again, I’m not writing as any infallible moral authority.  Thanks to living this story for the past couple weeks, I can look at what I know about Charlie Sheen’s life – the easy access to fame and women, the insane paychecks, the privilege of celebrity, the allegations of hurting women, the arrogance, the apparent dismissal of anything resembling reason – and all of the sudden I can find myself getting just as jealous or disgusted or judgmental as everyone else has been acting.

And like a cut-rate Jay Leno (which is pretty low), I’ve made a couple jokes about it too, both in person and on my Twitter – but don’t look for ‘em there, I took ‘em down already.  I can’t deny that there is a black-hearted humor to the situation – if we didn’t act like it was funny, then we’d have to acknowledge that it’s deeply disturbing – and again, the quotes have been insanely entertaining, regardless of context.

But this is a real person’s life on display here.  A real person who has a family and kids.  And for that last reason, I don’t find this situation funny anymore, and it’s obvious that the best thing to do is to insist on a total media blackout (even though of course that will never happen), so that Sheen will stop talking and maybe, hopefully, tend to his personal life.  Because his children should not have to live through this kind of scrutiny.  Charlie Sheen signed up for this, you say?  Fine, but his kids didn’t.  Take the damn cameras off them.  It’s only right.

I’m an agnostic most days, so while I highly doubt it, I’d like to leave room for the possibility that Sheen is as happy and as content as he’s claiming.  Maybe he’s found the secret to life.  Maybe making home with two women of questionable virtue is the way to go.  But if that’s true, he can be just as happy without all this media attention.  (Although I’m pretty sure that those “goddesses” will go away pretty quickly if the cameras do.)

I don’t feel bad for CBS or for the creators of Two & A Half Men or even the crew.  The show is a piece of shit.  I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but I’ve spent enough time watching it to know that Two & A Half Men is certainly not worth the life of even one person, even if that person is probably a jerk.  In fact, I insist that it’s a good thing that the show has been shut down:  Ideally, the current Charlie Sheen media circus will lose steam as the American public spots a shiny object and turns their attention elsewhere.  Maybe Paris Hilton will have sex with another guy who should have better taste, or John Mayer will dump another actress who should know better, or Kevin James will crap his pants at a press junket.  Whatever the distraction, maybe things will calm down just enough that someone can speak some reason, and Charlie Sheen can get the help he needs.  Just as importantly if not more so, maybe then his family will get the peace they deserve.

I can’t change anyone’s mind and I’m not convinced that my prayers will work, but I can promise just one thing:  From here on out, the only time you’ll read any word from me about Charlie Sheen will be in discussion of his past (and hopefully future) movie work.  That’d be the best way for all of us to show respect for everyone involved… including ourselves.

Will you join me?  Did I make you mad?  Would you rather me talk about anything else?  Let me know in the comments below, or hunt me down at my daily blog and on Twitter.