NEW YORK (AP) — Charlie Harper lives — at least, he lived until the final moments of Thursday's series finale of "Two and a Half Men."
If you don't want to know what happened next, stop reading now.
A baby grand piano fell on the millionaire playboy as he made a momentous return to his Malibu beach house, clearly finishing him off four years after his presumed death with the firing of Charlie Sheen, who had played him.
It was a kookie, sly twist, followed a moment later by a second piano falling on the show's co-creator, Chuck Lorre, who had only a split-second to gloat that he had pulled a fast one on viewers: Charlie Sheen hadn't, as widely expected, made a conciliatory return to the show after all as it ended its 12-season run. Portrayed by a body double, Charlie Harper was only seen from behind as he approached his front door and met his startling, presumably final, demise.
Sheen, of course, had been dumped from the CBS sitcom four years ago after scandalous behavior and stormy feuding with Lorre, and from the first moments of the finale the viewer was set up not only to expect the return of Charlie Harper, but of Sheen in the role.
Quickly evidence mounted that Harper hadn't really fallen to his death in front of a Paris subway train, as had been reported at the time by Rose, the crazy one-night-stand-turned-wife who back then had followed him to Paris.
Instead, Rose (Melanie Lynskey) had been holding him hostage for four years in a dungeon underneath her house back in Los Angeles.
All this she explained midway in the episode as she stopped in at his old homestead, the posh beach-front digs still occupied by his brother Alan (series veteran Jon Cryer) and Walden, the subsequent owner of the house (played by Ashton Kutcher, who joined the show after Sheen left).
Rose told them that Charlie had escaped from the pit a few days earlier and was on the loose, threatening revenge on Alan and Walden — and maybe on Rose herself.
"Now that you're all caught up, I'll say my good-byes," Rose said. "I'm not gonna stick around to find out what he's gonna do to me just because I loved him too much."
Indeed, Alan and Walden realized there had never been a death certificate.
Walden: "How do you know he's really dead?"
Alan: "Of course he's dead! I have his ashes."
Walden: "How do you know that they're HIS ashes?"
Alan: "What do you want me to do? Test them for herpes?"
The pair reported the possible danger Charlie posed to an LAPD lieutenant played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of the show's cameo performances. Bewildered, he recapped the case (and in the process, the series' wacky 12 seasons) and advised them to wrap "this whole thing up. This whole thing has been going on waaaay too long."
"Yeah," said Alan, in one of the episode's self-referential wisecracks, "a lot of people have been saying that."
"Two and a Half Men" premiered in September 2003, tailored for Sheen and his real-life image as a bad boy and freewheeling bachelor. The character he played, who was flush from writing jingles, shared his home with his uptight brother and Alan's young son (Angus T. Jones, who, now grown and departed from the show, made a guest appearance on the finale).
Sheen was fired from the show in March 2011. That spring, he roared back with a bizarre nationwide tour of live appearances billed as "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option."
Among his "truths" were ugly rants directed at Lorre.
Lorre got his comeuppance Thursday night.
On his production "vanity card," Lorre explained that Sheen had been offered the role of Crushed Charlie in the episode, but said that Sheen had other ideas for how it should go.
There would be no rapprochement with Charlie Sheen, no mercy for Charlie Harper.
Then, ever the comedian, Lorre invoked one of Sheen's notorious slogans, "Winning," from his director's chair as he savored the scene, then dropped a piano on himself.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore