HOLLYWOOD — It isn't hard to pick up on who Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer are playing in the promising new CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men" (8 p.m., Ch. 2). In a lot of ways, they're playing themselves.

Whether they like it or not.

Sheen stars as Charlie, a swingin' single who lives in a Malibu beach house and has a parade of women trooping through his life. Cryer stars as Alan, his uptight brother who moves in (along with his preteen son) when his marriage breaks up.

While Sheen had quite a reputation as a player in Hollywood, he said he doesn't see his alter-ego as a playboy. "This is a guy who I think is looking for higher truths and, I think, is unsatisfied in his professional life and his love life and other personal areas," Sheen said. Which doesn't mean that he hasn't been living a bit of a Hugh Hefner-ish life.

"I think that the arrival (of) this train-wreck that shows up as this extended family is a conduit to that truth. To that growth."

Which makes both the character and the show sound a lot less funny than they are. And they're very funny.

As for Cryer, well, he might not want to think that he's much like his character, but. . . .

"Several friends of mine called me during the start of the pilot season and said, 'There's a show called "Two and a Half Men" and you've got to read it because there's this part that is just you. He's you," Cryer said. "I was, like, 'Oh, great!' And then I flip open the script and he's described as rigid, inflexible, anal-retentive and obsessive, I believe.

"And I said, 'Who are these people I call my friends?' "

Whether Cryer is all of that in real life, I don't know. But I do know that both he and Sheen seem to have found the perfect sitcom roles in "Men." The show is a hoot.

Sheen plays Charlie Harper, a guy who makes a lot of money for doing very little work (he writes commercial jingles), so he has a lot of time to hang out and date lots of gorgeous women. Cryer plays his brother, Alan, who is Charlie's polar opposite — uncool, unhip and suddenly unmarried when his wife Judith (Marin Hinkle) announces an, ahem, lifestyle that rules him out of her life.

The best thing about all of their lives is Alan's 10-year-old son, Jake (Angus T. Jones), a great kid who forms a bond with Charlie and shows his uncle some of what he's been missing by avoiding any sort of close relationships.

Not that it's hard to understand how both Charlie and Alan ended up like they did — a looming presence in their lives is their overbearing mother, Evelyn, deliciously played by Holland Taylor.

While all too often the same (weak) actors are recycled from TV show to TV show, in the case of "Two and a Half Men," these are people who are perfect for their roles. Sheen, who was always sort of an uneasy fit when he replaced Michael J. Fox on "Spin City," is allowed to play to his strengths this time around. And his strengths are as more of the understated straight-man who reacts to the craziness around him.

Taylor has played her role of the "toxic mother" in various forms before on shows ranging from "Bosom Buddies" to "The Powers That Be" to "The Naked Truth" to "Baby Bob," but the fact is that she's great playing an overbearing bulldozer of a woman.

And young Jones is a find as Jake.

As for Cryer, well, the people who know him best were right when they said this was the role for him. So he ought to keep those friends around.

And viewers ought to drop in on "Two and a Half Men." It's the best new sitcom of the season.