BURBANK, Calif. — The stars of CBS' "Two and a Half Men" are scrutinizing a publicity photo depicting them as a tuxedo-clad trio sharing a vintage microphone.
Ashton Kutcher is in the center of the shot, flanked by Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones on the other. Charlie Sheen, of course, is out of the picture.
"It's nice," offered Cryer, adding a query to Jones: "But that's not your hand, is it? I believe they had too big a black spot there and they photoshopped in a hand."
"That's not my head, is it?" said Kutcher.
Oh, those kidders. But the silliness carries a message: The three actors are a comfortable fit with each other and for the revamped "Two and a Half Men," which returns Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. EDT for its ninth season, minus the fired Sheen.
Executive producer Chuck Lorre and the Warner Bros. studio clashed bitterly with their erratic, hard-partying star before dumping him last March and cutting the season short. The task now is to salvage what has reigned as TV's top-rated comedy.
Kutcher, who carries the weight of replacing Sheen as newly introduced character Walden Schmidt, diligently ticks off reasons the sitcom can remain a hit.
"The series has momentum. It has fans that are built in," he said. "I think the great thing the writers have done is they haven't lost the sensibility of the show. ... It's going to offend people just as much as every episode has offended people."
"Two and a Half Men" accomplished that by trafficking in sexual jokes and innuendo as it detailed the antics of fast-living womanizing cad Charlie Harper (Sheen). More fodder came from his roommates, Charlie's neurotic, divorced brother Alan (Cryer) and young nephew Jake (Jones).
The shake-up has given the show the chance to push the envelope in a new direction: laughing in the face of death, with Sheen's character jettisoned in a fatal accident. Kutcher fills the vacuum playing an Internet genius who is wealthy but unlucky in love and who moves in with Alan and Jake, creating a new buddy triangle. Judy Greer plays the heartbroken Walden's ex.
Producers have been trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep details of the reconstituted show under wraps. Kutcher, who sports a beard in the role, plays it coy when asked about the facial hair.
"You got to ask the writers. We're not allowed to talk about the beard," he says, then relents. "I was being really lazy when I met Chuck and he said, 'I like the beard. Keep the beard.'"
Cryer learned about Charlie Harper's demise in an operation worthy of the CIA.
"There was tremendous security during the whole thing and, in fact, no scripts were sent out. You were brought to Warner (Warner Bros. Television), taken into a room with the scripts, left there for half-an-hour by yourself and then you had to leave the script in the room and walk out," he recounted.
Cryer and his co-stars, who have taken a break from production for a joint interview at the studio, say that it's all smooth sailing now.
"We've definitely found our dynamic," Kutcher said. Cryer agreed, lauding the show's writers and his new co-star.
"That came remarkably quick. I think we got a lot of great stuff in the first episode," he said. "The writers got hold of a good dynamic, plus he (Kutcher) changed it in a way that works better than the writers had originally imagined."
Curiosity about how Harper's death is approached and Kutcher's introduction could turn the season debut into "event television," the sort of program that produces buzz and healthy ratings, said analyst Bill Carroll of ad buyer Katz Media.
Ultimately, he suggested, the changes could reinvigorate the long-running comedy and extend its life — something Sheen, who filed a $100 million lawsuit against the producers over his firing, might not have expected.
"They have a formula. They stay with the formula," Carroll said, which will keep longtime fans watching. The addition of Kutcher, who has cultivated a following with his work on TV ("That '70s Show," ''Punk'd"), movies ("No Strings Attached," ''Valentine's Day") and avid use of Twitter, will bring new viewers.
"You can't diminish the contribution that Charlie Sheen made to the show but they (producers) have to believe that Kutcher can make his own contribution," Carroll said.
Given the bad blood between Sheen and producers, did Cryer think killing the character seemed more vengeful than funny? The actor, who smartly kept out of the fray engulfing Sheen and their bosses and who said he hasn't heard from Sheen, was diplomatic in his reply.
"The writers had an enormous challenge and you'll see they handled it beautifully. Change is often shocking but it's so true to the show," Cryer said. "And sometimes stuff you don't see coming happens in life." He laughed, ruefully. "And in that respect it was very true to life."
Besides, the show has never wallowed in sentiment, he said.
"That's not the vibe. So everything is treated the same way we've always treated it: In a very crass and vulgar way."
CBS is owned by CBS Corp.