Wednesday, October 2, 2013

800 Words: How We Met The Mother

This week, most TV bloggers want to write about Breaking Bad, but I don’t feel comfortable writing about that show. My relationship to it began this summer when I binge watched the first four seasons. I haven’t watched a moment of it since, and while I haven’t been totally successful, I’ve done what I could to avoid any fifth-season spoilers. So instead, I want to talk about a show that is just as important to the zeitgeist that will join Breaking Bad soon in TV afterlife.

One of my favorite episodes of How I Met Your Mother was made just last season, a rare admission from a fan of a show which everybody agrees has gone downhill in recent years. In this episode, the characters sit down to watch the Star Wars Trilogy in a single day, something they do every three years. The narrative of this episode is so sophisticated that we get flashbacks and flash-forwards to past and future viewings of the Star Wars Trilogy, and we also get flash forwards from every flashback to the characters’ expectations of what the next three years will bring. When I saw this episode, I was kind of speechless. LOST had done many similar things, but unlike LOST, this episode was completely coherent, and utterly without any of LOST’s heavy-handedness.

Like Star Wars, How I Met Your Mother is almost more interesting because of its fans’ reactions than because of the work itself. I have no idea if anyone over the age of 40 watches the show, and I rather doubt it. But in this era when there are thousands of TV options, it’s the one show which nearly everyone in my generation has watched. Its a show which is clearly influenced by the highest-brow great art imaginable, and yet it’s still completely accessible to the largest possible public. It's a Mary Tyler Moore-type show for the Seth MacFarlane generation, and it just might be the greatest ‘bad sitcom’ ever made.

Perhaps I’m biased. I graduated college just a few months before How I Met Your Mother premiered. But I can’t help seeing this show as the perfect show for the Millennial generation - its characters growing into reduced expectations at the same rate that its viewers are doing so. Ted, Marshall, and Lilly were all born around 1978. This means they would have matriculated at Wesleyan in 1996, and graduated in 2000. Ted and Marshall would have been fresh New Yorkers when the Twin Towers fell and by the time we meet them, they’ve became seasoned Gothamites during the first period in a century when New York was ‘just another huge city.’ They already knew disappointment when the show began, but the disappointments only grew.

It’s worth noting that the show first aired less than a month after Hurricane Katrina (think of how important a Hurricane is to the plot of the show…). The show followed us into The Great Recession, the Tea Party’s emergence, and Obama disillusionment - not at all literally, but the gloom of these years can’t help but have influenced the show’s pallete. It was the perfect show for its time because Ted Mosby was wondering if life would ever grant him his fondest wish at the exact same time that most Americans his age were wondering the same. For millions, literally millions, of young Americans, How I Met Your Mother was the show they turned on every week to assure themselves that it’s OK to still believe that life will turn out the way they want it to.

I watched the last episode of Season 8 a day late, when pictures of the ‘Mother’ were plastered all around the internet. Perhaps the shock which RomCom America felt at seeing the mother was muted for me. In any event, I figured it was inevitable that we’d get a glimpse of her going into the last season. We’ve been delayed the meeting of the titular character for eight years, had it been delayed any longer, the world’s sorority population would have rioted. Somehow, a first sight of the mother in the final scene of the show, while all too fitting, would have felt so anti-climactic to the show’s fans that it would be an even larger disappointment to many fans than The Sopranos going black, or Seinfeld sent to jail.

For me, the shock of meeting the ‘Mother’ only came in the last ten minutes of an hour-long episode, when we see Ted and the ‘Mother’ together for the first time - in flash forward. At one moment, the ‘Mother’ looks in the direction ‘present’ Ted, who’s heart-shattered and forlorn, as though she’s trying to imagine the despondency he felt a year before. Too often, I find myself rolling my eyes during the show’s mushier moments, and I think I’m far from the only one. But this moment felt so haunting, so real, that I must have watched it online nearly ten times over the course of the next day. For all the gooey emotional manipulation of the show, it occasionally does something so devastatingly poignant, and rendered so artfully, that you can’t possibly say that this is just another mediocre sitcom.

(A devastatingly emotional moment which HIMYM truly earned - and a clear homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Unfortunately, along with a good show comes its fans, further proof you don’t choose your allies…)

How I Met Your Mother, thankfully, was never actually about Ted Mosby’s various romances. Nor is the show actually a comedy - which is equally relieving since there were always much funnier comedies on television. How I Met Your Mother is a romance, and the subject of the show is romance itself. Love is only one among many romances which the show celebrates - it also celebrates the romance of New York, the romance of being young, the romance of bars, the romance of clothes, the romance of lust, the romance of friendship. But more than any other quality, HIMYM has been about the romance of possibility - about that brief moment after college when you’re completely aware of just how large the world is, and completely unaware of just how inadequate you are to the task of experiencing the world, only for the realization of that inadequacy to gradually dawn upon you. For a show about romance, it can be shockingly mean-spirited and glum, and seems to have become glummer with every passing year.


It’s worth pausing here to clarify, in case it seems likely now, that this is not a blogpost which argues that How I Met Your Mother is some kind of immortal artwork. The show is a two-dimensional Fairy Tale, and like all American Fairy Tales never misses a chance to Disneyfy the messiness of human nature for another shot at showing how wonderful and generous human beings can be. The show is delightful, and sometimes that delight can spoil us with a stroke so diabetic that its sugariness threatens to make you swear off sugary shows for the rest of your life. Far too often, we’ve gotten moments straight out of the playbook of Friends, or Scrubs, or Dawson’s Creek.

But even more troubling is the reason we ultimately know that HIMYM is not quite serious about its emotional manipulation. The show artistically gets away with many of those the cynically heartstring-tugging maneuvers which Friends and Scrubs didn’t because of one quality which neither of those other shows ever exhibited - an amazing, grotesque, savage, and not even concealed hatred of women. If some more knowledgeable TV critic called HIMYM the most misogynist show in TV History, I wouldn’t utter a word of protest (in case you’re wondering, the most feminist show in TV History - it’s The Sopranos, I’m serious, watch it again…). The show is not misogynist because of the obvious reason - Barney Stinson gets his comeuppance in virtually every episode. The misogyny lies with every other major character. Ted remains friends with Barney because on some level, there’s a part of him which clearly believes that women are as worthless and dumb as Barney alleges.

Barney Stinson’s maturation as a character was long overdue. Most viewers became hooked on the show by watching him, but I always thought he was the show’s weakest link. For the first three seasons, his character was so one-note that it got incredibly tiresome. And no one on the show seemed in a position to notice. Every other character was annoyed by him, but nobody took a stand and told him that he was worse than a psychopath, he was a tiresome psychopath. And the reason they didn’t was because none of the other characters were in a position to notice. Ted was too resentful of women and his inability to find the ‘One’ to not consider that Barney might be right. Marshall had no reason to care because he had a near-perfect wife who managed to be sexy, loyal, and self-effacing all at once. Lily is basically a 1950’s housewife transferred to 21st century New York - at least when she isn’t acting like a narcissistic harpy - and Robin is every misogynist’s scotch-soaked tomboy wet dream of a woman who smokes cigars and fires guns in her spare time. The only character who might be in a position to call Barney out for what he was was the ‘mother’, every potential one of whom would probably have set Barney on fire.

None of the characters on the show have ever been memorable as anything but archetypes, and it says legions about its high level of acting from the cast that people have never tired of these characters. If there is a better principle cast in a current comedy, I have yet to see it. In this way, How I Met Your Mother is like Friends, but in no other...

Friends was only a seminal influence on How I Met Your Mother’s exterior - a premise no doubt used for a pitch meeting and nothing more. Friends was like How I Met Your Mother’s douchey and overly successful uncle who sends nice presents but can’t be bothered to show up to your wedding even though you’ve shown up to all three of his (Ross’s). Friends is little more than a focus-tested exercise in taking cheap shots at the sentimental weaknesses of not-particularly-intelligent Generation X’ers. The eponymous friends were incredibly dull characters who occasionally bungled their way into humor that was smarter than they were aiming for (with Seinfeld playing a half-hour after them, how could their playbook not be poached?). Friends possessed little in the way of real complexity, or even qualities that were ever meant to put their principles in a truly unflattering light. The characters on HIMYM,are real people, sometimes really unpleasant people, who unfortunately sometimes act like Hallmark Cards. But the most damning problem with Friends is that like HIMYM, Friends had a great cast. But unlike Friends, HIMYM knew how to use them. Whereas How I Met Your Mother always had new tricks up its sleeve which it could use with a magician’s (Barney’s?) sleight of hand, Friends had the same half-dozen basic comic and romantic situations. No one would accuse How I Met Your Mother of not endlessly trodding the same romantic ground, but there were always new comic situations in HIMYM. And even if the comedy wasn’t as funny as South Park or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it’s certainly more enjoyable to watch than either.

One of the reasons this show works so well is because it takes a very old school approach to entertainment. How I Met Your Mother is not a comedy of laughs but a comedy of high spirits. What’s important to it is not the laugh lines but the banter itself. It’s very rare that you laugh uproariously at anything on the show, but you consistently enjoy it. In its own ‘bro-ish’ way, HIMYM is High Comedy of the same variety as Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.   

If Friends is HIMYM’s douchey uncle or emotionally abusive grandparent, then the real DNA encoded on HIMYM, like any great show, is comprised of much more diverse and interesting influences. To my mind, the true parents of the show are Arrested Development and Sex and the City. Its grandparents might be said to be Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, and Ally McBeal. One can go further back in its TV lineage and probably find Cheers, or The Wunder Years, or All in the Family, or M*A*S*H, or Thirtysomething, or Mary Tyler Moore. Close relatives might include Freaks and Geeks, Modern Family, the Joss Wheedon shows (so I’m told…), and obviously all the Seth MacFarlane comedies (the co-creators had a stint writing for American Dad). It might also include certain movies produced by Judd Apatow or written by Charlie Kaufman. You could probably trace its lineage back through Woody Allen movies (obviously) and Nora Ephron (Harry met Sally, and there’s no Barney Stinson without Vinnie Antonelli from My Blue Heaven), John Hughes and Cameron Crowe (Ted Mosby is practically a clone of John Cusack in Say Anything), Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, or novels like Love in the Time of Cholera (a man spends 53 years awaiting his true love’s husband to die and sleeps with thousands of women along the way), The Great Gatsby, and pretty obviously (I mean it) all the way back to 18th century picaresque novels like Tristram Shandy (an autobiography in which the author digresses so much that it ends at the hero’s birth) and Tom Jones, or perhaps even back to Gargantua and Pantagruel (the original novelistic tall tale). Hell, Robin’s last name is Scherbatsky, which is Anna Karenina’s maiden name. I’m not the first person to wonder if the writers didn’t originally intend Ted and Robin’s relationship to be modeled after Anna Karenina’s sister Dolly and Levin’s from the same novel in which Dolly initially spurns Levin only to eventually find herself in something resembling an ideal marriage to him. Which then, of course, begs the question - was Barney originally meant to be Vronsky?

The co-creators of HIMYM, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, worked on a Fox show in the early 2000’s called Oliver Beene, an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful comedy about a family in lower-middle-class Queens during the mid-1960’s. The plot is of course closer to Mad Men, but many of the most important trademarks of HIMYM are there in embryo - the voiceover of a protagonist recalling his youth (incidentally narrated by David Cross) narrating it to us as a long story in which events are remembered out of order with all the narrator’s exaggerations enacted, forgotten details omitted, and tangents which seem to go on forever.

But at the time, the two writers were not their own bosses. They were working under a longtime TV writer named Howard Gewirtz. They were two aspiring writers who met in writing classes at Wesleyan College and then came up together in New York through the world of TV entertainment. In fact, Carter Bays is from Shaker Heights, Ohio - better known as Ted Mosby’s town of origin, while Craig Thomas is from rural Wyoming (it’s not rural Minnesota but I’d imagine they’re similar…) and has been married to a woman he’d been dating since he was a college freshman. When they got their own sitcom, they used Gewirtz’s formula to create precisely the sort of show which two midwestern kids would make if they became English majors at a Northeastern Liberal Arts college. In these fifteen years after Seinfeld, an era when hip sitcoms by big-city natives strive to be ‘about nothing’, How I Met Your Mother came to us with a shockingly old-fashioned dose of Middle-America 'aw shucks(idoodles)' earnestness. But How I Met Your Mother’s writers created one of the most sophisticated and urbane shows ever made, not in spite of the show's earnest belief in emotional connection with the viewers, but because of it.

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