Somewhere between art and entertainment, there is that murky border region where vast popular success resides - a place where entertainment is so good that it’s too good to simply be entertainment, but not good enough to be genuine art. It’s that sweet spot where the masses feel elevated by something that speaks to them more powerfully than any amount of elite art, but in order to speak to the masses, it has to make terrible compromises to touch them which the more genuine article needn’t do. The Harry Potter books are nowhere near as good as its advocates allege (one or two were genuinely bad), but no closer to being as bad as AS Byatt or Harold Bloom said they were. The (original) Star Wars trilogy was made of three fine movies, but two of them were deeply flawed, and they took the entire movie industry’s focus off of human beings and onto special effects. Many Spielberg movies can be said to reside in that same neither region, so can nearly all the best American music of the 20th century (more on that another time…), so can most of the great movies of Classic Hollywood, so can Rodgers and Hammerstein, so can Verdi and Puccini, so can Dickens and Balzac. Everything listed here is great work by great creators, but it’s impossible not to look at it and see the faultlines, the imperfections, the concessions to what was expected of them that kept the work earthbound even as it inspires us.
In many ways, such works are more illuminating than the total successes. To give one obvious example - I believe, very firmly, that we live in the ‘Era of Mad Men.’ Unless this final season screws it up, it is the greatest, most powerful work of art being made today (that I know of) in any genre and any place. But it’s so inestimably great that it almost defies comment - how can we define such a powerful work of art when the artwork does so much more to define us? It took me a single post to say just about everything I’ve wanted to say about Mad Men. I’ve been asked by a few people to write more about the show, but I have no idea how to add to what I’ve already written. On the other hand, it took me four posts (and counting) to write about Aaron Sorkin’s shows, their frustrations and failures, their generation of hopeful expectation for something truly great which always dies a horrible death. It’s one of the unfortunate downsides of criticism that failure is more interesting than success. There are only so many ways you can elucidate why something is great, because greatness speaks for itself. But the number of ways you can describe why something failed is endless.
So let’s give all due praise to these not-quite-masterpieces; these high-level failures which continually grasp for the eternal but settle for sugarcoated lies. They may not tell eternal truths about the world, but they tell us more about the people who love them than a series like Mad Men ever could. They show us our weaknesses because we love them for theirs. Harry Potter was the perfect work for its generation, a generation raised to believe that it was chosen to be better, more educated, more virtuous, than preceding generations, only to be imprisoned by a world of shrinking opportunities - waiting beneath the stairs for an owl that may never come. Star Wars was the perfect work for the generation before - a generation so privileged to believe that they’ve discovered a force no one before them had, which will bind the world together in perfect harmony, and all that prevents them from doing so is an evil imperial power.
It seems quite far-fetched to most people to call How I Met Your Mother a nearly-eternal artwork, myself included. But it certainly has that grasp-exceeding reach for the stars which is a hallmark of such works. No one would claim that it has the epoch-setting reach of Harry Potter, but it did have an extremely significant impact on the Harry Potter generation. My parents’ contemporaries had barely heard of the show, but the majority of my contemporaries watched it, and clearly the show had something which spoke very deeply to my generation.
As I expected, the ending was a downer, and it pissed off most of the show’s fans. I was rather ambivalent to the ending - I admired it without liking it, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d been manipulated without justification. It’s better than a fairy tale ending, but the opposite of a fairy tale is still just a dark fairy tale.
How I Met Your Mother was not a show about happy people, but it was a show about optimistic people. In an era of reduced expectations, its fans were so passionate because the show assured them that their dreams may still come to life. One day, the show seems to assure us, Ted’s suffering will pay off. He will be New York’s pre-eminent architect, united in boundless love with ‘The One’, and they’ll have wonderful children who indulge him as he tells a nine-year-long story. The whole premise is clearly ridiculous, and yet we eat it up, because every person who rises in the morning to fulfill a dream needs such fodder to believe those dreams may yet come true.
And come true they did for Ted, only for his dreams to shatter at the last minute and leave us with the awful (and probable) truth that our dreams too will probably be shattered. In that sense, the finale isn’t just unpleasant, it’s a monstrous betrayal of trust. After assuring us for nine years that it’s alright to believe that our lives will get better, HIMYM uses only its final moments to finally tell us the truth - that our lives will probably get worse; that the true suffering is yet to come, and is so unbearable that no one should be subjected to anything but the smallest mention of it. And since our lives will eventually be unendurable, we should be grateful that we could live with our illusions for as long as we have.,
(Dan and Rosanne, TV’s greatest love story. If you’re going to get real, get real. h/t Der Fersko)
I will go to bat for HIMYM against anyone who calls it just another assembly-line shitcom. But it is, nevertheless, a show in the second rank. It only embraced life as it really is at the last minute, when only a true sadist would tell the truth. Until then, it did nothing but feed us lies that we all hope against hope are true.