How I Met Your Mother: 22-minute convoluted comedy evolves to into dramady odyssey
Eight, seven, six, and five seasons ago, How I Met Your Mother was hands down the most audacious sitcom on television, as well as one of the funniest. It brought up plotlines like ‘the goat in the bathroom’ that it didn’t resolve for several episodes. It introduced plotlines that would never be resolved, such as The Pineapple Incident. It developed catchphrases, memes, and Slapbet – one of the best anythings of all time ever.
Unlike most television, HIMYM gives one character all the narrative power, a narrator not just unreliable and scattered – as most of us are when we recount tales – but also constantly self-censoring in relating his youth to his teenage children, resulting in morality sidesteps that both help the sitcom talk about real adult activities – weed! sex! swearing! masturbation! – and avoid still-puritanical network standards. Ted’s story is the catalyst for the show, but whether you see him as Everyman, audience surrogate, or narrator more interested in sterilizing his past then telling a good tale, he remains the most static and least interesting character.
HIMYM always accepted the messiness of life (see again The Pineapple Incident); when it had secured renewals and syndication, it started fully embracing the sadness, too. This fit with the season in the characters’ lives – instead of staying in a state of perpetual adolescence (Cheers), meaninglessness (Seinfeld), or occasional deep lessons learned on an episodic basis with the true impact dissolved by the next episode (Friends, Scrubs) – the central conceit of everything having an impact episodes/weeks and seasons/years down the road is a foundation for not just comedy but emotional growth.
Friends and HIMYM have somewhat in common,* mostly that people think they have more in common than they do. A group of white, rich-enough-to-have-nice-apartments friends whose dating habits are slightly incestuous, hang at a regular spot, and stick together even when they aren’t sure why. So far, so similar, but there exist plenty of differences. Central Perk serves scones and lattes, MacLaren’s serves wings and adult beverages. Joey never polishes nor loses his womanizing ways, Barney first raises them to an art form then struggles to ditch them. Monica’s control issues and meal planning continue to dominate Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving, Lily and Marshall finally embrace the holiday’s messiness. Ross . . . ok, Ross and Ted I’ll give you. Point being, Friends goes through the motions of change (marriage, job promotions, etc), while HIMYM and its characters are truly dynamic.
The point of HIMYM was never just meeting the mother, and it goes deeper than enjoying a group of friends with cleverer wordplay and fancier suits than ours. Its purpose is to take a convoluted journey towards a set destination.
Many complaints (I’m looking at you, The AV Club comments) now center around how the show ‘just isn’t funny anymore.’ Part of that’s taste, part of it is entropy, but a good part of it is that HIMYM has shifted from pure comedy with occasional cathartic moments, to tales of humanity with as much pathos as humor. The whole story, not just the fun parts. In the past three seasons we’ve ached with Marshall over the death of his father, watched Robin deal with the news she can never have children, laughed that uncomfortable, too-familiar laugh at Lily’s forays into debt and Ted’s douchey relationship attempts, and seen Barney grow – slowly and with much backsliding – into someone who could conceive of a committed relationship.
The writers haven’t handled all the tricky situations as well as they could have: Lily’s credit-card debt needed to be played either more seriously or more absurd; Barney’s personal growth has often come at the expense of Robin’s growth; some of the suburbs storyline was good but it overstayed its welcome. But growth, learning, and self-realization is something even network dramas aren’t doing with HIMYM‘s success and skill.
It’s to the point where when the show fires on all cylinders, it is hilarious, complicated, heart-tugging, and still advances the characters. Those aren’t components of most modern sitcoms, and while that’s not a condemnation (Community doesn’t have to advance its characters to be the most inventive show on TV, in fact it’s better served when Jeff doesn’t grow), HIMYM is in a league all its own.
– *Everyone complains it’s unrealistic for sitcom characters to live in such spacey apartments, but does anyone ever wonder how they wear 2-5 $300 sweaters/button-ups per episode!?
– By far the most prolific director of the series is the brilliant Pamela Fryman.
– Jason Segal is the comedy frontrunner, NPH has the physical bits down, and Hannigan has had plenty of chances to hone her empathy and over-reaction faces on Buffy, but Smulders is the strongest switch-hitter on the cast.