Sunday, January 08, 2012

"How I Met Your Mother": State of the sitcom address

My brother and sister-in-law started watching "How I Met Your Mother" a couple years ago, and seemed to really be liking it for the most part. So this past April, over the Easter weekend, I went back and began catching up on all six seasons. Conveniently, my aunt had bought the first four seasons of the show on DVD under the assumption she would start watching them at some point, but it turns out I got to them first.

It took me only a month to get caught up, and the fact that the show's early seasons felt so natural and fluid only encouraged me to watch at a rate of about eight episodes a night. Along with "The Big Bang Theory," it remains one of only two TV comedies with a laugh track that I watch - only "HIMYM" feels like a show that probably wouldn't have a laugh track nor be filmed with multiple cameras were it not aired on CBS. The structure of the show is such that it can't even be filmed in front of an audience because the number of flashbacks and cutaways on the show, as well as its use of narration, would make the show feel like a "hostage situation" for a live audience, according to its creators. More importantly, the comedy of the show is genuinely funny enough to make me laugh; the same can't always be said for "TBBT".

Somewhere along its run, however, "HIMYM" has lost its way. I know this because every TV critic has been saying it and writing about it for a while now. A friend who watches and loves the show and I were texting the other night about the current state of the show, as we've done many times before. And each time I feel like we're going to talk in circles again about the show's flaws, we always seem to find new areas of concern or trace problems back to possible origins that we hadn't thought about before.

My friend's general problem with the show is that too much of it now feels like filler, and I agree. There was once a time on the show when Future Ted would say "I'll get to that later," and it would actually lead to some relevant progression in the story. Right now, there are about four or five outstanding plot points to come in the show: Barney and Ted at a casino; Robin getting out of her career rut; Ted in a dress, from last season. Which only makes me hold the opinion that if I'm sitting through these episodes that aren't making me laugh, aren't drawing my interest, and are in fact really only screwing with me (Dec. 5th's "Symphony of Illumination," which ended with the revelation that the depressing episode we just watched was the result of a flimsy and fake framing device of Robin's equally fake kids, is without question in my bottom-5 all time episodes), I better hold on to my hat for a run of fantastic episodes in the spring for this all to be worthwhile.

And I'm not convinced that's what will have happened by May. I'm certain that we won't find out until the end of this season that Barney is marrying Robin. Which means we will have stalled for two full seasons with the mystery of this wedding at which Ted meets the mother. While the early years of the show displayed an unquestioning sense of optimism (i.e. Ted idealizing any and all women who crossed his path to be his soulmate), that everything was building to a big payoff, it now feels like the writers and producers are convinced that "HIMYM" can't exist without a running mystery or two. Every now and then, the show can hit a checkpoint where they briefly remind you that said mystery (or mysteries) exist(s), then go back to telling derivative sitcom stories that mostly fall flat.

My friend, however, also remains skeptical that this wedding can actually happen by season's end - and I can't argue with that either. If this wedding is going to take place in May 2012, the whole thing will have to be thrown together even faster than Marshall and Lily's wedding was back in 2007. So now we've hit the Catch-22 of the season finale: the most we're probably going to see of the wedding is that Robin is the bride, and then we come back in September and most likely stall some more. And we don't like that. Or, the wedding happens in May 2012 and despite being foreshadowed since September 2010, will feel unbelievably abrupt and unsatisfying. And we don't like that either.

I told my friend that "HIMYM" has transitioned from Ted revealing how he met the mother to sitcom convention taking over and leading the universe to create any and all roadblocks to stop Ted from meeting the mother (or getting a decent job, or having any luck with women, or just being happy in general). As a result, there can be 24-48 (God forbid, even more than that) not-that-good episodes that FX has to pay a million dollars each to acquire for syndication more than if the series were to play out the most natural and logical way possible. Unfortunately, logic and story and all the things we like about TV don't often mesh with how a TV network or studio makes money.

And my friend generally agreed, pointing out that the thing about fate, a concept so fundamental to "HIMYM," is that sometimes it's favourable and sometimes not. Why aren't we seeing anything good happen to Ted? Why is he being written in a way that only lets him be mopey and sad (unpleasant to watch), which then makes him feel desperate and obnoxious (even more unpleasant to watch)? The last couple of long term relationships that Ted has been in, with Stella and Zoey, have been really irritating and almost season-ruining. The audience doesn't hate Ted dating a woman for a long period of time and not having her turn out to be the mother. The audience hates when that woman makes Ted a pathetic excuse for a human being.

On the subject of what was once Ted's undying optimism that every woman he meets could be "the one," I also bring up a sense of misogyny that isn't unique to "HIMYM" - in fact, Robin Scherbatsky and Penny from "TBBT" are both characters that have really been deconstructed to the point that they've shed their dignity since the start of their respective series. Both used to have promising careers and demonstrated that they did have friends outside of the series' main characters. Now, neither are happy professionally and are really struggling with accepting that their friends are their friends. It's making Robin neurotic and it's being played for laughs. Misogyny is frankly running rampant on CBS sitcoms, even if we ignore the black hole of laughter that is "Two and a Half Men".

"HIMYM" has long prided itself on accuracy and relatability with how it portrays real life for young people. Granted, the protagonists of "HIMYM" have about 15 years on me, but in the last year or two that relatable joy and youthful sense of humour has really slipped away and left the show in shambles. It doesn't make me happy in the way that it used to. And though the fact that a lot of the series was planned out in advance was one of the biggest selling points my brother made to me when praising "HIMYM," its now something I'm less convinced of than ever.

And with that glowing review, "How I Met Your Mother" airs Mondays at 8pm on CBS.