Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

The Newbie's Guide to How I Met Your Mother

I remember what I thought when someone told me I should watch How I Met Your Mother. Firstly, what does that title even mean? And wait, what? It’s a network sitcom? And there’s a LAUGH TRACK? Ugh. Not for me. My comedy taste was more alternative — I watch Adult Swim for Pete’s sake.

Reluctantly, I picked up the first season on dvd on clearance and sat down one weekend. They had me at the pilot episode. Now seven seasons deep, How I Met Your Mother (or HIMYM to the insiders), has been one of the most consistently funny and touching show in my rotation. The first six seasons are now available on Netflix Streaming, and it’s worth watching during a weekend bender — believe me, a 22 minute episode is not enough to satisfy.

Sitcoms, especially multi-camera network ones,  can lose their steam easily, but HIMYM has kept my interest by succeeding in the following:

1. Well-developed characters.Six young friends living in New York City is not exactly a novel idea, but unlike previous incarnations, the characters are not one-dimensional, and more importantly, defy the predictable gender stereotypes often seen in other sitcoms.

Ted, the protagonist, is far from macho ladies’ man. He is sensitive, often socially awkward and has major aspirations of settling down and getting married. He is attractive and charismatic, but also has some endearing nerdy-type interests and tends to talk too much about the history of architecture.

Lily and Marshall, perfectly played by Jason Segel and Allyson Hannigan, were already a long-term couple when the show started and were married in the second season. Whereas many sitcoms use the concept of marriage as fodder for tired storylines (man just wants to do manly stuff, nagging wife gets in the way of his happiness; man and wife bicker over something and highlight how men and women are from different worlds, etc), Marshall and Lilly’s comedic moments and appeal come from the fact that they work together on the same side in a conflict, and helping each other out of trouble. It’s nice to see a couple whose main focus is not fighting with each other.

2. Just the right amount of broad comedy. Neil Patrick Harris as womanizer Barney Stinson provides some of the best one-liners and physical comedy of the show. Barney’s selfish, womanizing, materialistic character is certainly over the top, but it is a sitcom, after all. The broad comedy works because it is focused on one character and not everyone — Barney’s antics are only funny because they are in contrast to, and to the shock of, the other more grounded characters.

3. The characters like each other. The characters come together in situations because they want to — and not just because they are the main characters of the show despite never having anything in common (e.g. Saved By the Bell-style). The strong friendships between Ted and Marshall is endearing, and is based on real love and respect and not just on Entourage-esque “bromancing.” Watching the two of them and their silly friend traditions is like hanging out with your own best friends.

4. Non-linear storytelling. This is due to the framework of the show. Ted, as an adult (voiced by the under-appreciated Bob Saget) is telling his children the story of how he met his wife (their mother). Thus, the entirety of the show is flashback. This allows for the action to jump around in time; we are able to see scenes in the way future that other episodes will build up to, and to create scenes that pre-date previous episodes. Some of the best episodes are when the action is told from more than one perspective and memory. In season one, the gang finds a goat in their apartment after a party with no explanation, but the concept was brought back several seasons later.

5. Recurring jokes and storylines. The show comes back to private jokes and sayings among the group and will bring them back season after season. It’s not so “insider-y” that a new viewer can’t comprehend the story, but it makes the avid watcher feel like they are “in” on the joke, and bringing it back in clever ways. One of the best instances is that after losing a bet, Marshall is allowed to slap Barney five times whenever he wants, but just five times. Marshall relishes his five opportunities, and uses then throughout the seasons.

If you are not yet convinced or don’t have the time to sit and watch all 130 plus episodes (a total of forty-seven hours), I’ve assembled a primer for new viewers — if not the whole series, here are the standout episodes and the episodes that best exhibit the unique style of the show.

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

And not just just because it is the pilot; the show started out incredibly strong. In the first episode, the audience learns  how the group comes together. Ted meets Robin and says “I love you” on the first date. Robin, the independent, stubborn, commitment-phobe, rebuffs him but she luckily becomes part of the clique.

Season 1, Episode 10: The Pineapple Incident

The gang wakes up forgetting their crazy antics the night before, and have to piece together the evening, The Hangover-style.

Season 1, Episode 20: Best Prom Ever

Marshall and Lilly want to check out a band they may want for their wedding, but the only gig they are playing is at a high school prom in New Jersey. Lilly and Robin pose as attendees, but get a bit to carried away in the high school drama.

Season 2, Episode 4: Ted Mosby, Architect

Barney takes on the challenge of picking up women by telling them he is Ted and an architect. In Rashamon-style, the night is shown from two different perspectives

Season 2, Episode 9: Slap Bet

Robin reveals she has an aversion to malls, but will not reveal why. Marshall and Barney have a slap bet on the reason why — the winner gets to slap the other five times whenever they want. The big reveal is that Robin was a tween pop star in her native Canada and her big hit was “Let Go to the Mall,” which is one of the best parodies of eighties pop culture and music ever.

Season 3, Episode 14: The Bracket

A spurned ex has been badmouthing Barney to all the women in New York, so Barney has to sift through all his past conquests to find the instigator. This episode is a great example of how the show uses visual aids and gags, with march-madness-style bracket framing the plot of the episode.

Season 4, Episode 4: Intervention

Ted’s friends stage an Intervention for him when he considers moving to New Jersey. The gang starts staging interventions for all the behaviors that annoy each other, until they have to stage an intervention for staging interventions.

Season 4, Episode 14: The Possimpible

Barney helps Robin find a job. Barney’s over-the-top video resume is shown, as are many of the fake websites created for sites mentioned on the show.

Season 5, Episode 8: The Playbook

Barney reveals that he has a book with all the schemes and plays he used to pick up women, including the “Lorenzo Von Matterhorn”, in which he creates a persona with a website. The rest of his friends try to help his latest victim, only to be ultimately outsmarted by Barney in a brilliant “The Usual Suspects” type ending.

Season 6, Episode 4: Subway Wars

The gang argues about who is more “New York” and knows the fastest way to get downtown to catch a glimpse of Woody Allen at a restaurant. Despite being filmed on one of the fakest-looking sets of New York City, this episode shows the writers have made an effort to depict New York more realistically than say, another show about a group of friends living in New York.

Season Six, Episode 14: Last Words

Marshall’s father dies and his friends accompany him to the funeral. Sometimes “serious” episodes of sitcoms seem out of place, but after 100-something episodes, the audience is very attached to the characters, which makes this episode and Marshall’s grief all the more poignant.

Robin Hardwick is a writer based in Oakland, CA. Follow her on twitter @robinhardwick.

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  • iamjustryingtolive

    great article!!! I felt the same way. A bunch of ppl in my college social club (frat, meh) were into it and as a comedy snob thought i was above it. Then i gave it a chance when Lifetime started showing it in syndication. The comedy isn't brilliant but when i watch it, i just get really happy. Also, i hated Ted the first two seasons but the natural evolution of the character worked and he's now awesome.

  • http://iflirtlikeaboy.blogspot.com/ improv girl

    I agree with all your points, but I did start to get sick of the show last season and it hasn't grabbed me back yet. Also, can we meet the mother already?! I feel like the writers are too scared to mess with the dynamic of the core group, or maybe they think that if he meets the mother the show has to be over. I think they could totally justify Ted and the mother's early relationship as being part of "how they met".

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I did avoid the show at first because I assumed everything on CBS on Mondays was like Two and a Half Men, and I watched other stuff that night, I did get into in season 2 though, and you're right, pretty quickly I got the recurring gags, and never felt like I needed to watch old episodes to "catch up." (Which is why I think one of the greatest shows, "Arrested Development" had a hard time catching on with people who didn't watch at first).

    I once asked my father who he met my mother, and luckily, he told the story in less than 47 hours and didn't mention the sex he had with women he met before.

  • doggans

    One episode I'd add to the list: "Swarley". Not only is it a crucial episode for Marshall and Lily, but it manages to milk more comedy than believed to be humanly possible out of a misheard name that doesn't make any sense, yet somehow works.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Keith-Kisser/1225412836 Keith Kisser

    My wife and I just plowed through the 6 seasons on Netflix streaming. Took us about 2 weeks. Now of course we're jonsing for season 7. Definitely one of the best sitcoms out there.

  • Moff

    Yeah, as others have said, I discounted this one for a long time, but now that it's in syndication we've started watching the old episodes regularly and it's great. Beyond the writing, there's also something pretty smart about a show that makes an ongoing succession of hot woman guest stars part of the formula.

  • http://www.robinhardwick.com Robin

    Believe me, picking the episode list was difficult, so many more could go on this list. But "The Slap Bet" will always hold first place in my heart.

    • http://www.shutupshelley.net/ Shelley

      @Robin Anything Robin Sparkles related is an instantly awesome episode! Combine the origin of that with the origin of the slap bet, and there's no way that episode isn't top of everyone's list. Also, really glad you included Subway Wars- really strong episode well into the shows run. Great Article! Glad to see more HIMYM stuff on Splitsider.

  • J.R.

    One of the other great things this show does- it will show you a scene from one point of view, and then back up later, re-showing you the scene a 2nd time, only this time you have a new piece of information that completely changes what the scene was about. They will even write it so that the same exact dialog occurs, but upon the 2nd viewing, the dialog means something else entirely. To me, this is about the highest form of "art" that a sitcom can achieve- busting through your perception and understanding by slowing feeding you a little more information.

  • dmajor

    How I Hung Around With My Friends For Several Years, Met A Lot of Women, and Apparently Never Did Get Around To Meeting Your Mother.  Terrific show. Lousy title. I can see why they changed it.

  • Vera

    Really nice article, i love himym, it's just the best tv show ever, at least of the comedies… they have a really great cast and that is halfway to a successful tv series. I was hoping that it would never end, or at least to have 10 seasons, but i'm glad that it still will be another season, but i was hoping for more… anyway continue whit the god work :)