‘How I Met Your Mother’: Still Occasionally Funny, Frustrating as Hell
So…we didn’t meet the mother last night in “Something New”, so much as we got a look at her cute, possibly too young for Ted visage. Cristin Milioti’s face, to be more specific. I thought after watching the show on a week-to-week basis for over five years that when the moment finally came when the titular mother would be shown, it would be a bigger deal to me emotionally. But I think I had assumed that when I first saw what this supposedly amazing woman would look like, I would then hear and see how she would respond to her future husband, what kind of sense of humor she had, if she truly thought The Unicorns held up after all of these years. Instead, a face, and one sentence to a faceless station clerk. And for some fans, that was an emotional moment. For others, it was a license to mock the show even more. I…was whatever the equivalent to using too many ellipses is.
It was not anger, or betrayal, or anything overtly negative that I felt. Some of it was jealousy I guess for not feeling swept up in an epic romantic comedy’s conclusion. Mostly it was because I know too much about how the television world works. I know that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the co-creators and showrunners from day one until the series ends, and Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan, and Cobie Smulders, all stand to make more money the longer they stick around, and having money is important. Bays and Thomas know that no matter how talented they are1, that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll ever be able to write for a successful project again, let alone one that they created. The five actors know that to be cast on a television show for what will be nine years is a huge blessing, something far more actors than not will never be able to experience. And while economics tends to prolong television shows much longer than their artistic and natural expiration date, it balances out sometimes when a network realizes that it would end up costing more money to keep paying a growing licensing fee to the studio, and to sign the ever increasing paychecks of all of the actors, than it would to let a long-running franchise go and throw on something different in its place instead.
But also? Fuck that shit. How I Met Your Mother should not have lasted this long. Why are they doing this to me? They know I wont stop watching. No show should last longer than seven seasons, if each season has twenty-two or more episodes. I’ve fallen in love with characters, and have said and meant at times that I would watch some of them forever. Sitcoms have had episodes past season seven that were far from embarrassing, possibly great, but there is no show that I can think of that had a season eight, nine, ten, eleven that was better than season two, three, four, five. And time has not made the moment we saw the mother’s face all the sweeter because of the duration of the wait, at least not to me. Yes, I am pretty sure that when Ted Mosby and Whatsherface finally interact, presumably and hopefully during the first couple of episodes this fall, I will feel the feelings. But at this point, anything I feel cannot usurp and override the critical part of my brain that has witnessed the diminishing returns of a show that has surprassed the one hundred and seventy five episode mark: the attempted justification of Barney Stinson’s sociopathological behavior; the haphazard way the show dumped fiancees and boyfriends that they had no use for3; the fact that Jennifer Morrison’s Zoey served zero purpose to the Mother mythology2; and that Ted would troll the audience by saying things to the effect of, “This time I am serious about settling down, after eight years of lying. Me and my sense of humor.”
Barney Stinson became a big, unique problem to the writers of the show as HIMYM continued to march on. Stinson in the beginning was the one character that seemed two-dimensional and from a different, lesser show, from an era where comedies didn’t have to evolve the people trading punchlines. Neil Patrick Harris’ acting, in addition to smarter writing made him into someone with the capability to be vulnerable, and with a very tragic backstory (missing father, ponytail, keyboards, etc.). Still, he was the one with the catchphrases, who treated women terribly, who wouldn’t shut up about bro codes. And he was still kind of charming somehow. His love for Robin mostly helped, but after the convoluted engagement proposal, episodes reminded us of how terrible a person Barney really was, and they did it by making him into a cartoon. In one episode, Robin disappears when Barney presses a button that mechanically moves his bed through a trap wall and replaces it with a new one from under the trap floor. What?
The show didn’t need to become that wacky, and continually break the fourth wall and have characters look directly into the camera. Robin had done it once in season seven, asking the audience if Ted really thinks he’s Woody Allen, but it was out of hand in season eight: Marshall and Lily screaming to our faces, pausing for a breath before continuing; Marshall pointing to us and promising to be “right back” while pretending to be a game show host; Barney winked to us on multiple occasions. It’s jarring to change an established set of rules that was made over half of a decade and tell jokes in an altogether different way, so much so that it sucks any humor that might actually be in it right out. Mother in particular never needs to do that because of the unique and great way that they’ve told a story since the very beginning. The premise of Bob Saget’s disembodied voice being a sometimes unreliable narrator, with time being malleable, telling his children of what had happened in the past when used right has made countless great scenes and episodes on its own, and the penultimate season that concluded last night is no exception4.
Look no further than “The Ashtray,” the episode that was like the movie Rashomon, but funnier. The first two acts of that episode are perfection, with each character changing the previous character’s interpretation of the events that transpired a year and a half earlier, with the humor building with each version. And in the most psychotically unmoored installment of the show’s history, and an episode of television that I never hated so much in the first two thirds before doing a complete 180, Ted and Barney debate with different future selves over whether to attend Robots vs. Wrestlers, only for it to be revealed, thankfully, that it was all in Ted’s head5. In fact, all of his friends were too busy for him, living their own lives. We watched as Josh Radnor raced around the city as Bob Saget explained to his children in voiceover that if he knew where the mother lived that night, he would have raced over to her, because he couldn’t wait the 45 days, just to have more time with his future wife. He made a heartfelt speech to her (she was of course off-camera), and it was gorgeous. That was beautiful. That was a memorable moment.
There were funny moments sprinkled throughout this season, without any narrative trickery, with some help from guest stars. Bob Odenkirk’s Arthur was never funnier than in “The Pre-Nup,” fresh off of a bitter divorce when he lost a kidney and “lost out on the kids. I got the kids!” (“Your kids are horrible!” “I know!”) Chris Elliott as Lily’s dad in “Nannies”, asking a young Lily when her birthday is for a lucky number at the race track. (“Today,” Lily sighed.) Thomas Lennon with a German accent that unlike virtually any other actor didn’t shout. Peter Gallagher was a blowhard former professor that Ted still needed to impress. HIMYM featured every famous Canadian you could think of in the excellent fourth and final installment of the Robin Sparkles saga, “P.S. I Love You.” “Senator” Mike Tyson in “Bad Crazy.” Abby Elliott as the Bad Crazy person. The writers managed to get Portlandia mayor Kyle MacLachlan back as “The Captain.” Ray Wise is perfectly terrifying as Robin’s father6. Some storylines rewarded longtime viewers, like Ted coming to terms with his own pretentiousness in “The Stamp Tramp”, watching in horror at his old college video tapes (he was inspired by Reality Bites to document his entire life) to see that he had no original thought in his body, and Barney’s bachelor party from Hell, complete with the “wrong” Karate Kid in Ralph Macchio, as part of an elaborate prank that he was completely fooled by.
I didn’t even mention the still lovable Marshall Eriksen, who shares Jason Segel’s playful, joyous energy, and has never wavered throughout the series. Next season Marshall will be a judge, which would be exciting if Lily wasn’t in Italy as The Captain’s art director, and hopefully it wont become a Jim/Pam final season situation. The two seemed overshadowed this year by Ted, Barney, and Robin, even though, or because they were dealing with their newborn son Marvin. Marshall’s story, of applying to be a judge in episode 8, “Twelve Horny Women,” an episode better than it sounds, would have been better served if it was mentioned at any point between that November episode and last night’s finale, because I doubt most people rewatched the entire season over the weekend like I did and therefore probably completely forgot about it. As a result, the Marshall/Lily conflict seems a lot more forced than it actually is. It’s something HIMYM is better than, which we know because of its long history. Whining aside, Marshall and Brian Huskey’s phone conversation in the finale (“Can’t I be a telecommuting judge?” “No.” “Can’t that be my thing?”) was really funny.
Season nine, the promised final season, can potentially be fun. Lily will, at least a part of the time I assume, have to adapt to a whole new culture on her own. Marshall will get to be a judge!(!!) I worry about Barney and Robin, because a lot of their stories will involve the domestication of two people used to being rebellious by nature, but we’ll see. Ted and Cristin Milioti will actually have a meet-cute, and although the conclusion is presumably set in stone, we’ll see the beginnings of a relationship, which are never simple. Every character will be in a different place, emotionally and/or physically. Presumably. No jinx. If Bays & Thomas want to stick to semantics, and have How I Met Your Mother be a story that lasts until Ted meets her in the very last scene of the series, it is not my fault, and it will be a stubborn creative move that would ignore a lot of potential comedic material, and possibly turn people off to any show with any semblance of a series-long mystery ever again. Or maybe even any show. No pressure.
1 And they are. Any episode written by the two is markedly better than by anybody else on the writing staff. A little of that has to do with having the most experience in writing the characters, and in saving the episodes with the biggest plot twists for themselves, but even factoring in those aspects, it’s disappointing that their new show The Goodwin Games is seemingly dead on arrival when it premieres on Fox next week, at the start of TV’s summer dump-off season.
2In the season premiere “Farhampton”, Barney incorrectly said that Ted getting a stamp tramp was irrelevant to the story, but that’s how Ted met Stella, who left him at the altar, which led to him getting the teaching job at Columbia, where the Mother went to school. Actually…I guess it doesn’t matter that he was teaching in the same university while she was studying a different discipline altogether and didn’t meet there. Goddamn this show.
3Nick suddenly became an idiot in “Splitsville,” a convenient excuse for Robin to dump him and realize she was only involved in him physically. Back in “Nannies,” Nick was already revealed to be too sensitive for Robin.
4“Oh Honey” was a season seven episode, but I never felt more emotionally manipulated in a television show until The Newsroom‘s Bin Laden episode, where I had a visceral reaction but didn’t feel like the show deserved it. It had Zoey in it! Damn this show.
5Community‘s recent season finale had an all too familiar feel to it, but without the complete 180.
6Another travesty: The former Twin Peaks co-stars MacLachlan and Wise not yet having a scene together, despite both in HIMYM’s recurring cast over the past few years. That was only on for two years.