May 16th, 2011
Considering that this entire season of How I Met Your Mother has been built around an absolutely terrible metaphor, I think it’s only fair that we try to consider what exact challenge this season of the series was accepting, precisely.
If it was to create the most overdone metaphor possible and threaten the series’ narrative integrity in the process, then they have certainly met the challenge: the longer the Arcadian story was dragged out, the more it became clear that it was one of those circumstances where the idea of using the building as a central tenet of the season was introduced with no conception of its limitations. Did it make sense on some level? Absolutely – the idea of allowing Ted an opportunity to design a building, and for that to conflict with a budding relationship, is solid. There was just never anything else: no other point of chemistry, no other narrative momentum, and no way of tapping into something more profound than just another stopgap relationship on the way to the Mother. It was a story about how a building was like a relationship, and how a season was about a building, and how a series has become boiled down to a single question more than ever before.
“Challenge Accepted” attempts to own this on some level, playing with how random events can lead Ted to make serious relationship decisions, but to say it doesn’t live up to the challenge would be an understatement. While there are parts of this episode which could work, there is nothing to build up to them: everything is predicated on a building and a relationship that never properly developed, and it reinforces that the problem with Zoey was never Jennifer Morrison but rather the context in which she was introduced. It is a simple creative failure, a season marred by an ill-advised plotline that they drag out until the bitter end and attempt to turn into something meaningful through temporal trickery, some shoe-horned nostalgia, and an emotionally meaningful yet utterly contrived B-Story.
And that’s no way to suggest that you’re up to the challenge of paying it all off in the seasons to come.
Towards the end of “Challenge Accepted,” Carter Bays and Craig Thomas give a large bulk of their fans a middle finger, having Bob Saget finally utter the words “And that’s how I met your mother” before pulling back and revealing it all to have been a joke. Even as someone who doesn’t care about the identity of the Mother, I found it more than a bit obnoxious, especially given the fact that this season more than perhaps any other has dealt with a lot of frustration from fans who feel the show is off track.
However, I don’t want us to pretend that the problem is a lack of content directly related to the Mother, because I think that is misrepresenting the season’s issues. Some of the show’s best seasons (I’m thinking of season two, in particular) have focused on character we know are not the Mother, and yet the strength of the relationship between Ted and Robin was enough to carry the show narratively. The show was younger then, and its characters more novel, but the absence of the Mother was still a non-issue.
At this point, the issue is less that the Mother was not the primary drive of the story and more the fact that the primary drive of the story was a building/metaphor/relationship of zero comic/dramatic value. While I might agree that the show is reaching the point where it needs to more readily address the issue of the Mother’s identity, that it would spend its sixth season on a different storyline is entirely fine by me so long as that season finds another sense of purpose. However, while some individual storylines (like Marshall dealing with his father’s death and Barney dealing with his father’s identity) felt like they connected with the better elements of the series, nothing else landed. The show did a number of things, like giving Robin a new job, but they never managed to do anything with them. It was a season of nothingness, except for the storyline that is pretty universally considered a failure.
As a result, who can blame some fans for focusing on the absence of the Mother when they had nothing else to latch onto? The only things that ended up really resonating were the brief glimpses of an unforeseen wedding, and all that ended up being here is yet another mystery as we confront whether Barney is marrying Nora (who Barney and Robin randomly run into on the street) and Robin (who the camera lingers on as she wonders if her earlier nostalgia for their time together was perhaps more powerful than she realized). And while the setup was forced and unnatural, with the sudden rekindling of Robin and Barney’s feelings having absolutely no connection to anything else we’ve seen this season other than Ted’s relationship with Zoey (which is never a great place to start), that at least sounds like a better storyline than a love triangle between Ted, Zoey, and the Arcadia.
As for Ted himself, the episode does its hardest to make his pointless relationships seem like character development, in the process robbing his romantic spontaneity of any and all romance. If you go back to “Ten Sessions,” and Ted’s relationship with Stella, we see something that started off on the right foot: sure, I felt Sarah Chalke never quite fit in and they rushed them into the relationship too quickly for the show to handle, but that initial moment made us realize why someone might actually fall in love with Ted. His romantic gestures weren’t positioned as neuroses, or driven by a terrible sunburn: he liked this girl, he wanted a chance to prove that he could be with her, and the result was something magical.
I’m not suggesting that we entirely gloss over the character’s flaws, given how plentiful they are, but to so indulge them and use it to justify this nearly season-long arc was almost insulting. I get what they were going for: Ted panics over a big decision relating to 50,000 light bulbs and rethinks all past decisions based on the light bulb metaphor (and the responsibility it entails), while the storyline also serves as a bit of a meta-explanation for why they have yet to reveal the Mother (since they can’t go back on their decision, and changing fifty thousand light bulbs is certainly difficult. However, that doesn’t read like a meaningful metaphor: it reads like an excuse, which is what the show has seemingly amounted to as of late. The plot doesn’t feel like a real world, it feels like a pile of excuses that just happen to include signature HIMYM touches (like glimpses of the future) and feature characters we have a previous relationship with.
But “Challenge Accepted” only highlighted the limitations of this, with even Marshall and Lily finally getting pregnant was more or less ruined by the predictability of the storyline. This wasn’t one of those situations where the simplicity of the setup still led to an emotional moment: this was a situation where it was abundantly clear almost immediately that Lily had morning sickness, and that Marshall wasn’t going to get sick, and that they would have a big emotional moment at episode’s end. They tried to shorthand a connection to Marshall’s father to drum up emotion, and Hannigan and Segel played it about as well as they could, but the episode itself was absolutely incapable of giving it any deeper sense of meaning. It was, like Robin and Barney’s sudden nostalgia, a token connection to previously beloved storylines which were lost amidst a disastrous season.
I feel as though it wasn’t always disastrous: I vaguely remember a moment where it seemed like they might be on the right track, learning from some of the lessons of seasons past. However, to be honest with you, the show has entered a void for me where I’m not sure I remember what happened last season, or earlier this season, or even in the past few weeks. The show is starting just to exist, floating by without a sense of purpose or meaning. While some might claim this has to do with the continued refusal to reveal the identity of the Mother, the real problem is that they are giving us no reason not to be frustrated with them. There’s nothing else for us to care about, meaning that the one thing they’ve had us caring about all along becomes the necessary antidote.
The show is reaching the point where ideally someone would step in and shake things up, forcing them to make some decisions that would benefit the show in the long run. However, with strong demo ratings and a two-season renewal (which doesn’t come with an end date), that seems extremely unlikely. It’s almost like the stage that Scrubs reached in its fifth-seventh seasons, the point at which the show has so lost track of its true potential and has instead fallen into a simulacrum of its former self. “Challenge Accepted” never once felt as though it was even close to returning the show to its roots, doing nothing to connect this mess of a season to any of the storylines they want to set up for next year. It’s just the same wedding scene we’ve been seeing all season taken one step further, or rather one step sideways.
Will I stop watching? That seems doubtful, given that there are still those flashes of brilliance which make a half-hour weekly commitment worth my time. However, I do think we’re reaching the point where caring about the show, and believing that it can deliver on a weekly basis, may be past us.
Or, at the very least, I don’t think I’m up to that challenge.
- Marshall’s side of his storyline would have been much better if they’d hired a straight man and not Dave Foley, and cut out the ridiculous water birth slides and simply had Marshall’s internal dialogue be driven by his own thoughts rather than conveniently gross external stimuli, but nice to see Dave Foley getting work.
- Barney’s tie looked fine, I thought.
- I took “Who pays attention to that sappy romantic crap” as another bit of meta from Bays/Thomas.
- Sure, the CGI was terrible, but I give them points for trying to make the Arcadian seem like more than a metaphor by actually showing it implode.
- I seriously hope that Chi McBride is recurring next season, or else this goes in the books as a serious waste of Chi McBride.