May 24th, 2010
How I Met Your Mother has always been a show about ideas: the central premise of the show is more complex and philosophical than your traditional sitcom, leaning on themes of fate and narrative which are not necessarily what one would call common comedy fare. However, it was also a show where things happened within the thematic realm, where characters felt like they were making decisions and potentially heading “off course” from our expectations.
In its fifth season, HIMYM has lost that dynamism, as seen in a finale where nothing that happens feels of any consequence. “Doppelgangers” has a plot, and some “big” things happen in the series’ realm, but none of it feels organic or noteworthy. Instead, the episode feels like a rumination on the idea of controlling your own fate which just happens to relate to things characters happen to be experiencing at this point in time.
And while I still value that part of the series’ identity, and still appreciate these characters, the heart of the series has been notably absent in what I would easily call the show’s weakest season, and unfortunately “Doppelgangers” does nothing to change this even while providing one of the emotional moments we’ve been anticipating since early in the series’ run.
Marshall and Lily finally deciding to have a baby is something that I’m excited about – I am pleased to see the show doing something new with these characters considering that they’re been floundering since they moved out of Ted’s apartment, and I think a baby will make an interesting addition to the series’ dynamic and help keep things fresh. However, my problem with Lily and Marshall’s decision to turn over the baby’s existence to fate is that it makes something that’s intensely personal and “real” into part of the series’ romantic notion of the universe which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I didn’t feel like Marshall and Lily made that decision because it is something their characters would do: instead, it seemed like they made that decision because it’s something the show would do, and something which allows for an episode like this one to play out. Sure, comic license and all that, but I thought it was all too cute (in the contrived sense, I’m fine with a certain level of adorable from these two).
And I felt like my concerns were justified here, as this moment didn’t feel like it was supposed to feel: I didn’t get the sense that Lily and Marshall came to this point through some sort of maturity or any sort of realization. Ted has always been caught up in whims and fantasy, but Marshall and Lily have always stayed more grounded, so it seemed strange to me that Marshall and Lily were all caught up in the “universe” while Ted was somehow the most sensible person that Robin knows (which says something about Robin’s judge of the character, the series’ inability to present Ted as a consistent character, and the kind of company Robin chooses to keep). It seems like an arbitrary production decision rather than any sort of human agency, and I felt like I didn’t really get to celebrate Marshall and Lily’s decision so much as I had Marshall and Lily’s decision very clearly choreographed and thematically tied together in a tidy little bow.
Robin’s storyline, meanwhile, suffered from repetition: Robin has left for jobs in the past, and this constant threat of Robin leaving for job opportunities or deportation or some other reason just doesn’t fly for me. We still don’t know why it is that Robin suddenly went from “I can’t spend time with you” to “Hey guys, what’s up?”, nor have we spent enough time with Don to really feel that bad about the situation at hand. The show has simply gone to this well too many times in the past, and didn’t do enough work to make this situation feel unique in any way. The show tried to turn it around and suggest that it’s an example of how far Robin has come as a person, and that we “all become our own Doppelgangers,” but there was nothing for that fairly interesting proverb to hang its hat on. You can have a really interesting theme all you want, but if none of the stories feel like they’ve been consistently developed throughout the season it isn’t going to do you any good. Here, Don has been too intermittent to be a real presence in the series, just as Marshall and Lily’s baby plan was too recent to come to a real conclusion.
As for Barney and Ted, it seemed strange to have the heart of the show (yes, that’s Ted, regardless of his douchiness) relegated to a silly blonde-haired subplot, and if the show had actually gone through with Ted and Robin’s kiss this review would be angry more than disappointed. As for Barney, it just seemed really lazy: of course Barney wants to have sex with a woman from every country, and of course he would write about what age is best to become a parent on his blog, and of course he would soften up to the idea in the end so that we don’t lose faith in his humanity. None of it was surprising, nor was it dynamic: the show zigged, and then it zigged some more, and then by golly there was some more zigging.
I don’t need the show to jump out and shock me with a sudden twist, but the storylines have absolutely no energy right now. My desire to see the fifth doppelganger is far less than the characters’ interest in the subject, and I think the show needs to go back to the drawing board in terms of getting the audience and the characters back on the same page. This used to be a show where things happen, but at the end of the episode four months pass by and nothing changes except Lily’s willingness to delude herself into seeing Barney’s doppelganger so that she can start trying to have kids. In that four months, nothing else happened or was even hinted at which would change this group dynamic, the time seemingly passing as if the show wasn’t even happening. That scene at episode’s end was supposed to be triumphant, but it felt inert in ways that I never expected from the show.
You could argue that this is because of Barney’s failed relationship with Robin, both in terms of the relationship being a bad idea (and ruining Barney’s character) and in the breakup being a bad idea (in that the state Barney returned to has lacked energy and ingenuity). However, I refuse to believe that the show I fell in love with back in season two isn’t capable of handling something like that relationship, both in terms of how to adjust the characters to fit into that new dynamic and in terms of how to get back on track. I don’t know if it was that Bays and Thomas were distracted, or whether something happened in production that kept them from pushing themselves, or whether the show’s relative success has led to them becoming complacent. I don’t know if the show would improve with an end date (give it another two seasons, perhaps), or whether the show just needs to find a new story to tell, or a new perspective to take.
And unfortunately, outside of a baby, there’s nothing for us to latch onto here: Ted remains rudderless, Barney remains two-dimensional, and Robin’s career/love balance remains as uninteresting as it was before. “Doppelgangers” is an ill-advised attempt to tie together the season with a thematic bow, arguing that what we’ve been seeing is these characters maturing and coming to terms with their identities after five years. If this was, as Jaime Weinman put it, the wheel spinning years, and then we expect the show to burn some rubber next season – if they don’t, there’s very chance that I’d be forced to stop writing about the show lest the frustration overwhelm the parts of the show that I do, in all honesty, enjoy.
- I was expecting to be disappointed in terms of content, but the real concern here is in execution: the finale focuses on some decent storylines that I’d have considered a logical finale in abstract terms, but it all felt off.
- “Put a baby in my belly” is just fun to say, and Alyson Hannigan got to have a lot of fun with it.
- Of the “Ted with Blonde hair” jokes I think that Billy Idol and Ellen Degeneres landed pretty well, but it seemed strange to me that there wasn’t a single non-celebrity likeness-related blonde jokes. Perhaps they considered those the more obvious response, but in some ways I think there was more room for ingenuity there than it “look, Ted looks like people with blonde hair!”
- Nice use of the mindmeld of sorts (reminds me of the “Thought Shapes” in The Chrysalids) in convincing Ted to dye his hair blonde – that’s the kind of device that the show is still doing well within problematic episodes, the problem is that it just isn’t adding up to anything anymore.