March 21st, 2011
There is something hypocritical about the status of Barney Stinson as a character within How I Met Your Mother. On the one hand, he is the character who will change the least: because of his popularity, and because of the broad comedy the character is known for, Barney Stinson will never dramatically alter his behavior. And yet, at the same time, the character is uniquely positioned to engage with more emotional and transformative elements due to Neil Patrick Harris’ dramatic acting ability and the value of having a narcissistic character show signs of selflessness and vulnerability.
Ted Mosby is always on the verge of a dramatic life event, but is never allowed to reach that moment because it would fundamentally change the course of the series. However, because there are assurances that Barney’s essence will not be changed, he’s allowed to do what Ted is not: he’s allowed to meet his father, allowed to confront a potentially life-changing moment on a show which in its sixth season is largely resistant to fundamental change.
The result is a tremendous showcase for Neil Patrick Harris and John Lithgow, achieving an emotional complexity that has been absent from Ted’s story for what seems like a very long time without sacrificing the essence of the character. While there are some who remain frustrated with the lack of momentum on the eponymous story, the show’s sixth season has been quite effective in crafting stories about the other side of the parental coin that have really landed.
Even if they aren’t quite as transformative as Ted’s love life.
September 20th, 2010
Look, I was pretty harsh on How I Met Your Mother last season, but it was harshness which stemmed from love: I care about these characters, so to see their individual arcs subjected in order to make way for standalone stories which fought against the series’ greatest, if not only, strength (its serialized elements) was unfortunate.
Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that the show needs to spend more time discussing the Mother: in fact, I am more or less completely uninterested in that storyline, other than the fact that it largely allows “wistful romantic Ted” to emerge and I’ve got a soft spot for that particular characterization. Rather, my issue is that I need the character to feel like they’re evolving, that they’re reaching a point in their lives when they are considerably less aimless than when they began. My problem, then, is less that Barney and Robin split up, and more that they split up and went back to fairly reductive versions of their respective characters.
“Big Days” is an intelligent premiere in that it keeps things decidedly simple: other than yet another future milestone that we can start counting down the days until, the episode creates a small scenario which speaks to the series’ past, present and future without feeling too strained. Nothing it does feels particularly monumental, but the episode nonetheless captures the sense of purpose that the show was missing for the bulk of last season.
Which, if it holds, will be a welcome return to form.
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.
“Zoo or False”
April 12th, 2010
Predictability is one of those intriguing parts of sitcoms in general: by nature, sitcoms fall into particular patterns, either in terms of classic situational comedy or in terms of a show establishing a certain rhythm or style that tends to be repeated.
“Zoo or False” is ultimately one of the most predictable episodes that HIMYM has done in quite some time, but that doesn’t mean it was a particularly bad episode. You could call the episode’s conclusion from a mile away, and as Jaime Weinman pointed out the act breaks weren’t particularly subtle, but the story’s predictability came through the original episode setup going wildly out of control. And because those circumstances, as forced as they may seem out of context, stemmed from a character’s attempt to derail an in-show narrative, the derailment of the show’s actual narrative felt entirely natural.
And of HIMYM’s predictable qualities, that’s one of my favourites.
“Rabbit or Duck”
February 8th, 2010
I strongly believe there is a time and a place for Barney Stinson at his most one-dimensional, so I won’t suggest that “Rabbit or Duck” was written off as soon as it was clear that it would feature that particular version of his character. I think Neil Patrick Harris sells this side of the character better than he has any right to, and as a result it’s a lot of fun…when it’s relevant.
However, while the show gets points for a clever continuation of the Super Bowl narrative, the problem with this particular Barney story is that it is entirely one-dimensional both in terms of how it presents his character and in terms of its position in the episode. Whatever novelty that story gained initially was lost by the time it reached its conclusion, and while it was never asked to do any heavy lifting it also never felt relevant to the rest of the episode, which made it seem that much more frustrating.
It was an episode that had some nice moments, but which never felt like it moved beyond a couple of key hangups.
“Girls vs. Suits”
January 11th, 2010
I picked up the fourth season of How I Met Your Mother on DVD over the holidays, and I watched a few episodes over the course of the break. I came to realize that there are a number of highlights in the season, but that many of them hinge on a story element that has since that point been entirely wasted. Episodes kept pointing towards Barney coming to terms with his playboy identity in order to confront his feelings with Robin, and those episodes are painful for me: they’re a sign of the storyline that the show cut loose before I felt it should have been cut loose, and before it had been given time to develop into something that could have become a meaningful part of this universe.
If we view “Girls vs. Suits,” scripted by co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas as the show’s 100th episode, as a celebration of what they consider the show’s two most enduring elements, we find that the mythology surrounding the Mother and the audacity surrounding Barney Stinson are the show’s constants. But considering my frustration over Barney’s regression from his relationship with Robin, and considering how the story surrounding the Mother has been dragged out to the point where it has ceased being about Ted and become more about the show itself, this isn’t what my ideal 100th episode of the show would look like.
And yet, I found “Girls vs. Suits” managed to crack my cynical exterior with one of its storylines, although the other (although eventful and charming at points) simultaneously confirmed that it may have to be in desperate need of some reinvention to ensure it can “make it work” in the future.
More than One Way to Steal a Scene: Thievery in Television Comedy
January 6th, 2010
Last night, when watching Better Off Ted, I tweeted the following:
When I made the comment, I was really only trying to say that while I enjoy Lynch’s work on Glee (for which she could well win a Golden Globe in under two weeks) I believe Portia de Rossi is doing some stunning work on Better Off Ted that is being comparatively ignored by the major voting bodies (I’m with James Poniewozik: we need to ensure she remains consistently employed on sitcoms for all of time). However, a few alternate suggestions for television’s best scene stealer made me realize that I was commenting less in terms of who is the better actor, and more on what precisely I consider “stealing a scene.”
The Chicago Tribune’s always spot-on Maureen Ryan made a case for Nick Offerman, whose Ron Swanson is an unquestionable highlight on Parks and Recreation. And my immediate reaction was that, as great as Offerman is and as hopeful as I am that he receives an Emmy nomination later this year, I don’t know if I consider him a scenestealer. Of course, as soon as I say that, she comes back with the example of Offerman simply raising an eyebrow and demanding your attention despite an only observational role in the scene in question, making me look like an idiot.
However, I’m going to argue that our differences of opinion on this issue are not simply the result of my poor memory or our subjectivity when it comes to what we enjoy on television, but rather the result of the various different ways one could define “stealing a scene.” Based on different intersections of acting, writing, and cinematography, I would argue that we all have our own impression of what this term means, as we all have our own readings of each individual show and who the scene in question actually belongs to.
Which is why I didn’t initially consider Nick Offerman a scene stealer, and why I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.
“Last Cigarette Ever”
December 14th, 2009
There are many shows that, in later seasons, like to do a bit of revisionist history in order to create new storylines. The Office keeps introducing new traditions even though the documentary camera crew should have logically spotted them years earlier (an observation I saw on Twitter last week, although I forget who made it), which is a necessary stretch but one that has no easy “out” for the show.
However, How I Met Your Mother has an easy excuse: because the show takes the form of Future Ted telling stories to his kids, there are logically parts of these characters’ pasts that he wouldn’t tell them out of fear of revealing too much about his past. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense that Ted wouldn’t reveal to his kids that he and the gang are occasional recreational smokers, and that he would wait this long into the series’ narrative to tell a story about how everyone’s smoking habits came together.
The problem with episodes like “Last Cigarette Ever” is that the show needs to either be in a natural place for this story to concur or construct a story that justifies the sudden introduction. And while it isn’t perfect for every character, the show finds enough of a heart in Robin’s journey and enough of a future-forward conclusion to make the story a charming chapter in a larger story as opposed to a single episode of a television series.
November 16th, 2009
Last week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother proved enormously divisive, despite the fact that for the most part most critics read the episode itself in much the same way. For example, Todd VanDerWerff and I both liked elements of the episode, but our overall impressions of the episode were fundamentally different. He chose to believe that the writers still have more in store for Robin and Barney, the episode representing just a bump in the road, whereas I chose to assume the worst and believe that the writers had truly bungled the conclusion of this relationship that still had a lot of mileage in it.
In the end, Todd convinced me that I was perhaps being too hasty to judge where the show was going, but forgive me if “The Playbook” doesn’t somewhat prove my point. If the writers dumped Robin and Barney’s relationship so quickly because they were that desperate to be able to tell stories where Barney gets to be his usual, philandering self, then it feels like the sort of regressive move that I thought the show was above. This episode could have worked within the context of their relationship had the show been willing to do so (I’ll explain how after the jump), but the end of the episode confirms that Barney has reverted to a one-dimensional caricature and Robin is already moving on.
And while the show is certainly more clever than your average sitcom, that sort of character regression is the sort of thing that I call out other shows for – as such, this is another disappointing episode for me.
“The Rough Patch”
November 9th, 2009
One of the intriguing elements of How I Met Your Mother is its use of skewed memory, as what we’re seeing is not reality so much as it is Future Ted’s perception of reality. In some instances, the show uses it for subtle jokes such as the opening one here, when Future Ted manufactures a preposterous story for how a pornographic movie happened to find its way into the VCR. In other instances, however, the show creates more of what I’d call gags, like how Robin’s older boyfriend at Thanksgiving was played by Orson Bean so as to exaggerate his age for the sake of the story being told. These are unique because, unlike those established mainly through voiceover, they become a running gag in their own right.
Last week’s “Bagpipes” used a combination of the two in the running gag of sexual noises emerging as bagpipe music, which was clever and underplayed. However, “The Rough Patch” fails because it uses such a gag at the heart of a fairly substantial bit of character development, one which is not capable of transcending the pop cultural stereotypes. Putting Barney into a fat suit as a one-off gag is fine, but using it as a representation of an integral piece of character development feels both false (in that the exaggeration seems too central) and rushed (in that the story doesn’t feel like it has come to its conclusion).
It results in an episode that is wholly dissatisfying, a failure both in terms of its premise and in its execution.