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.
“Robots vs. Wrestlers”
May 10th, 2010
With its timey-wimey narrative, How I Met Your Mother usually tends to join traditions and ongoing storylines at a point somewhere along the road rather than at the very beginning. So when “Robots vs. Wrestlers” starts talking about the eponymous event being a tradition, it seems premature, but that’s part of the episode’s conceit: the very idea of it is too awesome not to become a tradition, and that’s something that Barney (especially) is concerned with as the group discusses their different trajectories in the wake of Robin trying things out with Don.
I like a lot of what the episode is trying to accomplish, showing each character enough of a potential life without this group to make them both understand their desire to have a life of their own and how important their friends are, so I think this is ultimately a good step for the series. I do think, though, that there were a couple of points in the episode which seemed underdeveloped, like the focus was spread out so much in the episode that details were overlooked that kept it from becoming an outright classic.
“The Department of F*cked Up Family Services”
May 3rd, 2010
The challenge of the half-hour series intent on eroding the boundaries between comedy and drama is that a half-hour is not a lot of time. While hour-long series have the benefit of 40-50 minutes in which to draw out key themes or lay the groundwork for exciting climaxes, a show like United States of Tara has roughly 23-26 minutes in which to effectively accomplish the same thing.
In some cases, shows settle with telling less story, accepting that they can’t deal with issues as complicated as series with longer running times, but what’s struck me about Tara this year is that they’re not holding back. Not unlike the second season of Sons of Anarchy, it doesn’t feel like the show is saving stories for future seasons, or drawing things out. They know they don’t have time to waste, and they know the stories they want to tell, so Diablo Cody and Co. are just barreling on through with some pretty substantial success.
In the process, though, the show hasn’t been entirely transformed: the show has a much faster pace than last season, with more sources of conflict and a less predictable central protagonist, but the stories still come from someplace honest, and there are still scenes which feel like quiet ruminations amidst the chaos of it all. “The Department of F*cked Up Family Services” deals with a lot of pent up frustration from previous episodes, but it does so within a structure which manages to tell its own story at the same time – it’s not rocket science, really, but the show has a really strong hold on it this season.
May 3rd, 2010
When you create love connections between cast members on a long-running sitcom, those lingering emotional feelings are always part of the deal. In the case of How I Met Your Mother, Ted and Robin’s relationship ended almost three years ago, and since that point the show has played out their relationship (the “friends with benefits” stage, for example) in ways which demonstrate that remind us of that past without making it the focus of the show.
However, Barney and Robin’s relationship wasn’t given the same treatment: while Ted and Robin were never really “just” friends, Barney and Robin had a normal relationship, and since the show was so committed to forcing Barney back to his “normal” behaviour after the breakup Robin just sort of had to revert to her old self as well. And so the show never really looked at how Robin and Barney would be able to remain “just friends” after their breakup, nor was it something that the show seemed interested in doing at any length due to the necessity of Barney appearing as a human being for more than a few episodes.
“Twin Beds” is the furthest the show has gone towards suggesting that Barney can remain both a boobs-obsessed playboy and in love with Robin, something that I think the show should have dealt with sooner, but it also makes the bizarre decision to return Ted and Robin’s relationship to the forefront. On the one hand you have a story I think has been underserved by the show, and in the other you have something I think would easily classify as played out.
Throw in a silly little Lily and Marshall story, and you have an important (but not particularly spectacular) episode of the show.
April 19th, 2010
Last season, I managed to watch and enjoy an entire season of United States of Tara without writing about it beyond a preview, which seems like the sort of oversight which shouldn’t happen: sure, I don’t get paid to do this, and there are plenty of shows that I watch but don’t blog about (for various reasons), but this is a compelling and intriguing show featuring some great performances that seems like it would lend itself to the sort of analysis I like to do. And yet, here I am again this season – after writing about the premiere, I’ve fallen off the wagon for the past three weeks, and I still don’t really know why.
I think it happened last season because the show is admittedly paced a little bit slowly, and it seemed to be in a largely contemplative mood in regards to Tara’s conditions: if the show is going to do all the contemplation for me, largely playing out the paces of the stories we’d expect to see given its premise, then why do I need to write a thousand words about it? However, this season the show has switched gears: the show’s pacing has completely gone off the rails, and yet the characters continue to want to try to live as if things are normal, to ignore the chaos and try to sort of power their way through.
“Doin’ Time” manages to debrief a fairly substantial, and potentially show-breaking, development with an ease which reminds us that this show is on some really strong creative footing this year: while it remains at times slow and contemplative, it is applying those traits to situations that we couldn’t have imagined a season ago and making some damn fine television in the process.
“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.
March 22nd, 2010
Last week, Kelli Marshall noted that I had never reviewed a single episode of United States of Tara, Showtime’s comedy series which debuted last year and which won Toni Colette a much-deserved Emmy award in September. This seemed surprising to me, considering that I had quite enjoyed the series upon its debut and had found its first season pretty uniformly solid. I am still not entirely sure why I never took the time to review any individual episodes of the show, but I can at least confirm that it had nothing to do with the quality of the series.
What I’ve always liked about the show is that it isn’t afraid to take its protagonist to some dark and disturbing places: while the show is ostensibly labeled as a comedy, it knows that the same premise (Tara’s multiple personalities) which begets that comedy is just as capable of swinging to the side of dramatic, and so T’s promiscuity goes from humorous to tragic, and Buck can conversely swing from embarrassing to oddly comforting. The show does not have separate spheres of comedy and drama, but rather different circumstances wherein its premise shifts to meet the needs of the story.
Based on the season premiere, it’s clear that that Diablo Cody and company are very aware of the delicate balance the show requires, and so you have what is effectively a dramatic premiere where comedy and drama (mostly) come from the same place of uncertainty and insecurity, setting the show up for an intriguing sophomore season that will, hopefully, find more space in the blog rotation.
March 22nd, 2010
I often write in my reviews of the Big Bang Theory that I feel the show needs to spend more time showing me why its central characters are still friends: Sheldon has done enough mean things, and been the recipient of enough poor treatment, that the dynamics of their friendship have more or less been reduced to “because they make a good sitcom cast on good days.”
By comparison, I rarely question the dynamics of the central five characters on How I Met Your Mother, but “Say Cheese” wants me to interrogate why these people are still friends. In the process, the episode takes both Lily and Ted to some unfortunate places, showing sides of their characters which make them seem quite unpleasant.
However, while the Big Bang Theory doesn’t have to resolve its tensions since it will simply ignore the events of one week’s episode in the next, How I Met Your Mother is all about continuity, and by the end of “Say Cheese” they find a way to turn Ted and Lily acting like jerks into a healthy investigation of what it means to be friends. That doesn’t mean it’s a particularly strong or enjoyable episode of the show, but it’s another sign that even some unfortunate premises can be improved when the core values of a show and its cast dynamics are there to keep you watching.
March 8th, 2010
When How I Met Your Mother threw in the towel on Robin and Barney’s relationship earlier this season, I was angry.
The reasons I was so frustrated were, just to be clear, not simple. I was not just a “shipper” of the couple or someone who thought they should stay together forever, someone who responds negatively because the show doesn’t go in the direction I want it to. Rather, I was also annoyed that it felt like the show was abandoning a story which had untapped potential in order to return to its status quo, shallow Barney stories where he turns into a complete womanizer. I prefer Barney when he shows some sense of humanity, some shred of awareness of his own actions, and his relationship with Robin felt like it had the potential to bring that out more often.
For their relationship to end – according to interviews with the creators at the time – just so that the show could return to a more one-dimensional version of Barney’s character felt like it ignored the show’s emotional complexities, and it has in some ways tarnished the entire season for me. While Barney’s womanizing is still funny, it has seemed spiteful and at times even hurtful as the season has continued without giving the breakup time to settle in. Instead of laughing at Barney’s antics, I found myself focusing on Robin, and how she must be feeling to know that Barney is moving on so quickly. In some ways, it bothered me that the show was moving on so quickly, that it was so willing to turn its back on comic and dramatic potential for the sake of returning to something familiar that, let’s be honest, won’t remain fresh forever even with Neil Patrick Harris at his Emmy-nominated, should be Emmy-winning, best.
“Of Course” is effectively the show’s apology, where they admit that there were unseen consequences to Barney’s quick return to his normal self, and where they admit that there was unresolved tensions surrounding their breakup. So, as one of the most vocal critics of the way in which the pair were broken up and certainly the critic most unable to look past it as the season wore on, the question becomes whether this retconning was enough to convince me that the show made the right decision.
The answer to that question is “No,” even though “Of Course” is a damn fine episode of television.