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How I Met Your Mother – “The Mermaid Theory”

“The Mermaid Theory”

December 6th, 2010

“The Mermaid Theory” is interesting in two ways. And since they’re not particularly substantial ways, I’m just going to cut the introduction off here and we can get into the meat of it.

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A Canuck in an American Sitcom: The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

A Canuck in an American Sitcom: A Paper

February 8th, 2010

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at the 16th Annual McGill English Grad Students’ Conference in Montreal, where I gave a presentation on the subject of Canadian space in How I Met Your Mother. I had a fun experience at the conference, but I was never entirely satisfied with my paper: I thought it was a decent representation of the basic argument I wanted to make, and people responded to the clips and were able to “see” what I was talking about, but the paper didn’t represent the depth of the show’s depiction of Canada. I only had 20 minutes, so my time was limited, but it felt like those limitations were keeping the paper from reaching its full potential.

So, rather than posting the truncated version of the paper, I spent part of my 21-hour train ride home from Montreal adding some additional material, expanding on ideas that were only hinted on before. As a result, the paper has been transformed into something far longer than I had intended it to be, a lengthy treatise written in the form of a journal article but with the focus of a blog post (in that I don’t spend a great deal of time with sources and the like, focusing primarily on the show itself). It’s a bit of a bastardization of both forms, too informal for one and too long for the other, but I think it’s the closest I’ve come to feeling as if I’ve done the subject justice, and as a result I’m posting it here for you to peruse at your leisure – enjoy!

A Canuck in an American Sitcom:

The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

The greatest challenge facing a multi-camera sitcom is creating a world that feels real even when it is unquestionably fake. Although we are almost always aware that the locations in such shows are only sets, that they have been meticulously crafted and designed by a series of people behind the scenes, the sitcom depends on building a relationship between the audience and its characters, and their homes (like Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld) or favourite drinking establishments (Cheers on Cheers) are important reflections of who they are and how we relate with them. Setting is, to adopt John Fiske’s use of Roland Barthes’ term, an important ‘informant’ that identifies or locates in time and space, but the falsehood apparent in a multi-camera sitcom can potentially complicate this process. However, over time, the fact that these are only sets becomes irrelevant, as the sets become synonymous with the characters who habitate them: Central Perk goes from a strangely well-lit coffee shop to “the place where Rachel, Joey, etc. hang out,” and the locations become synonymous with the show’s reality through their continued presence in the characters’ lives.

However, while this explains how regular sets in which a sitcom’s characters consistently interact gain meaning beyond their initial construction, it has only limited effects on additional spaces the show may introduce. What I want to address is how CBS’ How I Met Your Mother manages to create distinctly Canadian spaces within a series set and filmed in the United States in order to develop the show’s Canadian character, Robin Scherbatsky. Although the audience is aware that these spaces are ‘fake,’ the show’s writers establish a real connection between the spaces and Robin – a journalist who moves to New York to make it big – that establishes her Canadian identity as a facet of her character which can be played for humour rather than as a joke which defines her character. Robin’s actions and mannerisms place her comfortably within an external conception of how Canadians act or speak, but through the depiction of cultural, expatriate and significant commercial spaces, the series develops its own complex image of Canada’s national identity that fuels both comedy and character within its universe, all within the spatial limitations present in the multi-camera sitcom.

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How I Met Your Mother – “Duel Citizenship”

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“Duel Citizenship”

October 19th, 2009

So, this was pretty awesome, eh?

I don’t know if there’s many episodes of an American comedy series that likely work far better for Canadians than Americans, but I think this is probably one of those examples. Much of “Duel Citizenship” took the form of a pretty standard episode of the show, with Ted turning into an unwilling third wheel on a trip with Lily and Marshall, but the story of Robin’s need to consider becoming an American citizen turned into a love letter to Tim Hortons (which is a famous Canadian coffee chain, in case you weren’t aware) and in many ways another sign that this Robin’s character (and the show) has more of an appreciation for Canada than the jokes might initially indicate.

The result is a solid episode of How I Met Your Mother from the perspective of someone who finds the jokes to be at Canada’s expense, and a kind of fantastic episode for those of us who “get” the Canadian side of the storyline in a way that others cannot. All in all, it’s an episode I had a lot of fun with, albeit for the love of my country more than my love of the rest of the episode.

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How I Met Your Mother – “Little Minnesota”

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“Little Minnesota”

December 15th, 2008

For those of you who don’t know, I am from Canada. So is Cobie Smulders, who plays Robin Cherbotsky, who is also from Canada. This has made us the butt of many jokes in the span of How I Met Your Mother’s four seasons. The show has never really strived for accuracy, of course, but its skewering has been quite adept: I had recent HIMYM addict Angie Han send me a YouTube link the other night that she viewed as proof that the 80s hadn’t, in fact, come to Canada until 1993, which I won’t share here because it was actually quite damning for the state of popular music in the mid to late 90s in Canada.

If they had created an image of Canada in the past though, the final episode of HIMYM before its Christmas break proved that they are willing to go one step further. In an episode that would make Baudrillard proud (and by proud, I mean roll over in his grave while proud that he was right all along), Marshall invites a homesick Robin to “Little Minnesota” (aka the Walleye Saloon) a version of Marshall’s home state (which offers similar weather patterns to Canada) where everyone knows your name, everyone laments the Vikings’ loss in the 1999 NFC Championship, and where they believe that Canadians are afraid of the dark.

What followed was an episode that, despite the episode’s other storyline being a simulation of a mediocre sitcom, brought new life to the show’s version of Canada: sure, it’s not the truth, but it’s a well constructed enough exaggeration that I believe the show deserves credit for its-AHHH WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LIGHTS?!

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