by “Ron Swanson”
I love How I Met Your Mother. I love many TV shows, but this is something else, something serious. It’s not the best comedy on TV, but it might be my favourite. Yes, it’s a formulaic New-York set sitcom, about five friends, all attractive twenty/thirty-somethings. While it was marketed as, and, set-up like, a cheap knock-off of Friends, it’s a much better show.
For the record, I also love Friends, but How I Met Your Mother has pushed itself where the earlier show became lazy and bloated. The character development is consistent, and the comedy comes from the beautifully, intricately structured way in which we have got to know these people. There’s no equivalent to the ‘Rule of Tribbiani’ (in any given situation, Joey Tribbiani’s stupidity will expand to fill the available joke) and there’s a confidence and consistency to characterisation that has seen the show develop beyond any reasonable expectation that anyone might have initially had.
It’s not that there aren’t bad episodes of How I Met Your Mother: some 145 shows in, it would be incredible if there weren’t, but the worst episodes are a victim of their ambition. To explain that, I have to go back to the beginning, somewhat, which is kind of a Future Ted thing to do.
Future Ted (voiced by Bob Saget) is the narrator of How I Met Your Mother, a show structured as a story he’s telling his kid, purportedly about, well, how he met their mother (wow, six and a half seasons later, they must be the most patient kids in the entire world). When the story begins, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) is an architect in New York. He lives with his best friend, college roommate and current law student Marshall (Jason Segel). Marshall is in love with his college girlfriend, kindergarten teacher Lily (Alyson Hannigan). The trio is rounded into a foursome by Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), a besuited and smooth-talking womaniser who thinks of himself as Ted’s wingman. In the first episode, Ted meets TV journalist Robin (Cobie Smulders), and falls for her straight away.
Frequently, episodes are not really about what we think they’re about. Let’s take the episode Showdown from season two as an example. We have an A-story: Lily and Marshall are about to be married, and are going through the check-list of potential problems. We have a B-story: Barney is about to go on The Price is Right, where he intends to tell the host, Bob Barker, that Barney is his biological son. And, we have a moment – a moment of Ted and Robin covered in spaghetti sauce, which we soon forget. Two episodes later, in the season finale, we motor back to that moment, to have revealed to us what the really important story was. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick; but one using artistry that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in such an outwardly conventional sitcom.
How I Met Your Mother uses such sleight of hand on many occasions, frequently offering us glimpses of who the Mother might be – getting Ted tantalisingly close to meeting her. Or, more often, making us think he’s about to meet her, before he goes off on another romantic detour, be that his pretentious high school girlfriend (Laura Prepon) or a cute post-grad student (Rachel Bilson).
Over the six-and-a-half seasons, though, the show has developed beyond being just the story of how Ted meets his wife. While the title might have suggested that this was a show about Ted, and while the story might have started that way, as How I Met Your Mother has organically become a true ensemble show. It’s now clear that it’s as important to Future Ted that his kids understand his deep and abiding love for his four best friends in the world, the events that shaped that love, and the connection that they have, so that their stories are equally as crucial to the tale he’s telling them. As such, each of the cast members have been given the chance to shine, and each of them has taken that opportunity. As great as the performances are, it’s the shared chemistry that elevates the show.
Consider Slap Bet, an episode from season two which is thought of as one of the show’s best (it’s in my top ten). It’s an episode which actually reveals something important of Robin’s character (why she hates malls – it’s important, trust me), but the group dynamic turns it into something else: an episode about how much fun it is to hang out with your friends
Barney and Marshall make a slap bet – winner gets to slap the loser as hard as they can in the face – about whether Robin hates malls because she was married (in a mall), or because she did porn (the mall thing is less thought out here). It turns out to be something else entirely – but the joy of finding out what that is, is enhanced by the sheer pleasure of the way the show handles the reveal, with Barney and Marshall slapping each other across the face, as hard as they can, repeatedly as each thinks they have won, then lost, the bet.
The episode has become a huge part of the show’s internal mythology. We’ve since had at least three slap-based episodes (the winner eventually received five slaps they could issue at any point), and they are always a delight. My favourite episodes are episodes that, while advancing the story, choose to focus on the fun of hanging out with your friends – and the shared history of this group makes that feel beautifully authentic.
It is in getting those relationships right that the show works. The friendship here doesn’t come from cloying sweetness, or one moment of kindness against the odds. It’s an organic thing, and the structure of the show, flashbacks, flashforwards, the narrator’s dodgy memory (he’s forgotten people’s names, the year in which things happened, why his friends were mad at each other, or even which friend was mad at the other), all helps the dynamic to feel more believable.
In terms of the individual performances, Neil Patrick Harris is frequently lauded as the show’s star turn. Barney, an inveterate womaniser whose tactics for bedding women, then ridding himself of them, are nothing short of appalling, is still an incredibly appealing character. That is down to the performance. Harris’ energy, wit and charisma are something to behold. He has an extraordinary gift for physical comedy.
I don’t think anybody has ever been better at getting slapped than him.
(He is also the master of the delayed reaction: warning – contains Jennifer Lopez)
Barney is an unbridled sociopath, and the show hasn’t spared him the other characters’ disdain. Like them, though, we have stayed with him – and begun to glimpse the conflicts at the centre of his character. We should hate Barney for the things we see and hear him doing – but we don’t.
While Harris deservedly gets the plaudits, it’s a shame that Josh Radnor doesn’t get more. His performance as Ted is wonderful. Radnor delights in showing Ted’s pretentiousness and his goofy enthusiasm. In one episode, while riffing on the idea of himself, Marshall and Lily as a trio, he recounts the three-character themed costumes they’ve dressed in, and could dress in again… Lady and the Tramp (and a bowl of spaghetti), Batman and Robin (and Alfred), Romeo and Juliet (and the Apothecary), Frankenstein and his monster (and a scared villager), C3PO and R2D2 (and the droid that Uncle Owen almost bought) and my favourite, Salt and Pepper (and Cumin – prompting the line “Who has salt and pepper without cumin!?”).
As Ted has become more of a schmuck, he’s become a much more lovable character and Radnor deserves the utmost credit – we’ve seen the character move from the kind of lovelorn romantic who tries a raindance to get the girl of his dreams, to a much more cautious and cynical character. It’s well-worn character arc, but like so much of How I Met Your Mother it’s the authenticity of the development that makes it count.
One more thing to love about the show is how it’s decided to utilise the showmanship of the cast – Harris is an accomplished magician, so Barney does magic to score chicks. Harris and Segel have their musical itches, so they get big musical numbers to scratch them (Nothing Suits Me Like A Suit, from the show’s 100th episode is the clip at the bottom of this page). In fact the show does music well, in general.
Now, in typical How I Met Your Mother fashion, imagine a voiceover asking – where was I? Oh yes, the bad episodes. When the show gets it wrong, it’s often because it’s trying to go beyond the limitations usually accepted by formulaic, mainstream comedy shows. If we look at the episode Zoo or False, for example, in which Marshall may, or may not, have been mugged by a monkey – the whole purpose of that episode is to have the characters question the nature of how stories are told, how they’re structured and how they’re spun – which given that that’s what Future Ted is constantly doing is a lovely, brave idea.
That it doesn’t work almost doesn’t matter – it’s enough that a show that could easily rest on its laurels is continuing to try and explore the form. There are shows that are more frequently brilliant than How I Met Your Mother (Community, for one, or Arrested Development from the recent past), there are shows which push the boundaries of taste and decency far more (Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), there are shows which get the heart-rending nature of joy, love and life so accurate that it hurts (take a bow Parks and Recreation), but there is no show that replicates the effect of just hanging out with a group of friends, and having a damn good time in the process, anywhere near as well as this.