Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thoughts After 'How I Met Your Mother'

For a long time I've considered writing some articles or reviews of How I Met Your Mother, which concluded yesterday as of my writing this. They'd be season reviews: the show's gone for nine seasons and two hundred and eight episodes, and any attempt to review it would be monolithic, but with the finale fresh in my mind I thought that I could at least get the ball rolling on any future writing I might do on the subject with this post.
Let's pretend it's nearly a decade ago with hairstyles!
The first episode of How I Met Your Mother that I ever saw was the second episode of the first series, "Purple Giraffe," where Ted throws three consecutive parties to contrive an encounter with Robin. I thought it was charming and reasonably funny and it got me interested in the series proper. Maybe it was because I watched all of them in a few back to back sessions after they'd completely aired, but I always thought that the show's first four seasons were vastly superior to the last four, with the middle season being of equally middling quality - some extremely memorable and humorous episodes, and some very poor ones. As such I really think of How I Met Your Mother as a game of halves. By the end of the series, I was more watching out of a sense of investment in the storyline than any genuine pleasure, because in my opinion the show had switched tracks at some point from being a chuckle-inducing sitcom with some touching dramatic moments to being a schizophrenic presentation which lurched from moment to moment as either a deeply serious romantic drama with a few comic touches or a grotesque, unfunny farce with incredibly laboured humour. I don't really know what went wrong, in my opinion at least, with the show somewhere between 2009 and 2010, so I won't explore that here, but I think it comes down largely to the relationship between Robin and Barney.
Seriously, read Moby Dick. It's good.
You'll probably hear me voicing this elsewhere, but personally I always felt like Robin and Barney's romance was not something believable on screen let alone a plausible or necessary narrative development, but rather lazy "pair the spares" writing in an effort to give a lagging formula a bit of a jolt four years in. It had its novelty value in season five, but when resurrected in season eight it made my skin crawl. I thought Barney being in love with Robin in season four was a very effective, interesting and funny character development, but I always thought it should never have been more than an unrequited infatuation or obsession. At the end of season four I think Barney should have confronted Robin about his feelings, and Robin should have rejected him: either because she couldn't trust him and didn't have romantic feelings for him, or more brutally that, apart from her moment of madness in season three which probably could have been retained, she simply didn't find him attractive. That could still have facilitated classic episodes like "The Playbook" and "Girls Versus Suits" without some boring, frankly rather disturbing romance. I know a lot of people really got behind that plot, and thought that Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders had a lot of "chemistry" onscreen (which would probably be a pretty substantial testament to NPH's acting talents, all things considered) but personally I never thought so. I always thought that the chemistry onscreen between Robin and Ted was a lot more apparent, in the first two seasons at least, and that the best instance of interaction between Barney and Robin actually occurred in the season one episode "Zip, Zip, Zip" where they hung out as friends while Ted was dating Victoria. I actually think a plausible scenario of Barney being "in love" with Robin could have developed more realistically from his emotional struggle to be in a close platonic friendship with a woman, especially a single woman.
"We always went to Robots vs Wrestlers.
Except for that one year where I contemplated going alone
and then hallucinated future me and Barney."
With that in mind, let's discuss the finale. It certainly wasn't what I expected, although it was predictable, because people had been discussing for a long time, and certainly with some enthusiasm since the early 2013 episode "The Time Travelers", that the trajectory of the narrative might very well be that The Mother was dead by 2030 and in addition that Ted was finally going to get together with Robin. It may have been surprising to some, but as a person with an eye for fan theories I'd heard most of it before. Now I'm not going to criticise the finale for not living up to my expectations, because that's obviously unfair, but at the same time I suppose I would have preferred the finale to be triumphant rather than bittersweet. I had come to think that the theme of the final season of the show was not going to be a sense that life goes on and we need to appreciate the good times while they're there. I was more expecting, from various scenes like the flash forward in the second episode of the ninth season, "Coming Back", that the final season was going to explore more esoteric themes. I was actually anticipating a focus on Ted's sense of dejection and isolation at his friends' wedding, and how an extremely low point for him in terms of hope and happiness would come directly before the incident that would completely revolutionise his life. I had hoped, in fact, that ultimately the ninth season's concern with these particularly acute feelings and the idea of how we feel moment to moment compared to the big picture would give the show, in the end, a certain rarefied air. In the same way I was assuming that the focus of the finale would be Ted's long years of patience and fidelity to his ideals finally paying off in a climactic moment of "destiny."
The Mother's planet needs her.
But it was not to be. The finale we received does, of course, work, and I think my main objections, beyond structural ones, are largely sentimental. The creators of the show were perhaps too successful with their introduction of the titular Mother in the final season. The expectation had always been that she could never live up to viewers' expectations. In actual fact, for the overwhelming majority of the audience as far as I can determine, the writing for the character and Cristin Milioti's performance massively exceeded what was expected, presenting Tracy, the Mother, as an endearing character who seemed ideal as Ted's eventual soul mate. It's perhaps for that reason that I find her rather rapid elimination in the finale to an extent objectionable. She "got sick" and that's it. Of course the kids were around for this. They know it all already so there's no sense dwelling on it. That being said from an audience point of view I don't fully understand the rationale behind actually introducing the character only to give no real closure for the viewer. That's why I think The Mother was too successful. By the end, she was my favourite character in the show, and I cared more about her than I did about Ted or Robin. I daresay that probably wasn't the intention of the writers.
"Your Mom got sick with 'sprouting vestigial bass guitars' disease."
But if poor old "Mom" had to die, then that's the way it goes, and in the end if Robin and Ted were both lonely and Ted's kids were cool with it, it's not like it doesn't make sense as an ending. It's a far more sad ending than I anticipated, but given the narrative we were presented with in the last two episodes I suppose it fits. I just feel like they had to do a lot of work in those last two episodes to alter the apparent trajectory of the story, so in that regard I can't help but feel that the finale bit off a little more than it could chew. Maybe we might have benefited from a bit less filler during the ninth season, or perhaps for the last several seasons, to make those developments hold a little bit more weight. Seeing Barney and Robin get divorced despite the show banging on about their marriage since, realistically speaking, the start of the sixth season, felt in particular to me like the writers wanted to have their cake and eat it too: draw in viewers with this storyline, but still give Ted the ending they'd filmed eight years ago. As such I can't help but feel like just as the show outgrew its original boundaries, perhaps the narrative "plan" also needed the flexibility to change and grow based on the way the characters had developed. A lot of the finale felt, to me, like a concerted effort to undo plot devices to accommodate an ending that didn't really make sense anymore even though it undoubtedly did back in 2006 when the scenes with the kids were filmed. That being said, they still made it work in my opinion, albeit not in the enormously successful way I think the premise really deserved. While I wasn't especially happy with Barney regressing, I did think his having a child as having the most significant impact on his life was an effective resolution for his story. I was less impressed with the idea of Marshall eventually getting what he wanted while Lily basically seemed to have no purpose except having babies. What happened to her career?
Anyway now I want to respond to a few arguments I've seen floating around both supporting and opposing the finale.

Flash forward to 2014: "How I Met Your Dad's been cancelled!"
"It's a realistic ending. HIMYM was a realistic show."
Well it's no more realistic than any other ending, and HIMYM was never that realistic. Just because it was grim, with Robin becoming lonely and jaded and Ted losing his wife to a mysterious illness, doesn't make it any more realistic than imaginable alternatives. Additionally, How I Met Your Mother was full of implausible things; Ted making it rain, for instance (even if it was a coincidence), or Barney's unrealistic success with women. In fact I think the entire ninth season was unrealistic. I think that to argue the ending was a "realistic" ending that correlated with a generally "realistic" tone across the show is to argue a pair of false premises.

"It was always about Ted and Robin in the end."
Was it? I thought as late as the one where she floated away like a balloon in one of the series' most cringe-inducing moments that the show was determined to display Ted getting over Robin and moving on with his life, and that The Mother represented that. The argument is he wouldn't have started the story with meeting Robin if it wasn't ultimately about her, but of course that's to ignore the chain of events that meeting Robin set off. Meeting Robin caused Ted to date Robin, after which they broke up, which caused Ted to get drunk and get the tramp stamp, which caused him to meet Stella, which caused him to meet Tony, which caused him to get the job at the University, which caused him to meet Cindy, which caused him to Meet Your Mother (eventually). It's interesting to observe that all that was set up by season five, during which the rot set in as the story started essentially treading water.

"One more take and some of us can resume our careers!"
"It's a sitcom. It should have a happy ending."
This is the typical fatuous declaration of insecurity. There's no requirement for anything to have a happy ending. Many of the greatest works of literature from all of human history do not have happy endings. I wouldn't have objected to one, but it's by no means demanded by the genre, especially in a finale. HIMYM often had sad or emotionally confronting moments, like the death of Marshall's father or Ted getting left at the altar. It wasn't exactly beyond the scope of the show as it existed to end on a less than ecstatic note; even various season finales had used fairly ambiguous moments in their conclusions. In fact the very first season finale, featuring Ted thrilled with having finally gotten together with Robin coming home to discover Marshall on the step with Lily's engagement ring, had a similar tone.

"It didn't fit at all and ruined the characters and retroactively ruined the whole show."
Yeah calm down. It doesn't kill all the funny and successful parts that people might have enjoyed in earlier episodes even if they didn't enjoy this one. Even though it's not the ending I would have done had I been in the position of Bays and Thomas, I think it's hard to argue that it doesn't fit or make sense at all within the narrative. Ted was, after all, telling his kids this story about his life before he met their mother for a reason.

"And kids, this is where a lot of angry people on
the internet think the story should have ended."
I think there are definitely some valid objections to the finale in terms of structure and pacing, but I think the main issue with the finale and the final season over all is that the Mother was, as I've said, too successful as a character, which made the Robin-centric conclusion unpalatable for some. I actually thought it was a bit cliché personally, like the Mother was one of those "too good for this sinful earth" characters that couldn't last specifically because she seemed too perfect. There were some missteps in making her too similar to Ted, but then again they'd started turning Robin into the female Barney eventually as well. My fond memories of How I Met Your Mother will probably continue to be those most consistent first four seasons, along with a few isolated episodes here and there, including the episode "How Your Mother Met Me", which was probably the best episode of the entire second half of the show. The thing is, not unlike losing touch with a friend, over time How I Met Your Mother just didn't mean as much to me as it might have because I didn't especially enjoy the new material, so in the end I didn't take the show's conclusion as badly as I might have. I do think it could have ended in a more uplifting way, but I suppose that isn't what they wanted.

The final thing I wanted to address which we shouldn't sweep under the rug is the fact that, for all my enthusiasm at least for its first half, is that How I Met Your Mother is a pretty dodgy show in regards to its presentation of gender and sex, and especially of women. There's definitely a double standard regarding promiscuity. Despite friendly jibes and insults, Barney's activities are seen as a source of comedy that the other characters even enable, while the women he pursues are largely, and moreso after the fourth season, seen as just objects. I guess I seem a little hypocritical for thinking that the season five episodes I mentioned earlier were good. That being said, women in the show often do seem to lack agency. There's also the whole angle of Ted incessantly badgering Robin to go out with him being presented as romantically positive, the aspersions cast upon Robin prioritising her career over her relationships, Lily ending up basically just cranking out babies and the Mother dying offscreen for the sake of Ted's narrative. Someone who was an expert on this could analyse it better, but for a while now I've been bothered by the implications of a lot of the show's core elements. It's not something I feel especially qualified to talk about, but it's worth considering in one's reflection upon a series which is a bit of a sacred cow in the eyes of many viewers.

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