18
Jan
2012
Modest Proposals
How I Met Your Mother and the Problem of Raised Expectations
Jordan
Modest Proposals is a recurring chance for a rotating stable of Review to Be Named writers to sound off on pop culture at large, presenting ideas, theories, or observations about areas of pop culture that might not fit comfortably into our other running features. These ideas might not always be right. You might not always agree with them. Even the writer might consider them patently absurd. But this is Modest Proposals, and these are things worth thinking about.

I started watching How I Met Your Mother when the show was in its third season, felled by the writer's strike. My relationship with the show was so magical in those early days, I can't help but treat it like Ted treats his love life: romanticize it to the point of insanity. I distinctly recall a good friend of mine stopping by my dorm room one Friday, roughly a half an hour before I had to go to class, insisting that I watch at least the show's pilot. Needless to say I never made it to that class. Instead, after being swept up in the show's heady blend of romantic comedy, absurdism, post-modern storytelling and phenomenal ensemble cast, I found myself watching another episode. And another. And another. By Monday night, when the show returned to air a late season three episode, I was caught up and ready to see the new episode as it aired. Yes, I will freely admit it: I was a How I Met Your Mother addict (apologies for the lack of HIMYM clips here. Youtube gave me nothing to go on).

The show gave me so much to love and played into so many of my personal biases. I love romantic comedies (as I made clear in the last Modest Proposals, I love a show bold enough to play with narrative construction, I love a show that takes its continuity seriously, and I love to get deeply invested in the mythology of a television show. I was swept along by the dizzingly brilliant premise of the show, which is told from the point of view of an older Ted Mosby, as he recounts to his children the story of how he met their mother. In those halcyon days of the show's prime, it felt like every episode provided forward movement, each arc taking Ted one step closer to meeting the woman of his dreams and finally getting that happy ending he (and let's be honest, all of us) was so desperately searching for.

But then the show started getting more popular, and found itself renewed again. And again. And again. Until this week, it aired its 150th episode and creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas gave an interview discussing how they think the show might go on into a ninth season and perhaps further. At this point, in the minds of its creators, How I Met Your Mother may surpass Friends for longevity. And I think there is a pretty big problem with that.

Most high concept television has, almost by the definition of its premise, an expiration date. A high concept show is one that seems poised to deliver a story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, a story that feeds, shark-like, on endless progress toward a defined end point. This is all well and good, and in fact to be honest, I think I might prefer television that sets out to tell a specific, at least vaguely planned out story well. That is not to say I can't get behind a good old fashioned sitcom that just wants to be funny for as long as we'll have it (I think of shows like Seinfeld, Cheers, and Frasier very fondly, despite the fact that none of the shows had anything even vaguely resembling a masterplot, instead setting up situations and letting them run like spinning tops for as long as they could keep going). The problem that arises when dealing with a high concept show is one that is a core issue for television as a business to solve as we evolve towards more high concept television: TV Executives (and creators as well. Bays and Thomas are as culpable as any CBS executive in dragging out the life of How I Met Your Mother far past its ideal end point) don't understand the idea that they can have too much of a good thing, and are concerned more with profit in the moment than with the artistic legacy of their product (making good art can itself be very profitable in the long run, but that's a consideration for a different time).

The problem with letting a show like How I Met Your Mother go on into perpetuity is that, unlike most standard sitcoms, this show's ending will inevitably effect our perception of everything building up to it. If you think that Seinfeld was shitty after season six (I disagree, but it definitely got past its prime at a certain point), who cares? That show is so self-contained, both within episodes and within seasons that it is possible to divide the good from the bad and to deal with the show in disparate segments very easily.

The same is not true for a show like How I Met Your Mother, which begs us from its Pilot episode to be invested in the series finale. If HIMYM is a show that is about the journey as much as the destination (a line I bought for several seasons as the show detoured from the masterplot for various other developments), that's all well and good, but for a show whose ending is built right into its beginning, that cannot be a satisfying answer in the long run. Ultimately, if this show doesn't give us a phenomenal final act, in which Ted meets the mother and she manages to prove a more perfect match for him that all of the other women he has dated over the course of the show, and in which all of the random detours the show took along the way amount to something more than stall tactics, it will hurt the way we view the show as a whole.

This is not only true of How I Met Your Mother, though I think it does the best job of demonstrating the potential problems a high concept show faces when it gets on in years, letting itself ignore the expiration date it created for itself and just continue running without paying attention to the reason it hooked us in the first place. Another prime example is Dexter, a show that began as a fascinating, high tension look at a serial killer who truly did not know whether he was good or evil and was hiding his double life while wearing a mask of normalcy in front of everyone but his victims. That show (which even Michael C. Hall once described, back before season two, as "a shark"”it has to move forward. . . with Dexter there has to be some really vital momentum, and after a while you run out of devices to make that happen in a way that feels organic or plausible") peaked in its second season, which moved the masterplot forward by leaps and bounds, only to pull back at the last second as if afraid it would run out of rope. It would have, and quickly. But you know what? That would have been ok, and I would argue, better for the show in the long run.



Picture, if you can, a three or four season run of Dexter in which season two was, rather than an anomaly in a long line of procedural seasons that are roughly identical, the first real movement, a permanent change to the status quo that the show reckoned with throughout its run time. That would have allowed Dexter to evolve organically and play out as a complete story rather than devolving slowly into basically a CBS procedural stretched to a season's length with blood and boobs added to remind you its on pay cable.

Or imagine How I Met Your Mother as if it ended after it's fifth season. I've played this game with myself many times over the last few years (especially seeing as season five as it actually played out was the show's nadir, and six and seven have been far from perfect). In that magical world, season one tells us the story of how Ted decided he was ready for a serious relationship. Season two shows him diving into one and learning important lessons about what he wants from a relationship, and the fact that he can't craft someone into being his dream girl through sheer force of will. Season three shows us the aftermath of Ted's heartbreak, charting his wild days when he wonders if he could be more like Barney and his impulsive, desperate engagement to Stella. Season four shows him extricating himself from a messy end to his relationship with Stella and finding a new equilibrium, but ends with Ted admitting he is willing to take a chance, leaping onto the building next door (after giving us that tantalizing cliff hanger that The Mother was waiting in Ted's class). And in my fictional season five, Ted meets the mother, falls in love, and gets to live happily ever after.

As a counter-point, consider the best show on television right now, and, to my mind, one of the best television shows ever made: Breaking Bad. Creator Vince Gilligan promised when the show began that he would chart the devolution of "protagonist" Walter White "from Mr. Chips to Scarface," and every season of the show has ratcheted up the stakes while showing us Walter White' descent into outright villainy. Gilligan has already announced that the next season (the show's fifth) will be its last, and I couldn't be happier about that. After each season of Breaking Bad ended (prior to Gilligan announcing in mid-season four his plan to end the show after the fifth season) I was left completely satisfied, and also a bit worried that at some point this show would go off the rails. When you start your show, in the cold open of its pilot episode, with a terminally ill man standing in the middle of a desert highway in his underwear, pointing a gun at his head and leaving a frantic suicide video for his family, it can be hard to imagine raising the stakes. Yet Breaking Bad has managed to raise them every season since then, and I have few doubts that it is coming to an end organically, tying up its storylines, and satisfied to have told the tale it meant to from day one. I am also fairly certain that the show, once it ends, will exist in a logically consistent form, wherein fans will be able to watch it from beginning to end, confident that each plotline (even ones that initially seemed silly, like Marie's kleptomania or Ted Beneke's accounting practices) is actually going somewhere, and that they all fit, like dots in an impressionist painting, into the larger picture.



I use that phrase, dots in an impressionist painting, not because it is the most apt metaphor, but because HIMYM geeks like myself might recall Older Ted (as voiced by Bob Saget) using the exact same phrase at the end of one of the first episodes of the show. When asked by his kids how long the story would take, he said "Kids, every story in a man's life is like a dot in an impressionist painting." At the time, I believed him, and the prospect of watching the picture coalesce excited me to no end. Now, seven years later there is no end in sight, and I am seriously worried that How I Met Your Mother has long since sacrificed cogency for longevity. Gone are the days that I could make an argument for the relevance of each season in a larger picture. Gone are the days when the writers even tried to pretend the masterplot was an ongoing game of central concern to them and to the stories they were trying to tell in any given season. I'm not saying that it isn't ok for the show to have started out as a standard sitcom, or even to have grown more in that direction in recent years; I'm just saying that isn't what a lot of fans signed on for, and that those people are bound to be disappointed in retrospect.

How I Met Your Mother raised expectations higher and higher until at one point it flew too close to the sun. When I look back at the show's early seasons, I can still remember how excited I was to see the ending, and I still well recall how avidly I converted friends into fans of the show, sure that I was showing them a sitcom revolution in the offing. This revolution was televised; unfortunately innovation lost out to business as usual, and a potential masterpiece of the form has been reduced, at this point, to little more than a cautionary tale for high concepts to come: get out while the getting is good, or you may live to tarnish your own legacy and break every promise your show made at the outset. The tale of How I Met Your Mother could have been a great, innovative romantic comedy, attentive to its continuity and meticulous in the construction of a story that made internal sense. Instead, it's the tale of how two storytellers lost their way and let their creation suffer as a result. Lest I leave you on a negative note, I should admit that I still watch How I Met Your Mother avidly, and that an ever-shrinking part of me still hopes for a cogent resolution to the series. So I'll see you all in season ten, when Lily and Marshall's kid says his first word, and Barney wants to make sure it's "boner." But I'll be quietly weeping for the show that could have been.

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