Thursday, May 7, 2009

Merry Slapsgiving, Everyone

I've been meaning to do a longer post on How I Met Your Mother. And after Monday's epsiode, here it is.

Quick outline: The premise of the show is that Ted Mosby (narrated by Bob Saget), in the year 2030 or so, has sat down his kids to tell them the story of "How I Met Your Mother." That started four seasons ago. Since then, we've been following the antics of Ted and his friends. Ted is a helpless romantic/architect; his original love interest and now platonic friend is the tomboyish Canadian Robin Sherbotsky; his old college roommate/best friend is the eminently huggable Marshall Erikson; Marshall's wife is the elementary school teacher/artist Lily Aldrin; and the cast is rounded out brilliantly by the brilliant Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Ted's other best friend, the amoral, philandering Barney Stinson.

There's a lot to like about the show, but I'll limit myself to three main things:

1. The Flash Format. Since Ted is telling this story to his kids, the entire thing is clearly a flashback. But it's never as straightforward as "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this." Instead, each episode is told more of a broken manner: Ted jumps back to elaborate on some events, forward to mention what's going to happen, and at times, makes the story up entirely. The flashback has become more or less commonplace in cinematic story telling; jumping around like this is a very different technique, and one rarely used in primetime television, especially on such a regular basis. One of my favorite applications of the method is when Ted admits that he's sometimes just making things up: at one point, he can't remember a girl's name, so for the episode, everyone refers to her as "blah blah." The show maintains an ongoing balance between oral storytelling and mainstream eposodic television; in that sense, I can't think of another show that better uses the conceit of a narrator, and the notion that the story before us is not only being shown, but being told.

2. Barney Stinson. The key to Barney's character is that, essentially, he's a horrible person. Or, maybe more accurately, he's a caricature--the hyper-cool, supersexualized urban elite, obsessed with surface appearances and scoring women. The writers get a ridiculous amount of mileage out of just the concept behind him. Here, for example, is one of his greater pick-up line set-ups:

Actually, Barney has always reminded me of the Sheldon character from The Big Bang Theory. Not because they share any particular characteristic; Sheldon is a barely functional misanthrope with extreme OCD tendencies. But both are essentially extreme outliers of normally accepted social behaviour. As far as comedy goes, it's one of the oldest methods in the book--you see the same thing in the characters of 18th century rake heroes, Shakepseare's Falstaff, and as far back as characters in ancient Greek plays. The difference between those forms and the sitcom is that in sitcoms, the joke can't wear thin--or if does, the entire series becomes dry and repetitive. (I'm looking at you, Erkel.) Or, it resorts to increasingly outlandish premises. (Again, Erkel.) From interviews, I've read that the writers are very aware of the fine line they walk with Barney: in order to have him be outrageous, they feel it's necessary to show a more balanced side of him as well. I know some people who hate the idea of 'humanizing' the Barnacle, but so far, the show's done a great job of walking the line between the two.

It helps, of course, that Neil Patrick Harris is one of the best comedic actors of his generation.

3. Continuity. Every sitcom has some loose continuity; if the character changes from a neat freak buddy cop to a put-upon lazy dad between episodes, there's a problem. But HIMYM (the abbreviation for How I Met Your Mother) takes the continuity to extreme. It's not just a matter of running gags, although there's plenty of those too: Barney's endless Bro Code rules, Marshall's Fish-based comedy routine, and the greatness that is the Slapbet. (You better believe you're getting a clip for that.)

These gags are really the heart and soul of the show, and the commitment to them goes far beyond the average TV series. But what I'm talking about more generally is the epic feel of the series, the sense that there is a direction, a final destination that the show is moving towards. It's a focus that's missing in television series in general; in sitcoms, you're lucky if one episode follows the other, and even in dramas, you rarely get more than a single season build-up. Here's where the conceit of the series really comes into play: you know, theoretically, at least, everything is building up to meeting the mother. Of course, that's a double-edged sword: once Ted reaches the Mother, the story is over--or at least needs severe redefinition. The first season shows this coherency most clearly, and the current season shows its lack pretty strongly as well--it's been a long time since we've had more than a hint of the series' supposed impetus. But that changed last Monday, in the epsiode "Right Place, Right Time," which is what prompted this post to begin with. I don't want to explain everything, because really, it's building on multiple seasons of hints and flashforwards, but it looks like they haven't forgotten that sooner or later, there's a wedding in the works.

And I think that may be what I like most about the show--not that there's a wedding, specifically, but the certainty that the story ends there connects it with literally centuries of literary precedent in the comedy genre--and yet, it still manages to feel like something fresh and different.

Plus, they totally did the Doogie Howser reference.

Later Days.

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