Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TV Talk: How I Talk About Meeting Your Mother

To say that How I Met Your Mother has been slow going this season is an understatement. It's been in a slump, and it isn't aging particularly well. A large part of the problem is the show's central concept, that the Ted character is telling a prolonged story to his kids about how he met their mother. Presumably, then, the show ends with the line "...and that's how I met your mother." The problem with approach--or at least one of the problems--is that it means that your main character's story arc is already set: he is the one who will meet his "true love" and there's only so much you can do with introducing "potential mothers" before it feels as if you're teasing the audience. So the show tries to distract with its other running plots. This season, it's the Barney/Robin love connection, the mystery of Barney's wedding (which we've seen in flashforwards, thanks for adding that phrase to the TV lexicon, Lost), and Lily and Marshall's attempt to have a baby. The immediate problem with the show is that with the exception of the wedding frame, these are all plot lines we've seen before. This season seems to be a clearing of the deck--Barney's put his womanizing ways behind him, and Ted has resolved two of his longstanding love affairs, the chef girl from Season 1 and the Season 1 Slutty Pumpkin. (On the former: the show's a lot more tolerable if you imagine it ending when he meets the chef. On the latter: don't ask. The explanation's less interesting than the phrase.) But really, it's been more about wallowing in the past than moving forward. And while moving forward is not really a traditional strength of the laugh-track sitcom, HIMYM usually does a better job of at least presenting an illusion of such progress.

Last night's episode, (he said, finally getting to the point)was a welcome departure, not so much because it depicted anything radically new, but because it played to the strengths of the show, namely, its romantic flair and its focus on the subjectivity of memory. We tend to take for granted that what we see in a sitcom is what's actually happening in the fictional world. At times, HIMYM breaks this convention, drawing on the fact that it is not just a world that we're glimpsing into, but a story told by an unreliable narrator. (Which is why, as I continually argue with a friend, you have a father you sounds like Bob Saget, but, in his own memory, looks and sounds like Josh Radnor. It's not a point requiring a suspension of disbelief, it's part of the show's basic conceit!) I've discussed this great, boring length elsewhere, so I won't rehash it all now. Last night, that element is brought to the forefront. First, there's the A plot. (Oh, spoilers abound, folks.)

Barney and Robin slept together last episode, which means they are both cheating on their respective partners. Through one of those ridiculous coincidences sitcoms are built on, they have to go to a boat party with these partners, and thus see not only the person they cheated on, but the person seeing the person they cheated with. (But the contrivance allows for a guest spot from Alexis Denisof, so I'm not going to complain too loudly.) They're both feeling guilty, and thus, through their interpretation, the live band is singing a song directly to them, telling them to confess. In the B plot, the subjectivity is even more evident. Lily, Ted, and Marshall are attending a concert, and Ted and Marshall go through a drug trip. They think they spend hours wandering the stadium, encountering bizarre figures and hearing odd nonsequitors. In reality, as we see through a security camera, they stumbled around for two minutes, and we revisit the whole scene through that perspective (there's a brilliant double use of the line "It's a sign."). The actual plot point--that Marshall is worried about becoming a dad, and Ted's insecure about losing his friends to parenthood--has already been done multiple times this season. And as my brother pointed out, that is not how people high on pot actually act (though if my parents read this, I assume he got this knowledge from friends, because OF COURSE my brother has never smoked any pot, ever). But it's still a clever use of both the show's concept and a reversal of the audience's confidence in what they're viewing.

Equal kudos has to go to the way the A plot was handled. It's very easy to set up villains and victims in a cheating partner plotline, and it's not the sort of situation that lends itself to laughs. And for the most part, it doesn't. I was impressed with how maturely the plot was handled. Barney and Robin are, obviously, conflicted--they don't want to hurt anyone, and they don't know exactly how they feel about each other. It's the sort of thing that could have been drawn out too far, but both of them have frank conversations with their partners and with each other about their futures. No one's demonized, no one's transformed into a pure victim (although Nora comes close) and the situation is resolved through rational discussion rather than explosive, cheap emotional theatrics. It's a glimpse at adult relationships that haven't been filtered through some overly romantic lenses. And with spoiling even further, one stays with their partner, and one doesn't, and the look on the face of the one who leaves their partner for their friend when they realize that they've made the jump and been left alone is just devastatingly well-acted, and definitely a caliber of performance rarely seen in this genre. Chris Harris, the writer of the episode, also deserves some major props. He's been a writer for the show a long time, and last night, he really showed he understands how to play to its strengths.

Later Days.

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