18 May 2011

Throwdown! Barney vs. Kramer

One of the more underrated shows on television wrapped up its season last week. It doesn't get a lot of love around the internet or in critical magazines and many would deem it far too mainstream for a blog like this (what?) or too broad for serious comedic appreciation. I'm chatting about the stellar season of How I Met Your Mother and the landmark performance of Doogie Howser as Barney Stinson.

What? Oh right, Neil Patrick Harris. Mostly known for Doogie, Starship Troopers (1997), two Harold and Kumar movies as well as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008), Neil as Barney Stinson this year has moved from the typical break-out B-Character with cringeworthy one-liners to an intricate, well-rounded character. For this reason I'd like to contrast him with another one of the best B-Characters in Television History, Michael Richards' Cosmo Kramer. Thus we arrive at the First Ever NMW THROWDOWN! We're pitting both characters against each other. In a compare and contrast, fairly balanced argument, of course. And possibly a Machete Fight!

Wow they look like they're really in some kind of high conflict there actually. Anyway, Michael Richards, if we can get past the racism (c'mon Mike...why ruin Kramer forever like that), won three Emmys for his work and was nominated an additional two times. Doogie has been nominated for the past four seasons but the award still alludes him.

Both these characters fill a very similar role in their respective shows. In Seinfeld, Kramer was the most outlandish, idiosyncratic and eccentric, in his critics words, a "hipster doofus." I have already posted extensively about his role in the show, eventually serving up any need the writers had for any eclectic interest to fit the story (also an Agent of the Cosmos to increase the Seinfeld Universe's Sense of Irony). He's allowed to be outrageous compared to the more grounded Jerry within the show. His character didn't have to be that deep.

At the same time however, I'm hesitant to call any of the Seinfeld Fab Four undeveloped characters. It's difficult to compare to HIMYM. They are clearly very different shows in tone and character but both have blended single-cam/triple cam techniques, multi-episode and season arcs and a wide array of talented young people amidst a New York City backdrop. The key difference in understanding Barney v. Kramer is the emotional distance the audience has from the character.

Seinfeld throughout its run maintained the explicitly stated policy of "No Lessons, No Learning." It's important to distinguish this from "No Character Growth." The characters were all very defined and had different competing needs and wants that contrasted with the other characters around them, leading to conflict, which makes stories interesting (NMW presents: Scriptwriting 101). As we're focusing on Kramer, he certainly grew from an obscure, shady neighbor to a more loveable and relatable neighbor. I'd almost say that at the beginning of Seinfeld's run Michael Richards played Kramer more akin to Stanley Spadowski than a real human. By the end of the run though, Kramer felt real love (as absurd as a long distance relationship with a girl who lives Downtown may be, it's love baby), felt real pain (kidney stones) and had real desires (The Mackinaw Peaches! Kenny Rogers Chicken!) that were both fulfilled and left empty.

Seinfeld was always able to put up a barrier however, mostly because none of the major characters ever learned a significant lesson. All of the real desires and loves (as I just pointed out), especially in Kramer's context were born of some insanity. Any real life issue Seinfeld downplayed heavily. It was the kind of minutiae like Rent-a-Car failing to hold a reservation or the inability to sit down at a Chinese Restaurant. Many of the characters, especially towards the end of Seinfeld's run often commentated on the flippancy of their own problems. This is why the ending of Seinfeld was so perfect. To me it couldn't have ended any other way. It was brilliant. No one had learned anything the entire serious, there was no darkness, no problem outside of their own group to be concerned with. Even in prison we can see this trend will continue - Jerry's more concerned with George's buttons than their current situation. They haven't learned from their mistakes.

HIMYM is growing on me more and more as this unique show. Its production is far more hybridised than it appears and the characters are all very thought out and developed, far beyond the typical "30-Somethings in NYC" Trope that so many other sitcoms have copied since Seinfeld. This past season was especially bold with all of its male characters (it didn't push its women as far despite its large female writing and directing staff). For the majority of HIMYM's run Barney Stinson played by Neil Patrick Harris has been this one-note joke, typically concerning either womanizing or suits (actually this is a credit to Neil's acting that he so thoroughly convinces us that a Gay Dude can pull this many women. To be honest, all his major roles recently have revolved around this trait) and mostly serving up terrible comic relief lines in light of the other characters who usually had the real problems. In essence, Barney's role on the show was to be the Seinfeld-esque character amidst all the other more dramatic characters.

I'll talk about this in greater detail when reviewing the entire Television season, but HIMYM put Barney through the ringer this year. They dared to challenge his most distinctive traits - the solitude, the womanizing, the classiness yet thrive for awesomeness amidst amoral fortitude, all this came to a halt in a handful of episodes dealing significantly with what makes this character tic. The show's writers gave Barney both a girl that he's actually seriously interested in as well as a newly discovered Father who isn't that interesting. Both of these conflicted with the both the image Barney has tried to present to the world and how he conceives of himself. They did this while maintaining his usual superfluous attitude sprinkled across moments of genuine pain and conflict far greater than scamming the post office.

So I'm not actually going to choose either of these characters as "better" than the other. If the final goal of a sitcom is to make you laugh I think both have done very well, if the final goal is to make you think I also believe that they have done well (as this post in itself demonstrates). They are both well-rounded, interesting characters tho the means through the show accomplishes this is drastically different.

In the Machete Fight I'd pick Kramer. He just has that reach.

You can watch How I Met Your Mother mostly Mondays on CBS...in the fall. Seinfeld is in syndication every day everywhere and HIMYM's getting there so go check these guys out!

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