17 December 2013

Because it was on TV: How "How I Met Your Mother" Secretly Became a Ridiculously Long-Lived and Successful Show

You ever wake up and realize that How I Met Your Mother is on its ninth season, has one of the best casts on television, is currently CBS' greatest sitcom, and is going out with a run that's completely breaking its mold while remaining true to its core roots and form?
It's always nice to see Wayne Brady not on a
gameshow, Whose Line, or Chappelle. Wait, has
he ever done anything else besides HIMYM?

I had that moment a few months ago as I set it in to see the writers pull off the unbelievable - an entire season set during a single weekend at a Wedding in the fictional Farhampton, NY. And it's not even the wedding we've all been craving since this damn thing premiered in 2005. No other show has delivered blue balls with such panache as HIMYM, except for maybe LOST. Both shows were actually more victims of uncertain renewals or cancellations affecting their narrative rather than true fault of their own. LOST spun its wheels for years before resolving to end itself after six years, about three and a half or so of them good. In its case, an ending date was the best thing for it, because after years of faulty promises and dead ends, the narrative was able to conclude itself.

HIMYM is the same way. It resisted splurging on The Mother too early and then letting the show loose all its momentum. It did, however, loose a good amount of traction when it kept coming back for more seasons without a definitive end. Without that end, the story could only be stretched thinner. Thus we're presented a problem with endlessly renewable television whose meta-narrative superposes some fixed ending objective. Where do we go? Blow the wad and let the stories dry up or resist and...let the stories dry up? It's a rough commodity. With a light at the end of the tunnel finally granted, though, HIMYM kicked itself into high gear and lurched towards its conclusion.

Despite this, it's not like anyone actually cares. Well, maybe these guys do. The core premise is fun to be reminded of once in a while, but it's essentially become a meager excuse to follow the lives of characters played by actors who should have left the show years ago. Alyson Hannigan, coming off of American Pie and Buffy was arguable the series' biggest "get" when it premiered in 2005, although her career may now be the weakest. Neil Patrick Harris may have been the other big name, Dougie Houser basically irrelevant, but mostly gaining notoriety from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). His star has only continued to rise. Throw them in with Cobie "Maria Hill" Smulders and Jason "Muppets" Segel, and it's a pretty potent cast. Of course, Josh Radnor still sucks, ironically enough as the main character of the show.

The show has also always had a unique structure. Blending both three-camera and single camera sitcom conventions, most scenes are shot without a studio audience, and then edited together with flashbacks, flash-forwards, callback jokes, and other montages. The whole thing is then shown to a studio audience, where the laugh track is recorded. Unnecessary? Probably, but the result is a comfortable-feeling sitcom without many of the cringe-worthy jokes (looking at you, 2 Broke Girls) or necessary pauses for the audience to settle down from laughing or clapping for a character's entrance (Hello, Seinfeld). All this built until Season 9, its final season, when it took this structure and gave it a nice big bag of crack.
Ditto with Marshall's Odyssey.

Last night's episode, "Bass Player Wanted" (S9;E13), was emblematic of this, and likely the most energizing of the season so far, especially after the previous episodes, "Bedtime Stories" (S9;E11) and "Rehearsal Dinner" (S9;E12) were both kind of clunky and got away from the season's core conceit. Both of these earlier episodes relied too heavily on flashbacks that made the episodes essentially identical to any other season - the gang moping around New York City, dealing with dating problems. "Bass Player Wanted," however, introduced the first interaction between Ted and The Mother and set a solid stage for their hook-up to enfold.

The season is a slow burn through highlighting small moments over the course of a single weekend, but there's still a hefty dose of character development and interaction, as well as some classic sitcom-y premises, such as Robin and Barney's mother engaging in a scrambled egg competition ("The Lighthouse" [S9;E8]). Thus it's able to transport both its characters and conventions into a different lens, almost completely located in the Farhampton Inn, with the Inn's Bar and Bedrooms doubling for McClaren's and any given apartment in respective postmodern fashion.

It's been a refreshing ride for a stale show that has jerked its audience around for nine years. Part of its brilliance is in its boldness and its ability to handle both its long-term arcs as well as its smaller, doofier moments with aplomb. How will it all end? Naturally with Ted getting together with The Mother, even though we've more or less seen that already. More than seeing them together, it's about the payoff - has this broad really been worth it? Based on "Bass Player Wanted," the answer so far is hell yeah, but we'll have to keep watching to find out.

How I Met Your Mother comes on Mondays at 8:00 pm EST - it's the only CBS show worth watching right now. Invest some time.

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