Tuesday, June 23, 2009

HIMYM, Save Thyself

I hope you'll indulge me, hyperanalyzing a TV show, but it helps keep my brain sharp. Plus, HIMYM is a good show overall, and I'd hate to see it end with a whimper like other promising shows (Samantha Who?, My Name Is Earl) that lost their way after only a few seasons.

The show How I Met Your Mother has been one of my favorites over the last three or four years. I have enjoyed the writing, the characters and the dialogue. But like all things I like, I fear for it.

This past season was classic pre-Jump the Shark behavior. There were more than a few episodes that weren't just sub-par, but godawful and contrived. ("Ten Sessions," "The Possimpible.") But it's not beyond repair, and the way that it can be saved is by diagnoising its fatal flaws, and fixing them pronto. Let's take a look:

  1. It's Too In Love With its Own Gags. A few seasons ago, HIMYM unleashed a wonderful little gag known as the "slap-bet." It goes like this: you make a bet, and whoever wins gets to slap the other one across the face as hard as they want. It was a hilarious little wrinkle in the plot. There was also a payoff seven full episodes later, which is one of the best "walk-off" endings in the show's history.

    But then they got greedy. What was at one time a rather ingenious little subplot to the "Let's Go To the Mall" episode then became "Slapsgiving" (season Three), in which the entire episode was a countdown to the third and final slap that Marshall was finally going to give Barney. The slap itself was fine, but then it ruined it. Rather than ending on that note or having a brief denoument, Marshall had to sing a song called "You Just Got Slapped," with Barney joining in on the chorus! Gone was any tension that had existed up until then, and all the time they had put into the slap-bet concept went from TV lore to tepid and instantly forgettable.

    This show has a tendency to become infatuated with its own humor, such as when Marshall was wearing a nightshirt, and Barney let off a rapid fire litany of jokes -- none of them funny -- about the attire. (Which, by the way, is a lazy tool of comic writing: make someone's appearance foolish, and then make other characters make comparisons or say "You look like the grandfather from 'Willy Wonka.'")

    The show has to learn to glide gracefully past even its more ingenious jokes. When it spends too much time on them, it makes it look like it's trying too hard. Just make the joke and move along now. Don't wallow in your own supposed comic genius.

  2. The Sentimentality of Ted. More often than not lately, the show has relied on ending on some kind of a dramatic or sentimental note. Now, from the first episode, Ted's character has been a kind of, for lack of a better word, pussy. He told Robin he loved her in the first episode, and is always talking about this ideal of "true love." That is, after all, the point of the show ... the backstory of how he met his future wife.

    But the problem is that these elements, which worked so well because they were the subtext, have become the ... well, text. Instead of Ted just being, we are constantly told what he is, by other characters and by voice-overs. A hopeless romantic, someone looking for a soul-mate, etc. All right, we get it.

    Problem is, Ted spends so much of his time fucking moping around and searching for this "true love," that it loses all of its power. There was an episode early on where Ted fell for a girl named Victoria at a wedding. They agreed they would never speak again after the wedding. Later on, when he finally tracks her down, the catharsis worked, because it wasn't telegraphed.

    Now, we have contrived pap like "Ten Sessions," in which Ted very consciously tries to wear down the woefully miscast and thankfully jettisoned Sarah Chalke over the course of ten medical treatments. This might have worked if it weren't so goddamn phony and contrived. And that two-minute date they had at the end of the episode was about as authentic as a 1980s porno. (Unfortunately, this was also the episode that Britney Spears was in, which means it was the one that most newbie viewers were exposed to.)

    Let's get the fun Ted back out there, the one that is sarcastic and doesn't take himself or his life too seriously, or come off as a "cool guy." (He might be the protagonist, but sometime's Ted is a borderline douchebag.) Because when the show validates his character, yet his character is doing something wussy/unlikeable/dickish, it undermines the whole framework of the show.

  3. Barney's Radical Character Shift. I shouldn't have to tell this to professional TV people. When you take the funniest character on a show, and make him a sentimental ass, or too vulnerable, you take away the best part of a show. They did the same thing with Chandler Bing on Friends right before he got married to Monica, before thankfully re-installing his testicles by the time the show ended. Scrubs was also in grave danger of doing this with Perry Cox, the show's resident misanthrope. His seriously-toned, "he's really a good guy after all!" monologues -- which were initially a nice dab of humanity in an otherwise cynical character -- became all too frequent, before the show's switch to ABC restored his balls as well.

    For the better part of three seasons, Barney has been the one standby. If Marshall is the innocent in Ted's life, then Barney is the devil on the other shoulder. This dynamic opposition has given the show much of its needed tension. Barney could always be counted on to act selfishly and with complete nihilism. He would always be in control and always be one step ahead.

    But at the end of Season Three, inexplicably, the writers made Barney fall in love with Robin. First of all, can you think of a worse match? Who the hell decided "we have to get these two together!"

    Barney should never be in love, not while the show is still on. And God forbid he ever does, it should be with someone conniving, mean ... borderline evil. Anything less would seriously compromise the character that this show has so successfully built into its best asset.

  4. Stella. She needs to move away to a distant city never to be seen or heard from again. Sarah Chalke is fine on Scrubs; she was abysmal on this show. Cousin Oliver crossed with that asshole who was Rory's boyfriend on Gilmore Girls. (So I watch a lot of TV, fuck you.)

So anyway, I think this show has the potential to be a so-called "klassic komedy," and would hate to see it go the way of "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," "Joey," "Life on Mars" or other shows with decent concepts that shat the proverbial bed.


DG Dunford said...

There were some bad episodes this year, but I chalk(e) some of that up to the fact that both Alison Hannigan and Cobie Smulders got knocked up and were pregnant. When engaged and healthy, they're two weapons. Pregnant and resigned to hiding their bellies with huge purses, they really couldn't do all that much. I expect more from next season.

Bill said...

Respectfully, I don't think that had much to do with it. I think even their pregnant bellies wouldn't be able to hide the lackluster writing this year. It's always been the hallmark of the series. It had its moments, don't get me wrong, but it largely smacked of gimmickry instead of relying on the characters that got it there.

DG Dunford said...

It should also be noted that I really liked "Ten Sessions," and don't mind their embrace of sitcom-y pretensions every once in awhile.