Dammit, Ted. The major websites – heck, and the minor websites – forgot to properly eulogize How I Met Your Mother. As Ted would say about five minutes into every third episode: fine, fine, I’ll do it.
First, the series-end tributes had no idea where the central premise for HIMYM even came from. Sure, for all we know, show creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays might have spent years kicking around an idea for an all-flashback show told to its narrator’s kids. However, to get a network television on the air, you better be able to show a room full of suits something that has worked well in the recent past. Before Lost debuted in 2004, very few shows bothered with flashbacks, and when they did, the flashbacks tended to solve crimes or something…they were almost never character-based. (I barely count The Wonder Years, which took Stand By Me as an excuse for an extended nostalgia bath. HIMYM wasn’t about aging boomers glossing on their childhood.) Also, have you seen the ultimate story of how I met your mother, namely The Notebook? Also 2004. So when it started in September 2005, HIMYM was The Notebook meets Lost…flipped into a comedy about twenty-somethings in New York City. Got that, TV critics? Ok, now you’ve got the tip of the iceberg.
The problem with even good sitcoms is they just keep going and going well past their sell-by date, held together by entropy and gravity. How I Met Your Mother, by making itself a closed narrative about friends helping you find The One, gave every episode an extra kick of “kids, it was back in the year…” which served the same function that film editors practice when they leave unedited a shot of a character talking for way too long. On the one hand, it hangs the person out to dry; on the other hand, since we all know the person is out there hanging, our initial skepticism (of anything) is mollified and we can often allow ourselves more pleasure in their increasingly vulnerable performance. Ted’s story is absurdly long; his kids know it’s absurdly long; now that we’ve got that out of the way, check this out. In this way, HIMYM was the perfect sitcom for a reality-TV era, where we need to see singers and dancers and other kinds of contestants leave all their blood and guts and soul on the floor…even the floor of MacLaren’s.
It’s hard to imagine that any future show will ever milk quite so much out of flashbacks as HIMYM, if we consider all the back-flashbacks to college and earlier (Robin Sparkles, anyone?), the flash-forwards, the fake memories, the rolled-back freeze frames, the memories that seemed fake and then were revealed to be real, and so on. While exploiting this, the show pioneered what I would call a compressed laugh-track, a chuckle-track. It wasn’t a single-camera show like 30 Rock or The Office or Parks and Recreation (one reason critics never liked HIMYM), but it also wasn’t hidebound into one location like Two and a Half Men. Thomas and Bays said they preferred not to use studio audiences because they would turn into “hostage situations,” because the show moved around locations so much. In keeping with its status as a single-cam-like multi-cam show, the laugh track was somewhere in the middle – not guffaw-laden like Cape Fear’s Robert DeNiro watching a movie, but not quite absent either. I think this high-wire act buoyed the enthusiasm of the cast; they had to play their lines just so, with a slight post-joke wait that was almost like playing dinner theater. Kids, let’s review: Ted mastered flashbacks and the chuckle-track. Any other show doing likewise is derivative.
Yet…that’s not the most important thing that needs to be said about How I Met Your Mother. The show was the very song, the very essence of Generation Y. Wait for it. It’s gonna be legen…something.
Much to my chagrin, Friends was Generation X, there’s no getting around it. They harvested all the anomie and alienation and distilled it into bottles of snark and fashion statements. Clearly, HIMYM couldn’t have existed without Friends, but it wasn’t like the Friends clones that the networks all floated in the late 90s. True to Generation X, the Friends were six lost souls in search of meaning, but the cast of HIMYM was already more settled, more comfortable with institutions (their only real rebel, Barney, wore a suit), yet oddly more rabble-rousing – their meeting place was a bar, not a café with the word “perk” in its name. America is such an amazing, precious thing; there’s no guarantee that the next generation will use any of the same discourse of their forebears. Perhaps, like the 60s love children, they’ll prefer to say goodbye to all that. You may have noticed that the pace of discursive change has slowed since, say, the 30s, when people “got sore” at “bad eggs” and such. How I Met Your Mother expected, predicted, manifested a Generation Y (Ted names his age as 27 in 2005) that’s largely comfortable with the world it’s inheriting (got good jobs, gonna have a nice house in 2030), with a few tweaks to be made on the edges. Like Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, and Seinfeld, HIMYM simultaneously lampooned and codified our middle class, usually in a knowing way that was at once pitiful and pithy. You felt it in lines like: “Nothing happens after 2 a.m”; “Don’t ever give up crazy times with your friends”; “The most important people in your life are the ones you can picture sitting on a porch with”; “Some people are worth a lot of work to keep around.” All the awesomes, all the “that’s the dream”s, all the bro-puns, all the Canada jokes, all the hand slaps – of faces, of other hands, of phones, whatever – somehow added up to a beautiful continuity, a bridge between Generation X and Ted’s kids’ generation.
Ted told his kids she was “Aunt Robin” in the very first episode, as Thomas and Bays said, “to prevent the will-they-or-won’t-they of Ross and Rachel.” Though Ross of Friends and Ted were both professors, Ted was the obvious lead of HIMYM, and with a far more defined arc than any Friend ever had: never mind the laugh track, Ted walked a high-wire between the marriage-centered Marshall and the hound-doggy-style Barney. As Nicole Edine put it in her book I Always Got a Great Story, HIMYM was really a love story with friends very much attached, and about those friends giving you hope to get through the rough times that we don’t like to admit that we have. I don’t believe that extras were cast on HIMYM in quite the same way as most shows; if you look, you’ll see that the lovely people in MacLaren’s sitting behind our heroes are rather well-defined, in clear focus. Why? I believe it’s to remind you of the journey that Ted is on, the journey we’re all on, where other people aren’t automatically background, but represent opportunities you have and you don’t take…because ultimately, you trust the love of your friends a little bit more.
As for the finale, I say: oh, come on, it was fine. The show needed one last twist, but also to be true to itself and to its fans who had been there since the blue French horn. You knew the show had to be about Ted and Robin on some level. To me, they stuck the landing.
In my film class at Sacramento State, there’s plenty of non-white people, to the point where the whites that are there are hardly going to say something that would make them look ignorant. A couple of weeks ago I asked them to choose TV shows for us to watch (clips from), and a few chose HIMYM, and as I started to show a clip, one student said “That’s the best TV show” to general murmurs of agreement. (They didn’t say that about Breaking Bad!) This leads me to two final observations:
1) HIMYM had one Friendsy problem, a fatal flaw that the networks don’t look to repeat in the current environment: it was all (Lily) white. However, it wound up not quite reinforcing the old patriarchal-bourgeois-heteropoly for one reason, and that was Mr. Neil Patrick Harris. When I was at graduate school at USC in 2004, professors agreed that the one taboo that TV and movies couldn’t seem to break was to have a gay actor play a straight person who kisses opposite-sex actors and who doesn’t die at the end. (Why wouldn’t Jodie Foster come out? She didn’t want to rule out films where her character was meant to love men.) Harris’ career was revived by the oversexed hetero Lothario he played in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). (Quick: name an Asian actor who doesn’t do martial arts; if you can name anyone besides the actors playing Harold and Kumar, you’ve got 95% of my undergrads beat.) Taking that uniquely Generation Y credit onto HIMYM wasn’t enough: Harris publicly came out in 2006 and kept right on playing a character straight from Neil Strauss’s 2005 book The Game – perhaps that’s one reason the Barney character was less John Belushi (as the creators said they’d written; I mean, come on, “Barney”?) and more George Clooney. Harris made a cheerfully virtuoso performance out of Barney, his smirks and slight cufflink adjustments telling us that he knows that we know he was once Doogie Howser and that he’s actually gay, but that this life is too much fun not to savor. And thus, without realizing it, we felt the show was too much fun not to savor. Thus was HIMYM the last all-white show to get a diversity pass.
2) If we’re making time capsules so that people in future centuries can study our generations, since we know Friends is going down there with Generation X, you better go ahead and put How I Met Your Mother in there for Generation Y. It’s state-university-approved, and Jason Segel’s connection to Judd Apatow really seals the deal. Is Generation Y the same as the Millennials? Right now, when you type Generation Y into Wikipedia, that takes you to the Millennials, but then it says they’re born no earlier than 1982, making most of the HIMYM characters too old – but surely HIMYM can’t be Generation X? Are they angsty enough? Nah, the Millennials will someday make their own defining show. Until then, I really think HIMYM is the song of the bridge between X and 000, between grunge and digital, between Apple IIs and iPhone-based existence. Like a lot of great novels, How I Met Your Mother confirmed the importance of what some Asian cultures call “talk story”: saying it might not make it true, or it might make it truer than the truth. The adventures of Ted, Marshall, Lily, Barney and Robin were as true as the hope we all feel for our lives to have a happy ending. That’s the dream!