THE STATE OF THE AMERICAN SITCOM (II): HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER by David Lavery
This is the second of five Telegenics examining the state of the American sitcom in the second decade of the 21st Century. The first, on Community, can be found here. Subsequent entries will look at The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, and Modern Family.
Lilly, Marshall, Ted, Robin, and Barney (from the cover of the Season 1 DVD)
In The Simpsons’ episode “Homer Loves Flanders” (5.16) Homer and born-again neighbor Ned Flanders inexplicably become friends, and at the end of the episode the Simpson children, who know they live in a sitcom, remain perplexed by the development. “I don't get it, Lis,” Bart worries aloud to his sister. “You said everything would be back to normal, but Homer and Flanders are still friends.” “Yeah. Maybe this means the end of our wacky adventures,” Lisa replies. But then a title card—"Next Thursday at 8:00pm"—appears, and as we see Homer and Ned fighting again . . .
Homer: Get lost, Flanders.
Ned: Okily dokily.
. . . Bart and Lisa sigh happily, relieved their television world has not come to an end. “Homer Loves Flanders” was an aberration. Though Bart and Lisa, and the audience, may remember it, Homer and Ned will not.
Groening and company are playing here with the one-time unchangeableness of the conventional sitcosmos (David Marc’s term). Once upon a time, no one expected sitcom characters to evolve or even change. Once sitcom memories were blessedly short. Ralph Kramden forever threatens to send his wife Alice to the moon; Basil Fawlty must be incompetent; Lucy Riccardo must always want to perform at the Copa. The classic sitcom character was not supposed to have a memory, not was the audience expected to recall what happened last week. But then, at the end of the last century, the genre began to change. On Seinfeld Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer remained perpetually faithful to Larry David’s motto: “No hugging, no learning,”1 but the audience was expected to remember and follow ongoing story lines and remember the terrible, selfish things the Fab Four had done (which at series end would, cumulatively, land them in prison). Seinfeld’s successor Friends, would give us both hugging and learning and even cliffhangers—on a sitcom—and expect us to remember “The One Where . . .” throughout.
Enter, stage left, How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005- ), created and showrun by Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, who became writing partners after working together on The David Letterman Show, and “set mothered” by Pamela Fryman, who has directed an astonishing 126 episodes (out of 134 to date). A friend sitcom set in New York and taking place for the most part in its characters’ apartment and a bar (MacLaren’s Pub)—nothing distinctive about that. But . . .
Thomas and Bays. Image from New York Magazine.
Fryman. Image from Zimbio.com
Described by Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker as a “TV version of a memory play—technically the only current network sitcom that takes place in the past,” HIMYM is, you see, a very “high concept” sitcom with a “mythology . . . that rivals that of any drama this side of Lost.” Tucker explains the concept with admirable clarity:
The premise has main character Ted (Josh Radnor)2 in the year 2030 telling his son and daughter . . . just about everything that led up to meeting their mother . . . with Ted guiding us through his life with his best pals, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Marshall (Jason Segel), Robin (Cobie Smulders), and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris).
This great central cast brought with it a good deal of actor residue: Hannigan, of course, was Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.3 Segel starred on the short-lived Freaks and Geeks before making several Judd Apatow and Apatowish films. The openly gay NPH, cast here as a womanizer, was long ago Doogie Howser and more recently Joss Whedon’s Doctor Horrible and award-show-host extraordinaire. The key players, along with a variety of guest stars—Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Lost’s Jorge Garcia, John Lithgow, Kyle MacLachlan—pull off with aplomb HIMYM’s delicate blend of “raunchiness sitting atop a firm moral foundation of loyalty and commitment” (Tucker).4
Other factors make HIMYM a unique, inventive sitcom. No show since Seinfeld has had such a distinctive, “legen—wait for it—dary,” series-specific vocabulary. “Drunk or kid,” “the blitz,” “eating a sandwich,” “Halloween Parade of Shame,” “reachers and settlers,” “rabbit/duck confusion,” “on the hook,” “MILSWANCA,” “bagpipes,” “The Mosby,” “Doppelganger,” “Old King Clancy,”5 “Front Porch Test,” “Murtaugh List,” “reading a magazine,” “possimpible,” “the naked man,” “the Bro Code,” “suit up,” “lemon law of dating,” “slap bet,” “slapsgiving,” “the hot/crazy scale”—even common words and phrases become in the euphemisms and evasions of the Mothersitcosmos deeply inflected by its wit and wisdom (and lack thereof). Occasionally, the writers come up with a portmanteau coinage that just might stick. I especially like “revertigo” ("Sandcastles in the Sand," 3.16): the tendency to return to outdated modes of behavior when in the presence of an old friend/boy friend/girl friend from one’s past. (TWOP has developed a HIMYM lexicon helpful for both the newby and the experienced.)
HIMYM takes major risks. In “Bad News” (6.13), for example, the show defied convention by having Marshall’s father die. Though fans and critics were dubious about the far-from-comic development, Bay and Thomas turned it into comic gold in the next episode, in which a son’s oft-frustrated search for his father’s last words leads to the realization they may well have been “Rent Crocodile Dundee III. I caught it on the cable last night and it totally holds up” (“Last Words,” 6.14).
HIMYM has given us exquisitely, hilariously choreographed music videos. The “Robin Sparkles’” “Let’s Go to the Mall” and “Sandcastles in the Sand”—supposedly made by Canadian character Robin Scherbatsky when she was a teen sensation—have gone viral. Less funny but just as memorable is “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit,” the best showcase of the song-and-dance talents of NPH since Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. (The video is not available on the web, but you can listen to it here.)
Suiting Up (“Screen capture from “Girls vs. Suits,” 5.12)
Most “legendary” of all, Mother has given us Barney Stinson. Another of those major television characters (like Community’s Jeff Winger) who we really shouldn’t like (but we do), a deceitful, commitment-phobic, über-vain, serial seducer, Harris’s character is the generator of much of the series’ characteristic play with language, the seed crystal of its prime-time bawdiness, and the best example of HIMYM’s multi-season commitment to the growth and change of its characters. The man who for season after season relished the one-night-stand, who, as recently as Season Six, commented on Marshall’s inability to get his wife pregnant with the cruelly paradoxical “You can’t get a girl pregnant; that’s the dream! I’d give my firstborn to not be able to have children” (“Bad News,” 6.13) is now, it seems, headed to the altar, irrevocably changed, inspired to grow up, by finally meeting his father (Lithgow)
In his interview for New York’s “Showrunner Transcripts” series, Craig Thomas acknowledges that he and Carter Bays, his writing partner of 15 years,
care hugely about what fans think. Television is not a medium in which you should be playing with your back to the audience. A TV series is unique, because it’s a conversation between show and fans that lasts for years. We try to hit the sweet spot between accessibility to the more casual viewer and also rewarding hard-core fans with plenty of payoffs and callbacks. But ultimately, you write for the kind of viewer you, yourself, are. And personally, I always love it when a show calls back something from three seasons earlier, the secret handshake of that. Only TV series can do that.
HIMYM is a sitcom rich with secret handshakes, and yet an average of 8.5 million viewers per episode tuned in to extend a hand in S6. Now in the home stretch, Mother has nevertheless been given an unprecedented two more full seasons to find the woman of Ted’s dreams.
1 See Lavery and Dunne, Seinfeld, Master of Its Domain (New York: Continuum, 2006, 15).↩
2 A sure-to-provoke Television without Pity article called “Burying the Lead” names Ted (unfairly, if you ask me) as one of the major television character who could be killed off without harming the show.↩
3 On "Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap," 5.9), it was almost as if Buffy’s infamous, world-destroying witch Dark Willow had returned. The surprise appearance of Lily's (Alyson Hannigan's) derelict dad (Chris Elliott) had the Willow-look-alike flashing back to all of those previously "dead to her" and her red-eyed obliteration of each hated individual.
Screen Capture from “Revenge of the Slap”↩
4 For a brief consideration of HIMYM’s raunchiness see my earlier Telegenic “The Naughty, the Blasphemous, and American Television.” ↩
5 Surprisingly, the name of an unspecified Canadian sexual position. With a Canadian character, Robin, in the central cast, Mother, like South Park, often trades in jokes about Canada. The following exchange between Ted and his then lover from up north is typical:
Robin: I am Canadian. Remember? We celebrate Thanksgiving in October.
Ted: Oh right I forgot. You guys are weird and you pronounce the word “out,” “oot.”
Robin: You guys are the world's leader in hand gun violence; your health care system is bankrupt and your country is deeply divided on almost every important issue.
Ted: [pause] Your cops are called “mounties.”
"Belly Full of Turkey" (1.9) ↩
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