Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Requiem for How I Met Your Mother

Quick! Run! The Finale was lame! To the internet!
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

I don't normally write reviews of TV shows. To be honest, I don't think I'm particularly good at them. The last time I tried to do it was when Breaking Bad ended, but I wrote it right after I read Alan Sepinwall's review, and because I'm not used to writing reviews, I ended up just regurgitating most of his ideas until I realized I was doing it and scrapped the whole thing. I never posted it and have since deleted all traces of it from my computer.

With that said, here are my random, scattered thoughts on the How I Met Your Mother finale, and on the series in general.

1. The Finale notwithstanding, the show is one of the better serial comedies of the last decade - probably even higher when you limit the category to comedy-dramas (so shows like 30 Rock and Arrested Development get squeezed out). The only other serious contenders are The Office and Scrubs - Friends would get a nod if you want to extend the window time-wise. It's one of the few shows that was consistently funny, consistently poignant, stayed interesting with an engaging storyline (and a creative narrative structure), but still had great stand-alone episodes that still hold up on syndicated re-runs (Slap Bet and all of it's sub-derivatives, including everything with Robin Sparkles and Slapsgiving, come to mind). That being said, however, the narrative structure of the show really DOES place an undue amount of weight on the Finale. And the Finale was really, really bad.

2. The Finale was bad because the creators and principal writers of the show, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, painted themselves into a corner. They filmed Ted's kids' reaction to the end of the story sometime during Season 2 and have been sitting on the footage for the last eight years waiting for the Finale, but apparently didn't have any backup plan for how to get out of that corner, like, for instance, filming a bunch of different reactions to the end of the story at the time (i.e. a different reaction for a different end of the story), or simply abandoning the kids' reaction altogether. This was a serious mis-step that they made - they assumed that we (the audience) cared more about the fact that they set up the show as a story to his kids, as opposed to a story to us (the viewers). They drew a parallel between the kids and the audience that hasn't existed since Season 2 (that's when they stopped showing cut-aways to the kids with any regularity, for the obvious reason that the actors playing the kids were getting older and they couldn't keep using that device in perpetuity). They assumed we cared about the kids, who we haven't seen in any substantial sense since 2006, more than we cared that we had essentially been duped for the last eight years about what the show was supposedly about.

In essence, they assumed that the fans wanted to see Ted and Robin end up together, because they have so much history together, and that the desire to see that trumped both (a) an entire season being spent building up to a Barney-Robin wedding (which ended in divorce less than halfway through the Finale), and (b) Ted's nine-season journey to find the woman he was supposed to live happily ever after with, after the pilot firmly established that Robin was *not* the mother of his children. Those two elements of the show were pounded and chiseled away at for years (and done so in truly spectacular fashion) and then dismissed in minutes.

3. Ted's kids are pretty terrible.

"Hey Dad, you should totally move on from that woman who gave birth to us and helped raise us - Robin is way cooler than our dead mom! And we think you really deserve it after you just told us this asininely long story about how much you secretly loved this woman more than our dead mom! Did we mention that our mom is dead and we don't seem fazed by this at all?"

4. The Finale tried to do too much. They rushed through the wedding, the reception, the subsequent divorce, and STILL didn't have enough time to wrap everything up in a way that made it seem like anything but a cop-out of "HEY, IT WAS A HAPPY ENDING!!" less than two minutes after killing off a character that they spent a decade building towards an introduction to. There's just no way around that.

5. The Finale was too much of a departure from the spirit of the show. The show is supposed to be about hope. Unquestionably the best episode of the series was Season 1's "Drumroll, Please," when Ted met Victoria (really his only girlfriend that worked for him other than Robin and the Mother, but more on that later). It was an episode that was full of hope and promise, which, really, is what the show has been about all along - Ted learning life lessons and developing as a person until he becomes the guy ready to meet the girl of his dreams. And in one fell swoop, they reversed course and made it as if the previous nine years didn't really mean anything.

They completely marginalized the importance of the Mother when they put Ted and Robin back together again. If it had ended at the train station under the umbrella, it would have been perfect (and that scene *was* perfect). If they had ended it with the Mother dying, that would have been slightly less perfect but still understandable. But with Ted and Robin together, they turned the Mother (really, the titular character) into an afterthought, which was a giant waste of the chemistry that she clearly had with Ted and the rest of the cast. But more than that, they took what was a show about hope and destiny and true love and turned it into settling for a second choice. And really, you can make an argument both ways about who Ted's first choice really was, which makes it even more infuriating. More than that, after years of hope and good feelings, the Finale was incredibly melancholy - between the Robin and Barney divorce, Barney regressing back to his playbook days, Robin effectively disappearing from the gang, the gang not hanging out as much because of family and work, and finally the Mother's death, there were more sad moments in this episode than perhaps in the entire nine seasons that preceded it. It made the "happy ending" seem hollow and insincere, like it was the only bow left and they had to tie up the series somehow.

6. The series is aptly named How I Met Your Mother, and the pilot pretty clearly sets up that the mother won't be revealed (or at least Ted won't meet her) until the end of the series. But because of that, it creates this paradox where they have to keep introducing new female characters for Ted to date (because him being a whiny single guy for nine seasons would have been unbearable), and they have to hope that the characters are engaging (because after all, it's television and they're ostensibly supposed to be entertaining the audience), but they also have to hope that either (a) they aren't TOO engaging, because even if they introduce a dynamite foil for Ted in Season 1 (*cough* Victoria *cough*), the audience knows that she isn't a character that ultimately matters, so there will always be a ceiling on her relevance, or (b) they can come up with a compelling way to write her out of the show (like Stella leaving Ted at the altar).

7. The show's dirty little secret is that Ted is secretly a bad guy. He does a lot of really, really terrible things to girls over the course of the series. Here's a short run-down:
  • Convinces his girlfriend to carry on a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic Ocean, then decides to cheat on her a month later.
  • Tells the girl he is cheating on his girlfriend with that they’ve broken up. They haven’t.
  • Hooks up with a girl he just met then forces her to hide in his bedroom when the girl he really likes comes over.
  • He continually badgers a girl he likes about going out with him – they date for a year before they break up because they want different things (and he knew this before they started dating).
  • Breaks up with a girl over the phone, on her birthday. Then convinces her to get back together before breaking up with her, again, on her birthday.
  • Goes out with a girl, tells her he’ll call her, doesn’t call her. Seven years later goes out with the same girl again and doesn’t remember who she is.
  • Convinces a girl he’s serious enough for her to sleep with and introduce to her daughter, then tries to break up with her when he doesn’t want to make a commitment six months in the future. She didn’t realize it was a breakup, but then gets offended when she realizes later. He then proposes to this girl. While engaged, he scoffs at the idea of moving in with her (he wants her to move in with him). He invites his ex-girlfriend to their wedding (even after she expressly asked him not to), then invites HER ex-boyfriend to the wedding (again, after being asked not to), which stirs up confusing feelings for her.
  • Falls in love with a married woman, she ends up leaving her husband. While they’re dating, they clash over a project at work. He finally agrees to take her side, then stabs her in the back at the last minute. They break up. He agrees to get coffee with her after the break-up, then never shows up.
  • Pines after a girl for years after a Halloween party, re-connects, discovers they have nothing in common, tells her he loves her instead of breaking up, then breaks up with her later.
  • Runs into the girl he cheated on several years earlier, finds out she’s engaged, then kisses her. A few weeks later she leaves her fiancée at the altar and he goes along with it. After she leaves her fiancée, she asks Ted to stop hanging out with his ex-girlfriend, and they fight about it. He proposes, but she insists he stop hanging out with his ex. He chooses to hang out with his ex-girlfriend as friends over being with the girl he just proposed to. 
  • Spends most of his adult life pining after a girl, gets married to another girl, but then returns to the first girl after his wife dies and the first girl gets divorced after being married to one of his best friends. 
All of these things really happened. And this is the guy we're supposed to be rooting for? I'm not sure I want to anymore.

All things considered, it was one of my favorite shows for a number of years. And in many ways, the show did right by it's characters. Robin and Ted both deserved to be happy, and if that means they get together, that's a defensible decision to make from a character standpoint (less so from a story standpoint). Barney had four great scenes (Realizing he needs to introduce Ted to the Mother, saying good-bye after the wedding, the scene in the hospital with his daughter, and his last scene where he comes full circle and is content as a father). Ironically, the only character that deserved better was the Mother. She was tossed aside far too quickly for a character who was built up for so long and then still managed to deliver in her short amount of time.

The Finale was a huge let down, but that shouldn't tarnish what was otherwise a great show, the only four-camera show with a laugh track that I still enjoyed. I imagine a lot of people will do what I do, and imagine that the series ended right when Ted looks into the camera in 2030 with artificially gray hair and old-age makeup and says "...and that's how I met your mother," and that everything that comes afterward just didn't happen. And from there, you can enjoy the memory of the 200-plus episodes that got you to that point.

1 comment :

Tony said...