Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Long Story Short... a farewell to How I Met Your Mother
Nine years is a long time to be telling a story, isn't it?
In September 2005, I was 18 years old, recently out of high school and fairly used to seeing fly-by-night high concept sitcoms come and go. One Monday night we flipped to to CBS to see the debut of this new show about a guy in the future telling a long-winded story to his kids about how he met their mother. It seemed too unnecessarily complex and weird, way too ambitious, and there'd be no way to tell a story like that satisfyingly, and... hey, is that the voice of Bob Saget? Weird.
Anyway, I tuned in week after week and got to know the characters: hopeless romantic Ted, his longtime friends Marshall and Lily, their womanizing friend Barney, and the girl of Ted's dreams, Robin. Probably the definitive early episode for me was when Ted spent all night on the rooftop dressed in his Halloween costume from four years ago in hopes of meeting the same girl he did then. Then there was "The Pineapple Incident," which showed how adept the show would be at playing with the form, and "Nothing Good Ever Happens After 2 AM" which would prove the show's willingness to break all our hearts, as it did time and again.
For those who didn't catch on immediately, there were plenty of moments in the second season. I remember my friend Cary watching the DVDs disapprovingly until Barney was called "Swarley" for an entire episode ("That's what my friends do!") And then there was "Slap Bet," which I remember raving about the next day to my nonplussed, non-watching friends. ("No, see, Robin was this Canadian pop star, and... damnit just watch!") Over the course of nearly a decade, the show contributed more to the culture than any show since Seinfeld and Friends: every show since seems to have a Barney, an obnoxious womanizing friend who sleeps with more women than should be possible. But HIMYM was always keen to deflate, dissect and deconstruct the myth surrounding that kind of character, even as it leaped joyously back into his Bro Codes and Playbooks. And even as Barney's conquests were largely one-dimensional, the primary love interests found throughout the series were extremely well-developed considering we knew none of them was the eponymous mother (Victoria, Stella and Zoey stand out for Ted, Quinn and Nora for Barney, and of course Robin and Tracy/The Mother.) The story may have taken a long time to get through, but I always felt the show gave enough to its audience, week after week, to deserve our continuing attention. It wasn't, after all, the story about the mother. As the finale revealed, it was the story of Ted and Robin.
As if the pilot hadn't made that abundantly clear.
For starters, the scene of Ted finally approaching Tracy was just magnificently written, and like the rest of their scenes throughout the season showed exactly why Ted would fall immediately and completely for this girl. The format of the show itself, flashing forward for several years' worth of stories, showing Robin and Barney not working out, the group drifting apart, Barney finally becoming a parent and actually changing the way we all thought he would, worked for me. My concern (for literally years) was that if it all led to meeting the mother we'd be cheated out of finding out exactly what happened next, and they had that accounted for. They gave me exactly what I wanted, and then had a further surprise up their sleeve I didn't expect. Except sorta.
At the end of the episode "Vesuvius," Ted and Tracy are sitting together at the Farhampton Inn, and Ted makes an offhand remark about what kind of mother misses her daughter's wedding, and Tracy starts to cry. My brother turned to me and said "Aw shit... she's dying." Damnit, no! They can't do this! They can't let this be a shaggy dog story that ends with Ted meeting the love of his life and then losing her! You just don't end on a down note like that!
But then, this: "Dad, mom's been gone for 6 years. So why are you telling us this story that's not really about her?"
An uncomfortable truth, the kind that HIMYM always dealt in, is that you can love more than one person in your lifetime. There just isn't always room for them. Romantic comedies make it so pat that there is one person and you will find them and live happily ever after. This show went one better and showed that you can live happily ever after, twice, even if that does involve some sadness and loss. All these years later, the things that drove Ted and Robin apart waaaaay back in Season 2 are no longer relevant: he's got the kids he wanted, she's traveled and lived all over the world for work. It's bittersweet and yet overly joyous. Basically, the perfect ending.
And for the record, if you don't believe a man can find love after his wife dies, go read Rob Sheffield's books. I'll leave this box of tissues.
Was it good? Was it bad? Should they have done it like that? We'll all have to suss the answers to these questions for ourselves. Take it however you want, but I think that no matter what it was the appropriately complex and mature tact to take. Now, you don't have to take my word for it. I'm on record as having no problems with the finale of LOST, and apparently that's an unpopular opinion. But even if I had mixed feelings about the final fates of Ted and Robin, to say nothing of Barney, Marshall and Lily, that does nothing to erase the story leading up to it, which I mostly enjoyed. It's given me a lot to laugh and think and feel about, over the course of nearly a decade. Wouldn't trade those hours back for all the high fives, suits, scotch, Slutty Pumpkins, Bro Codes, slaps, robot sidekicks, and whatnots in the world.
Well, maybe the robot sidekicks.