Ever since I started working second shift, it’s been quite difficult for me to watch a lot of the prime time television that I like. For some reason, I haven’t caught up on How I Met Your Mother for several weeks now, and I had missed most of the seventh season. After getting caught up, I ended on an emotional cliffhanger (which I’ll not discuss here for those who may not be up to date), and I couldn’t go to bed without some sort of catharsis. Remembering that the whole series is on Netflix, I started at Episode 1. While I have loved the show for a long time, I generally either only watch sporadically, or I’ll catch episodes on syndication, where they aren’t in order. I’ve also recommended a few friends of mine watch it, and when I am asked why, I have a hard time explaining it in anything less than a huge paragraph. So this is sort of my “extended recommendation” for How I Met Your Mother (hence forward referred to as HIMYM).
First off, HIMYM is the sitcom for people that don’t like sitcoms. I think the number one reason for this is because of it’s narrative structure. The main character, Ted, is telling the story of how he met his wife to his children in the year 2030. But it’s not one of those situations where the main character just narrates along. Ted does do that, but the structure of the narrative is very much like someone telling a story. Ted frequently acknowledges the fact that since it’s a subjective narrative that he may have some details wrong. And there are episodes where he realizes that details provided in a previous episode are incorrect, and rectifies them. The downside to subjective narration is that we sometimes only get one character’s side of the story, but Ted frequently tells the other character’s stories, acknowledging that the participants in these stories may have exaggerated the details themselves. When Ted hasn’t been told of the other character’s role in a story, he frequently tells his children (and by extension the viewer), “this is how I imagined things happened.”
We also are very aware of the fact that the “audience” consists of Ted’s children. Ted uses “sandwiches” as a euphemism for marijuana in a few episodes, and through the course of the episode, rather than smoking marijuana, the characters eat sandwiches. In the first episode, he refers to meeting the woman that he thought he was going to marry, and calls her “Aunt Robin.” From the very beginning of the show, we know that he will never end up marrying Robin. Yet one of the major themes of the show is Ted and Robin’s feelings for one another. In classic sitcom fashion, there is always something keeping them apart, whether it be other relationships, differing desires, or just plain stubbornness. But because the show is so well written, you find yourself getting emotionally involved in their roller coaster relationship, never caring about the fact that you’ve known from the beginning that it would never lead to anything permanent.
The series is exceptionally postmodern in it’s awareness of it’s narrative device, and that is arguably one of the things that I like most about it. It is written exactly the way someone tells a story, with all the exaggerations, and boasting that is inherent in story telling. Ted will frequently start a story, and then realize that he forgot to mention something important in the lead up, which will cause him to jump back to events before said story. There is a very “Hangover-esque” episode where Ted tries to piece together a drunken night through various clues surrounding him, and by asking other characters. The device is particularly well-utilized in an episode where a dinner party goes to hell in 5 minutes. Ted tells the story one room at a time, starting with the Dining Room. Because the characters involved are moving in and out of various rooms for the duration of the five minutes, the viewed has to piece together the causes and effects of various actions. The reason that this is particularly effective is because there is a flurry of activity at the party, and presenting quick snippets of each story is a way for the form of the narrative to convey the tone of chaos at the party.
But enough about narrative structure. Many of my friends do not like another of my favorite television shows, Big Bang Theory, because they feel that when it became more popular, the show was more about making fun of geeks than it was laughing with the geeks. I have to admit that is somewhat true, although it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothers my friends. The simple fact of the matter is that “uber geeks” that are presented in Big Bang Theory aren’t really super common. While geeks can relate to a lot of their interests and pursuits, a growing majority of us have at least some social skills.
Which brings me back to HIMYM. One of the things that I like the most about the show is the fact that nearly everyone (especially people who have above average IQs) can relate to it. The show doesn’t force you into this preconceived notion that the characters are super popular, or that they are super geeky. They are all relatively “normal” people, complete with the various quirks associated. While each character has the ability to handle the real world well, to make friends, and to communicate with the opposite gender, each character has something “awkward” about them. Marshall has a hard time with being “just Marshall” because he’s had the safety net and identity of being in a long term relationship with Lily. Ted is frequently chastised by the group for thinking too much, and over-analyzing everything. Barney is a womanizer on the outside, but as the story progresses, we see more and more of the vulnerable man inside. Robin has issues because her father always wanted a boy, and because she’s Canadian. As a teenager, Lily was involved in the goth subculture, and throughout the early parts of the show she wonders if she has made the write decisions in her life.
None of the characters are super-human, but there is no one who seems to be “scapegoated” more than the rest either. All of them have their ups and downs, and make mistakes. And there are numerous references to their geekiness, such as Lily breaking high score records on Super Bomberman, and the belief that you can tell a girl’s age based on whether or not she appreciates Ewoks. Basically, if she was too old to associate Ewoks with Teddy Bears when she saw Star Wars, she was too old for Barney to date. There are numerous other geeky aspects to the stories as well, such as sword fighting and let’s not forget the whole gang’s propensity towards obsession.
Something that geeks tend to be concerned with in television shows is continuity. If you’ve been around geeks before, you’ll find that nothing rankles them more than bad continuity. Take the Star Wars prequels, for example. Shouldn’t Obi-wan have recognized R2D2 and C3P0 at the beginning of “A New Hope”? Maintaining continuity is something that HIMYM has prioritized, and it’s evident. Characters, concepts and storylines that occur in the first season are mentioned again, even into the seventh season. This applies to important elements like the first time Ted met the titular mother (a story involving a yellow umbrella), and smaller elements, like the cab/limo driver that they encounter numerous times throughout the series, and the “slutty pumpkin”. In the case of the latter, Ted is desperate to meet the slutty pumpkin again to see who she is, and we don’t get that mystery cleared up until the middle of the seventh season. Wiki’s devoted to the series dedicate a lot of effort into picking up on all the “inside jokes” and notating where we’ve heard them before. A lot of these inside jokes are incredibly subtle. A montage of scenes depicting a relationship Ted has in the latter half of season 3 are identical to the scenes used in the early half of season 3, just with a different woman.
I think that HIMYM is really ahead of it’s time in this regard. Often in sitcoms, events that happen in one episode (especially the smaller, less important events) rarely impact the other episodes. Sure, if something major like a relationship breaking up or the kitchen exploding occurs, future episodes will reference it. But for the most part, sitcoms are vignettes, the episodes can stand on there own. This is largely because often you will have several different writers working on scripts for the same show at the same time, and coordinating small details is difficult. But one of the benefits of modern technology is that your viewers can frequently watch entire seasons of the show all at once, and this makes it easier for the audience to track inside jokes, and more worthwhile for the writers to incorporate them.
Continuity is not only evident through the episodes of the show, but in other mediums as well. There are frequent references to websites made by the characters, blogs, and even books. Chances are if a website has been mentioned in the show, it either exists, or at minimum existed at one point in time or another. CBS maintains a blog and a twitter account for Barney as well. This is extremely clever marketing, as these little Easter eggs help to ensure that the audience cares about a series more than once a week. It helps to keep people involved during rerun season as well. CBS has even released books by “Barney Stinson” that include his various rules about being a proper Bro. In 2011, CBS promoted “International Suit Day,” a holiday based around Barney’s perpetual suit wearing.
I realize now that this has gotten way longer than I had originally anticipated, and in the interests of people actually reading it, I am going to end now. Perhaps a part 2 is in the future…