#Motherfucked

1 Apr

About two years ago I got a tickle in my throat. It was just after New Year’s and I had gotten a flu shot so I figured the tickle was probably just too much crack and karaoke at the annual Jacob’s Crack & Karaoke New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Then I got a headache that was up in my sinuses, and then there was that nasty drip that slides down your throat. Cold sweats. I left work early one day and doused myself in chicken soup and green tea. My flesh was clammy (mostly from bathing in green tea), my neck stiff. I was coughing up a lung. I slept something like eighteen hours straight and felt even worse than before.

And that was when I learned that vaccines are useless and are part of a government conspiracy to…

Ha! Just kidding. I totally believe in vaccines. Plus, I didn’t have the flu. Just a nasty upper respiratory infection.

So, I sat in my comfy chair in my pajamas, robe, two blankets, hot tea, chicken soup, saltines, cat. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t concentrate on actually moving my eyes across a page. Instead I booted up Netflix and tried to find something that would make the time go by. Something childish and incidental and inoffensive. Amusing without any depth.

And that is how I met How I Met Your Mother.

***

Yes, this post is about How I Met Your Mother. If you have no interest in that show, you can read about my stint on Jeopardy! last year or my impending nuptials.  If you have not seen the finale of HIMYM, don’t worry, I don’t start spoiling it until later.

***

When people speak of complexity on television, they usually refer to such shows as Breaking Bad, Lost, The Wire, Game of Thrones, and other critically acclaimed one-hour dramas that have aired over the past two decades. Some are complex because of their plots and mythologies – Lost with its time traveling, island moving, smoke monsters and strange underground bunkers; The Wire with characters who may only appear two or three times over the series, but who we the viewership must keep track of; Game of Thrones with its myriad of characters, royal houses, and similarly shaped breasts is more decipherable than the novels it is based on, but still you should not blink too often while watching it. Then you have the shows that are complex more on a character level. Breaking Bad, which is a cross between Shakespearean tragedy and Greek morality play, with a protagonist that can be viewed as a perfectly self-contained entity or as a mirror for our own slippery slopes of ethical lapses. Or take the psychological dreamscape of Mad Men, a show set in a world of artifice and misdirection about a man whose name isn’t really his name.

While watching all of these shows, one will oftentimes be discovered uttering the phrase, “What the hell is going on here?” Perhaps that is referencing the complexity of the plot, sometimes the depth of character. None of these shows can be watched while flipping through a magazine or playing on your phone. They are not easy to understand. They are, in fact, quite challenging.

Rarely do I go, “Wait, what?!?!” while watching a sitcom. Sitcoms are straightforward and not just not complex, they are intentionally anti-complex. A sitcom is a half hour (okay, with commercials, twenty-two minutes) of people acting silly and most definitely not having sex with the person they should be having sex with, at least this week, but maybe next week, but probably not then either. Nothing is more indicative of what a sitcom is than the laugh track, that tired old standby that says, “This is funny, now laugh.” Many of the best sitcoms over the past decade (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Arrested Development, and hopefully Brooklyn Nine-Nine) differ from the traditional sitcom in two crucial areas: first, there is no laugh track, second they do not employ a three-camera set up, but a single-camera format. The three camera set-up facilitated a laugh track because many of these shows were shot live with an audience. When suddenly there is no place for a live audience, there is also no place for a laugh track.

How I Met Your Mother was a rare hybrid in that it was a traditional three-camera, laugh track sitcom, but it had the mentality of the newer, single camera shows. It also had one of the most complex mythologies of any show over the past two decades. The show reveled in a foreshadowing/backpedalling/half-reveals/flashback/flashforward/flashdrunk style that created an ever-expanding universe of characters, situations, and inside jokes (the Slutty Pumpkin, the goat in the bathroom, the yellow umbrella). As it moved forward, HIMYM’s playbook got larger and more detailed. Diehard fans were rewarded for their viewership by callbacks to things that happened in years past. Furthermore, the show – while it did exceed its originally planned eight-year run by one season – seemed to know exactly where it was going.

But did it?

Did it really?

***

“Fuck you.”

“I can’t believe I devoted six years to this.”

“Worst show ever.”

No, these were not the comments made about HIMYM after Monday’s series finale. These were the reviews of the finale of Lost. One of the many odd critiques of the ending of that show (a critique which people still believe today) is that the characters were dead all along. Obviously they were not. Even those who didn’t actually believe this fallacy were angry at how the show ended. The ire directed at Lost seemed remarkably out of proportion to the actual quality of the ending and of the show in total. The good guys won, the bad guys lost, the fat guy got the island. Huzzah!!

But the telling of it was controversial because it didn’t tie up the loose ends how we wanted them tied up. We wanted more answers, as opposed to vague innuendos. I mean, the show never actually told us what the island was in the first place. It hinted at it, but it never just came out and said: heaven, hell, purgatory, something – ANYTHING! Lost ended controversially because it was intentionally unsatisfying. It didn’t end with so many questions left unanswered, but with them half answered. What was the monster exactly? Well, I have an idea, kinda. And you have one too, sorta. But they aren’t necessarily the same idea. We can talk about it, but wouldn’t it have been better for the show to merely force feed us the necessary information so we can be satisfied and no longer hungry and have to actually figure out how to feed ourselves.

Compare this ending to that of Breaking Bad. Everyone loved that ending because it resolved just about everything. There were very few open questions, except maybe what comes next for the crazy guy driving off and laughing like a maniac. It was a perfectly satisfying ending. I’m not saying that it was a bad ending because of this, but it was uncontroversial because it just seemed so obvious. That’s where the show was headed and that’s where it ended up. Easy.

And now, the obligatory SPOILER ALERT regarding the series finale of HIMYM. Don’t worry, you’ve still got about a paragraph before I actually start telling you that it was all in Hurley’s head. But you should probably stop reading now, just in case.

How I Met Your Mother is not a sitcom per se. It is a romantic comedy extended in scope over the course of 70+ hours. And most importantly, unlike most Romcoms that come out of Hollywood, the hopeless romantic is a man. That is one of the main differences between HIMYM and almost every other romance-based narrative, be it a novel, a movie or a television show. Most center on women seeking love and sperm donorship. Most of the men are commitment-phobic and not in the least interested in making babies outside of having lots of sex. Hell, even in the first episode of HIMYM, after one date, Ted blurts out “I love you” to Robin. Ted represents all the clichés and stereotypes that female characters have been shackled with over the years. To some Ted was exasperating, to others endearing, but above all he was a true romantic who wanted to meet the right woman, have a couple kids, and live happily ever after. Yeah, Ted was the girl.

And because the premise of the show is the title of the show, and because we know from the very opening of the first episode that he’s got two kids, we also know that he meets the right woman, has a couple of kids, and lives happily ever after.

Except he doesn’t. Because she dies.

She fucking dies.

It was theorized that maybe the show would kill the mother off, and that is why Ted is telling the story in the first place. I didn’t put much credence into this because…um, really, er…Happily Ever After?!?!

But they did. And it sucked. Because, you know what, death and disappointment suck. Because when we realize that life is not nearly as perfect as we want it to be, that sucks. And because a sitcom is supposed to give us instant bottled happiness, and when it doesn’t, that sucks bear balls. We don’t watch comedies to wallow in the sadness of a character’s death. I mean, no great sitcom ever did anything like that, right?

But HIMYM has never been a show about traditional happy endings. Sure it’s a sitcom and it is farcical and frivolous and at times remarkably silly. But unlike many other comedies on television it was moving and heartfelt. Since Seinfeld, sitcoms have been basically relegated to two distinct types: really bad (Two and a Half Men, whatever Tim Allen is currently on) or quality snarkfests (Arrested Development, Community). The first type trades in mediocrity; they are the TV dinners of TV. The second type employs irony and detachment. HIMYM was a rare show that was both very good and very undetached. Rather than irony, it dealt with pathos. Those who claim that the ending of the show was a betrayal forgot that the show was forever undercutting the faux happy ending that so many sitcoms and romcoms have employed. Ted goes through heartbreak after heartbreak. In one episode Marshall’s father dies; in another, Robin discovers that she can’t have children. Barney, the breakout character of the show, is legendary in a three piece suit, but also shockingly pathetic in his lack of giving a shit about anything real (until the writers, rightly, made him a real person).

In the final episode, the following things happened: Barney and Robin – whose wedding had been the centerpiece of the entire final season – get divorced, the group all but disbands with Robin simply disappearing from their lives, Barney gets some random woman pregnant, and Ted’s wife DIES. She fucking dies. Then – six years later – Ted and Robin end up together after all. It is a shockingly depressing episode on certain levels. And I hated the fact that they killed off the mother. I hated it.  

That ending was so anathema to what I expected. Not from this particular show, but from a television show in general. But the more I thought about it the more I understood and accepted the ending for what it was. I accepted it because that is how HIMYM operated. It never shrank from the darker aspects of life, even though sitcoms so rarely traffic in tragedy.

(To those who claim that killing the mother was a stunt, or that the writers had no idea where the show was going, remember the scene near the end when the kids are telling Ted that he should ask Robin out. The kids are the same age as they were in the pilot of nine years ago. Which means that the show filmed the ending all the way back in 2005, and always planned to kill off the mother and have Ted end up with Robin.)

By letting Ted have his cake – The Mother – and eat it too – Robin (boy that was an awkwardly dirty metaphor) – the show isn’t copping out. Rather it plays right into one of its main themes: the idea that there is no such thing as “the One,” as Ted and so many other failed romantics out there have so often pined for. The biggest cop out would have been a perfectly unmessy happy ending where no feelings are hurt, no one ever gets sick, and no one ever discovers that loves can fade and rekindle later in life. 

Why was the HIMYM finale so frustrating for so many, including myself? Because it was intentionally unsatisfying. Because it seemed that they pulled the rug out from under us even though they really didn’t. Because it did a major bait-and-switch. But isn’t that what the show has been doing for nine years? Isn’t that it’s modus operandi? If it had ended with everyone perfectly happy and content, I would have been satisfied, but I would have forgotten about it by morning. Instead, I woke up thinking about it, and decided to devote 2,000 words of criticism to the show. Isn’t the mark of artistic quality the lasting impressions we get from it and not a morsel of sugar coated pleasure that instantly evaporates upon arrival?

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