At the end of my Masters year at university, my friend Barbara and I were both in the process of writing treatments for speculative TV shows as part of a job application for a job screenwriting for a fully digital, streaming television channel that was looking for original content. I wanted to do a sitcom, something that took little bits from all of my favourite shows such as Friends, Scrubs, Arrested Development. But I wanted to add in a bit of Firefly too, and a dash of Red Dwarf, and so the final product, to use its high concept elevator pitch, was the story of a man’s intergalactic roadtrip for misplaced love, and the merry band of assorted miscreants who accompany him.
In the end, it proved to be a jack of all trades script, and a fairly poor one at that: not funny enough to be considered by comedic agencies, and lacking when it came to detailed plotting and the required organised pacing for more serious affairs. But the characterisations and the ebb and flow of the banter and the dialogue were marked out as positives. I got my first flurry of rejection letters, some with helpful notes (thanks BBC!), and moved on.
But the process had been fascinating and, as a source of research, Barbara and I had gone back through a long list of pilot episodes for shows that we loved and admired. One of those shows, and to this day I maintain that it possesses a near-perfect pilot script, was How I Met Your Mother.
Oh how that show has fallen from grace.
The finale of the penultimate season aired earlier this week and *SPOILERS* we finally got to meet the mother. Well… we got to see her. And hear her ask for a ticket to Farhampton. But after four and a half seasons of inconsistent drivel, occasionally punctuated by the odd sparkling diamond of an episode (Nothing Suits Me Like A Suit, anyone?), I’m not sure if I care.
I let out an audible groan when, in the episode before, Ted and Robin once again had a long lingering what if look as they held hands once again in the pouring rain. It’s not inconceivable that Ted might still love Robin, but the writers on the show lost their flair for season-long narrative pacing a long time ago. Of the eight season that aired, only three (the first three) have managed to maintain season-long story arcs, and actually make us care.
Post-Stella, it seems as if the writers simply plucked things out of the ether whenever they ran out of one-off episode ideas. But without a decent build up, without any sort of realistic foreshadowing, How I Met Your Mother‘s emotional scenes have fallen incredibly flat. Bays and Thomas are no Ephron, Reiner, or Crowe. There’s been a lack of patience when it comes to the writing, and an incessant urge to lean heavily on the easy comedy of caricature far too early, usually through Barney. In fact, that character has been ridden so very hard in the name of one-dimensional comedy that any and all attempts to make him anything remotely sympathetic and identifiable have been jarringly awkward at best, and painfully unwatchable at worst. The only reason that they have even remotely managed to contain a romantic narrative with that character is, I would argue, because of Neil Patrick Harris’ immense charisma. Mind you, the same thing happened to Joey in Friends, though thankfully the writers soon sorted that hiccup out.
Returning to Ted and Robin, though, it’s annoying that the writers have made that relationship their romantic crutch because we know from the word go that it will inevitably fail. ” What always made the show interesting to us is that Ted meets the perfect woman, and it’s [still] not his final love story,” said Carter Bays, but they only pull it out of the bag when it suits them. Also, the relationship is broken by design: the two characters are fundamentally dysfunctional when paired together. It cannot work, they’re simply too different and too difficult. This, paired with the inconsistent nature of the relationship’s treatment by the writers and the emphasis on Aunt Robin, leads to a couple that is impossible to root for and therefore problematic when it comes to forming some sort of empathetic emotional attachment between audience and characters.
In many ways, How I Met Your Mother hamstrung itself by being too good in that first season. The framing device, the arcing narrative, the character development, it all dovetailed beautifully together. But you look at seasons 4-8, and the filler episodes increasingly begin to outnumber the killer ones. Seasonal narrative arcs fall apart as the series begins to tread water, and characters stop actually developing. They move around a bit, and that’s about it. The Ted that gives Robin a simpering look in the penultimate episode of season 8 is the same one Stella left in season 4.
Maybe that’s the point, and he’s frustrated because he’s gone round in a circle. But that’s a horribly cheap thing to do to your audience. It’d be ok if HIMYM was still making me laugh, but I can’t remember the last time that happened.