Tag Archives: how i met your mother

I just don’t know if I can take another damn iceberg

Shipping Barney and Robin used to be a pleasure. Until season five, when the Titanic could have learned a thing or two. But How I Met Your Mother won me over again by committing themselves to turning Barney into a grown-up, which was not only gutsy but the only way to keep the show moving forward, when it looked like they had panicked and hit the reset button.

I could give up on Robin and Barney, because frankly, after that debacle they were better apart. And then, season 7 opener, we get the dance scene. I am a writer folks, but I don’t know if you could write chemistry as clearly as they dance it:

And as a writer my reaction is this: they let Barney and Robin slide for almost two seasons. There’s only one reason they’re bringing them back with such a punch – in the season where we know Barney gets married. And there’s only one reason I want them to get together so badly: because that’s what the writers want me to want.

All of which adds up, in my head, to: Robin and Barney are getting married.

The romance does develop over season 7 – and then comes episode 10 “Tick, tick, tick”. That episode seriously broke my heart – but in all the best ways. Finally, finally, we were getting the emotional pay-off season five so spectacularly crapped all over.

But then came episode 12, “Symphony of illumination”. I won’t spoil it here, but for those who follow the show, I was in the “that totally screwed with me” camp. It was evidence, for me, that Robin and Barney were actually never going to be together. It undid my faith that I shipped them because the writers wanted me to ship them – that after sailing seven years of stormy seas, the writers were going to bring the relationship to dock in some very gay harbour where the sun is always setting… Oh wait, that’s Jean Genet.

It made me a little angry. But more than that, it effectively snipped my obsession with the show in half. Not a conscious decision – it simply stopped featuring in my week. A few episodes slipped by and I could hardly be bothered catching up.

Now, out of nowhere, Ted has revived the idea that Robin and Barney are in love. And I want to punch something.

It was pitch-perfect. It was finally fulfilling Victoria’s prediction that Ted wouldn’t find love until he dealt with his feelings for Robin. Barney’s reaction showed us how much he’s grown up – when all we’ve been seeing lately is his old slap-stick face.

But I just don’t know if I can invest in them again – and to me that’s bad writing.

the season-five apocalypse

okay, here it is: The one mistake How I Met Your Mother made that was so damn disappointing I almost stopped watching.

Dear lord it’s bad.

It makes me angry.

I will try and be coherent.

Season four is this amazing thing that I just gobbled up whole. We get to watch Barney – the most commitment-phobic man in the universe – fall in love. The scene in episode one where he’s calling Robin to try and ask her on a date is just heartbreaking. You can see every part of it on his face, and hear it in his voice – how impossible those simple words are for him to say, because they undo every single defence he has. And that’s a man with a lot of defences.

That scene does what great writing should do – watching him, I know that feeling. I know that impossible moment when you’re trying to break your world apart without feeling like you’ll die in the process.

Throughout the season we watch Barney struggle against his own nature. We see him clean Robin and Ted’s flat, because they’ve decided to have sex instead of arguing about things like who didn’t take out the garbage. We see him declare himself to Robin and be misunderstood and not find it in himself to try again. We see him vulnerable.

In my post about Barney I touched on the fact that Barney Stinson is always playing Barney Stinson. In the moments when he’s being vulnerable, we see the real Barney Stinson – and that is narrative gold. It was eagerness for those breadcrumb moments that pulled me through the season.

And then you start to wonder: What would the real Barney look like incandescent with happiness? Okay, maybe not everyone would wonder that, but I certainly do. First there’s vulnerable, and then there’s risking feeling something genuine on the other side of vulnerable.

This is a fantastic character arc, but it’s also an incredibly courageous route for the writers to take. Barney, as I’ve said before, makes the show. And his character is a very definite thing: a philandering, apparently heartless, purposeful idiot. It’s a bold move to let a character like that develop.

And that’s where season five comes in. Where the writers, apparently, choked on the idea of Barney Stinson growing up.

Where to begin?

*** Okay, I have to break in to my own post here, because I’ve just watched the most recent episode and it’s sort of eclipsed my season-five pain. They got Robin and Barney so, so right, and they broke my heart. In the good way this time. So my rage is a little less…focussed now. End interruption. ***

Sitcoms take place in these alternate universes that are slightly grotesque, and more than slightly dysfunctional. We go along with it, without breaking our suspension of disbelief, because real life never intrudes. Something I love about HIMYM is that they’re not afraid of using real life as a measuring stick against which to say, “These people are pretty messed up.”

The best example of this is in the current season when an ex-girlfriend of Ted’s tells him straight up why he hasn’t found the woman he’s going to marry yet: he still hangs out every night at the bar with his ex, and his best friend who is also her ex. That doesn’t work. Ted still doesn’t see it, but the whole presumed world of the show is shifted.

So what they completely fail to do when Robin and Barney finally get together, is to judge it in light of the real world and real feeling. Instead, it becomes a ridiculous, farcical pantomime of itself and we are never invited into the world of Robin and Barney. We just get to see the train-wreck antics of them sending themselves up at exactly the wrong moment.

Seriously, the writers had set up the perfect scenario: two messed-up, commitment-phobic people who might just be in love with each other. It makes sense that it doesn’t work out between them – but watching it not work out between them could have been amazing television, instead of a stupid waste of four seasons’ work.

All I wanted to see was how the most banal daily situations were navigated, now that the world had changed. I wanted to see them do the dishes together. Make each other laugh. Attempt and ultimately fail the moments that were new to them both.

Instead, we get this:

The most obviously bad episode, first: “Rough Patch”. Barney’s put on relationship weight and Robin’s let herself go. They finally see themselves clearly, realise that they’re killing each other, and part amicably. Seriously. After a whole season of coming to realise what they feel for each other, the best reason we get for their break-up is a fat-suit and some bad make-up.

But actually, the episode that makes me angriest is “The Sexless Innkeeper”. It plays out a joke about couples needing other couples to survive; basically, we’re watching the same “single in New York” bit play out, but this time with couples. Everywhere you look, there are double-couples; if you go to brunch as a single-couple you get looked at weird; there are good and bad double-dates, etc. It’s kinda cute, whatever.

And here’s what makes me so mad: We haven’t been let inside Barney and Robin as a couple yet – we don’t even know the smallest details about how they are together – and instead we get them as a presupposed couple thrown into a relationship with Marshall and Lily. Who cares about the double-couple? It’s never going to play beyond this one episode. Yet here we have a couple we’ve shipped for a whole year, and we don’t get anything?

There’s a scene where they’re lying in bed together eating ice-cream, lamenting their relationship with Marshall and Lily – a play on the single woman crying and eating ice-cream – and all I could think was, “Are they even comfortable lying in bed together? Have they eaten ice-cream together before? Isn’t it too early for them to let themselves go in front of each other?”

And that might seem like I’m taking a sitcom too seriously, but even with – especially with? – comedy (especially character-based comedy, like HIMYM), you cannot sacrifice character for a one-liner. You just can’t. You enrage your viewers, which leads to long rambly blog posts.

One final thought.

The obviously fail here was that the writers weren’t committed to Barney’s growth yet, so they re-set him as the broad-strokes character we all knew and loved. Only, this show is about growing up, and Barney had grown out of himself. His antics took on this new, unsavoury aspect.

Since season five they have really committed to it, and we’ve seen Barney go through amazing development.

But I suspect that back when they were writing season five they were scared of bringing the real-world to bear, because there was no way for Barney to get out of a relationship with Robin without looking kind of awful. The play he makes for another girl the episode after they’ve broken up is truly cruel: he manipulates an emotional moment with Robin in order to get the other girl to go out with him. But because it’s all played as farce, you almost miss the impact of that.

If they’d been brave enough to make his flaws clear, they would have given him a much stronger arc to bring him back to Robin.

why Barney Stinson is so awesome

I’m someone who likes to go right to the good stuff, which is probably also why I love romance. It’s like the third ice-cream option (where the first is a cone, and the second is a packaging/waste disaster).

So when I start looking into what’s so great about How I Met Your Mother, I’m gonna go right to the one element that makes the show: Barney Stinson.

The first best thing about Barney is that he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris. I initially thought that Barney was on-the-surface acting that barely required acting chops, but then I went on a NPH bender, and when you see the charm that is NPH, you realise that Barney is a whole separate, wholly realised thing.

He’s enjoyable to watch because we can laugh at him – he gets himself into ridiculous, farcical situations, and tries to make the world see it his way. But when I was watching New Girl the other day, I realised that Schmidt is a similar character: a sleezy player with far too high an opinion of himself on the outside and riddled with insecurity on the inside. But all I feel for Schmidt is a kind of condescending pity. No matter how low Barney goes he somehow never reaches pathetic – and he always holds his own.

So this is where the layers start coming in. The more of the show I watched, the more my suspicion grew that Barney’s putting it all on. He’s attractive, successful, funny and makes bucket-loads of money. If he took himself seriously for a second he would have to live up to something. By sending himself up in the eyes of the world he stays out of reach of intimacy and commitment and expectation.

(I’m not just imagining it either, because we’ve now seen Barney deal with all that stuff. So, clever writing.)

You can see it when he says something outlandish and you realise he’s saying it to make his friends smile, or when you find out he’s been being obnoxious for a very good reason. Barney Stinson plays Barney Stinson most of the time. Which turns the few moments he’s not playing into gold-dust. (Which the writers squandered in season 5, but more on that later.)

This is the difference between Barney and Schmidt. Barney never, ever feels sorry for himself. He is one hundred percent invested in his delusions, or he’s a mastermind playing the people around him for everyone’s amusement, depending how you look at it.

If you look at some of the things Barney says and does, he should be extremely unlikable. So how have they made him the best character on the show?

Part of it is showing v telling. We see him being a superficial, obnoxious dick, and that’s the way everyone talks about him – but he is always there without question when the friends are gathering. So there’s this background context added to him: why are they friends with him? And what does it say about him that he always puts these people first who are so different to him and everything he claims he believes in?

That is great, subtle character work.

He is also a pure gung-ho attitude towards life. As he says to Ted, “Our forefathers died for the pursuit of happiness. Not the sit-around-and-wait of happiness.” He strikes out a lot, but he also has crazier adventures than anyone else. Who doesn’t want to be around that kind of person? He’s unpredictable, which means he’s exciting to watch.

Barney shuts his friends down about their desire to get married (but supports them in other ways – again, showing v telling), but sometimes his abrupt or even harsh way of dealing with them hits on a truth that the other characters can’t get at. He doesn’t let them wallow in self-pity or go over and over and over the same thoughts when a situation is impossible. When they’re off dreaming of the lives they want, Barney’s the one who gives them options in real life – and even though it looks “bad” on the outside, he’s actually saving their butts (I’m thinking specifically of when he gets Marshall a job at the big bad bank, but this happens a lot throughout the series).

There’s a moment in season three when all the underneath Barney stuff pays off. Robin has just slept with him, and Lilly is wheedling her for the details. Because…this is Barney. And she wants just a hint of what that’s really like. As ridiculous as he is on the surface, at that moment you realise that there is something truly desirable underneath.

my new favourite thing

some tv shows I watch, and I appreciate the absolute mastery of them: Mad Men and The Sopranos come to mind. Others I watch and they entertain the hell out of me: True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Spartacus, the first two seasons of Gossip Girl.

Then there are the shows I fall in love with. The ones that make me think, This, THIS is my favourite tv show ever when I watch them. Last year there was Friday Night Lights (okay, I’ve just checked, and actually it was only a couple of months ago. But see, these are tv shows you miss like they’re people who aren’t in your life anymore) and now, weirdly, out of nowhere, there’s How I Met Your Mother.

I feel like this should not be my new favourite tv show. I grew up with Friends, and while I still think it’s a funny show, and while I remember watching breathlessly as Ross told Rachel how he felt under the planetarium stars, it wasn’t like this. It was, after all, a sitcom.

So the first achievement of How I Met Your Mother is that it’s a sitcom – and a funny one at that – with complex characters and a whole lotta heart.

And Barney. It also has Barney Stinson.

Some other things it has are impeccable structure (particularly when it comes to open vs closed scenes – but more on that later), tense romantic plots and the kind of characters who become important to you.

I’ve caught up with current episodes, which means I can no longer spend hours a day in their company. And I miss them, damn it!

There’s a lot to learn from this show: many, many dos and one enormous don’t. Let the investigations begin.