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.