It’s been a slow weekend here, so for the sake of entertainment, I turned to the DVD shelf. What was I in the mood for, I asked myself. Horror? Nah. Action? Eh… not today. Period drama? I’d probably have to go to Chase’s secret lair to get one of those. No, I wanted something lighthearted, but still intelligent.
How I Met Your Mother turned out to be the perfect choice. I’ve been a fan of this show since it premiered, and I picked up the DVDs of the first two season on sale a while back, but this was the first time I ever sat down and watched the whole season in one stretch. Let me tell you, you don’t recognize the real genius behind this show until you watch a whole block of episodes in a stretch.
The show is framed by the character of Ted Mosby (voiced by Bob Saget) in the year 2030, telling his teenage children stories about his youth. In the pilot episode young Ted (Josh Radnor) meets a girl named Robin (Cobie Smulders) that he falls for head-over-heels. His enthusiasm turns out to be a bit much, though, as Robin blanches from a guy ready to fall in love, get married, and start a family so soon after they meet. Rounding out the cast are Ted’ engaged roommates Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and his skirt-chasing buddy Barney (the brilliant Neil Patrick Harris). In the first episode, Ted begins telling his kids the story of “how I met your mother,” which makes it particularly surprising when he tells us right out of the box that Robin, the girl of his dreams, isn’t the one he’s going to end up with. Suddenly we’re left wondering, just who is the mother of his children? And why is he beginning this story with meeting another girl… one his kids call Aunt Robin?
What elevates this show past the level of an average sitcom is the same thing that you don’t understand until you watch a lot of episodes together. My favorite TV shows are the ones that are planned out, that tell a long-term story. Shows like Lost and Babylon 5 raised the bar for genre television, with a single storyline that extends the entire run of the series. While I’m not sure this show is as meticulously planned as either of those dramas, it’s most certainly better planned out than most TV comedies. Continuity is important to this show. Small elements or minor characters turn up later on down the line. Sometimes they’re just there to be funny (the ongoing “slap bet” being a prime example). Other times, the things and people that come back turn out to be vital to the storyline.
What’s more — as the Bob Saget voice occasionally reassures his kids — you really get the feeling that all of these storylines are important, that they are building up to something. Even though, at the end of the fourth season of the show, we still haven’t actually met the nameless “mother,” everything that’s happened to Ted, to Robin, to Marshall and Lilly, are working together in concert, preparing him for one event, one relationship, one disappointment and one triumph after another. And after each one, he comes out a little different. His goals, his ideas, his hopes shift over time, and soon it becomes clear that without these adventures he wouldn’t be the right person in the right place when the Mother finally makes her entrance.
And I gotta say, that’s the sort of thing that happens in real life. When I watch Ted making a dork of himself in over-the-top pursuit of one girl of his dreams after another, I remember myself pre-Erin. Although real life isn’t quite as funny as this show, and few of us are blessed with a Neil Patrick Harris, I honestly believe that the events in our past DO prepare us for the future.
(I should interject here that I don’t want at all to imply that I no longer make a dork out of myself now that I’m with Erin. I just do it in different ways.)
The first season is a good example of how it all plays out. Although the larger arc of the season is Ted’s pursuit of Robin, there’s a side arc where he falls for a girl named Victoria (the so-cute-it-should-be-illegal Ashley Williams). By the end of the season, it’s doubtful that things would conclude the way they did without that side-track. The writers also play with the format quite a bit, employing flashbacks, flash-forwards, nonlinear episodes and even Rashomon-style episodes where we see the same incidents from various points of view. It’s a constant reminder that we’re not actually witnessing these events as they’re happening, we’re being told the stories more than 20 years after the fact.
Unlike most sitcoms, this is a show that really demands you think, pat attention, and even play along with the characters in a way most others don’t require. With season one down, I intend to start watching season two right away, and I’ll more than likely be picking up three and four before long. This is a series that’s completely worth my time.