Posts Tagged ‘How I Met Your Mother

01
Apr
14

How I finished “How I Met Your Mother”

I have written before — and often — of my love for CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, which ended its nine-year run Monday night. It was a show of true heart, relateable joys and heartbreaks, and outrageously funny characters that have kept me entertained for nearly a decade. I didn’t want to fire off a knee-jerk reaction to the finale — as the internet has proven time and again, that way lies madness. I wanted a little time to ponder, to sort out my feelings, to understand them before I tried to explain them. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think I’m ready.

Be warned. Spoilers ahoy.

To say the ending left me feeling conflicted is an understatement. There were certainly fine moments, and the structure works. At the end, the show is finally given its true context. The framing sequence, when Ted Mosby circa 2030 is telling the children how he met their mother, is really Future Ted’s attempt to explain to his children why — six years after the death of his wife — he’s considering trying to start up a relationship with their “Aunt Robin.” It explains succinctly why the story started with his and Robin’s first meeting, why so much of the story has centered on her, why over the years Ted and Robin  would backslide to one another so often. It makes sense.

Despite making sense, though, something about the finale left me feeling… hollow. And I needed to decide what that was. It wasn’t just that Tracy, the mother, was dead. I didn’t want that, but I’ve also never thought it was fair to judge a story by what you want it to be rather than what it is. And it isn’t that the ending was, at best, bittersweet, because those are often the most emotionally rich and spiritually honest ways a story can end.

My problem, I think, stems from the fact that the final few minutes of the show thrust Ted and Robin back together again — this after years of Ted trying to get over her and finally succeeding just a few short episodes ago. In the penultimate episode, in fact, he underlined that moment, telling Robin that he was not in love with her anymore. To leap, then, from that point to Future Ted returning to Robin’s apartment with the blue French Horn from so long ago… it felt like all the character development had evaporated. I could deal with Robin and Barney’s divorce, sad as that was. I probably even could have dealt with the Mother dying, as such sadness is true to life, is what ultimately makes the moments of joy all the greater. In the last minutes, though, I felt like we bounced back to square one.

In a way, I think the writers trapped themselves. In any long-running story — especially on TV, where the writer’s goals can be derailed by actors leaving, dying, getting arrested… really any circumstances where real-world events can intrude on the storytelling — there has to be room for flexibility. We all know that Aaron Paul’s character was originally slated to die in the first season of Breaking Bad, but Vince Gilligan changed his mind, and thank goodness. Then we have LOST, which initially hung a lot of significance on a 10-year-old named Walt. The mysteries around that character had to be dropped, though, because while only a few months passed on the show, in real time several years passed. The actor aged and hit a growth spurt. Now I remain a defender of LOST, I liked the ending, but I can’t deny frustration at some of the questions that were never answered because nature necessitated putting him on a boat off the island.

HIMYM’s problem wasn’t as dramatic — there was never a question of removing an actor or one of them leaving the show. Instead, the characters moved in a direction I don’t think the creators anticipated by focusing so much of the show of Ted trying to get past Robin, to the point where many viewers (I’m raising my hand here) wanted to just get past that and get on with the story of the Mother.

But the die had already been cast. To avoid “The Walt Problem,” they filmed scenes of Ted’s kids reacting to the end of the story eight years ago, before they had visibly aged from the scenes they shot for the first few episodes. It was a good strategy, but it kind of locked them into the ending, in which the kids gave Ted their blessing to go after Aunt Robin. With no wiggle room, they took an ending that may have worked in season two, or three, or even five, and applied it to characters who — by season nine — had outgrown it. The ending planned no longer rang entirely true.

I don’t hate the ending. There was, in fact, some fine work in there. Lily and Marshall have always been the stable core of the group (save for a brief period in season two), and having them act as a sort of Greek chorus in this finale, shuffling them between Robin, Barney, Ted and Tracy, all rang true.

Neil Patrick Harris, to use a baseball analogy, gets the save here. One of the best aspects of the show for the past few years has been the slow growth and development of Barney Stinson from a one-note character to someone you truly wanted to root for. When he and Robin broke up and he reverted to form, it was heartbreaking. In his case, though, it was not a question of true backsliding, of him becoming the person he once was. Even sadder, he was trying to return to the person he used to be, and with each protest that his friends “let me be who I am,” it was increasingly clear he was no longer that person.

Then he held his daughter and professed his truest, most sincere love. In that moment the old Barney — the Season One Barney, the Barney he put back on life support when he and Robin called it quits — well and truly died. And as sad as his split with Robin was, I don’t think the new Barney, Daddy Barney… hell, the real Barney… ever could have existed without her. It was a phenomenal moment, and although we didn’t get to see much of Barney as a dad, I have no doubt that it was Legend — wait for it…

And finally, Cristin Milioti as Tracy, the Mother. She gets this season’s MVP award. To come into a show in its ninth and final season would be daunting under any circumstances. To do so in such a way that makes the viewers feel for her and care about her as deeply as the five characters the audience has known all this time… it’s heroic. She was simply magnificent. We accepted easily how quickly Ted fell in love with her, because we did too.

I believed Tracy as the love of Ted’s life. Which is initially why that ending felt like a gut punch. upon reflection, though, I think I also see a seed of redemption in it. I can use it for a little perspective. Ted, after all, was the one who turned down Robin when she tried to take him back at her wedding. Tracy wasn’t his second choice, like I felt at first. Even though he didn’t know her yet, he gave up Robin to look for her, and he was rewarded. And it’s not like he ran back to Robin as soon as his wife died — he took six years, a more than respectable amount of time, before he decided it may be worth pursuing. Even then, he put the wishes of his children — Tracy’s children — before his own. Through that prism, I can see it as Robin and Ted finding solace with each other after her unexpectedly lonely life and the loss of his true love.

It’s not what I expected. It’s not how I would have ended it. But it has some truth to it nonetheless.

So while I’m not fully satisfied, I’m not really upset either. I’m certainly not angry. How could I be? For nine years, I’ve been allowed to join in on the adventures of characters right in my own stage of life, allowing me to grow with them. As Ted’s friends married and had children, so did mine. The first time Ted ever heard Tracy’s voice, she was singing “La Vie En Rose,” and as Erin and I prepare for our own wedding, they’ve given us the song for our first dance.

So thank you, show creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and thank your writers, for nine years of joy. Thank you to Pamela Fryman, who directed nearly every episode of the series (a Herculean feat in and of itself). And thank you to our six incomparable friends, and the countless supporting players, for the pop culture milestone you’ve created.

For robot wrestlers and the Kennedy package. For slap bets and for Swarley, duckie ties and dopplegangers. For never buckling to peer pressure and explaining about the pineapple. (Yes, I’ve heard the rumors of a DVD extra. Shut up.) For making interventions fun again. For extending the cultural significance of the hanging chad by a good 13 years.

For making me cry more than once and never making me ashamed of it.

For blue French Horns.

For yellow umbrellas.

I request the highest of fives.

 

–dary.

Yeah. Totally worth the wait.

28
Sep
13

Blake’s Weekly(ish) Update

It’s been a few weeks since my last “weekly” update, hasn’t it, guys? Sorry about that, it’s been a rough couple of weeks. But here’s a roundup of everything I’ve put out in the universe for you guys since the last time I did a recap.

24
Sep
13

I Am Ted Mosby (or) Why How I Met Your Mother needed a ninth season

HIMYM9“You’re not a Ted,” my fiance, Erin, told me Monday night. “You’re more of a Marshall, with a little Barney mixed in.”

She means this as a compliment, of course, and I take it as such, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree. She goes on to explain that, over the course of the eight years we’ve known him, How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby has been a jerk several times — spending years pining over a girl that has made it clear she does not feel the same way, making a complete ass of himself in the pursuit of others, often neglecting his friends or even turning on them in the process, and most noticeably, whining, whining, whining… Oh sure, as HIMYM viewers we’re still rooting for him, but like a lot of shows, the ostensible protagonist of How I Met Your Mother is often the least interesting character.

And she’s right, she’s right about all of this. But even though Erin knows me better than anyone in the world, the truth is, she has only ever known me as part of a couple. She knows the Blake that is complete because of her presence, not the one who spent years feeling empty for the lack thereof. Like Ted, I often deluded myself about the chances of success with whoever I was infatuated with at the time. Like Ted I could be whiny, even obnoxious. Fortunately for me, like Ted, I have a group of heroically loyal and supportive friends who never abandoned me no matter how bad I got. (Thanks guys… sorry about that.)

Erin says I’m a Marshall, and that may well be true… now. But what she has never seen is that Blake minus Erin equals Ted.

And it is because of this, I think, that I remain steadfast in my enthusiasm to finally see Ted Mosby find the Mother of his children.

Last night began the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother, and from the outset it is clear this will be very different from the previous eight. First of all, the entire season is going to be set during the three days of Robin and Barney’s wedding weekend… the “present day” timeframe, at any rate. The show has always played fast and loose with time, allowing for flashbacks and flashforwards at will to let us glimpse the lives of our heroes as a puzzle being put together one piece at a time. Still, by condensing the entire “present” into a 56-hour period, the show has a sense of urgency that’s rare in a sitcom.

Of greater importance, though, is the fact that the series, for the first time since its inception, has made an addition to the regular cast: Cristin Milioti as the still-unnamed Mother. We glimpsed her for the first time in the closing moments of season eight, and she’s signed as a series regular for season nine. This is vital to the new show we have this year. While the first eight seasons were ultimately about Ted, season nine must be about Her.

When it was announced that HIMYM would get a ninth season, halfway through an eighth most people (myself included) assumed would be the final lap, the question arose: why are they making a ninth season  at all? Season eight brought us right to the brink of Ted meeting the mother. Why not just work it into a massive wedding finale and be done with it? What is season nine going to give us that we couldn’t have had otherwise?

Last night, we got our answer. The first half of the episode showed the Mother’s initial encounter with one of Ted’s group when she bonded with Lily on their train ride to Farhampton. We saw the chemistry she had with someone we already loved and learned a few things about her that start to paint the picture of a woman tailor-made for Ted Mosby. In the second half, a show that is already famous for how it plays with time found a new way to do it, overlaying a scene of a solitary “present-day” Ted with a flashforward of him with the Mother one year into the future. The contrast is striking — a quiet, lonely man trying to convince himself he’s not any of those particular adjectives, compared to the same man just one year later, complete, joyful, and whole perhaps for the first time in the show’s history.

The experience of watching it, I imagine, is not unlike that of one of my friends who saw me before and after I met Erin.

When you start dating someone, there is always a process of “selling” them to your friends and family. With Erin it was an easy sell, because she’s awesome and my friends are not stupid, but the process is there nonetheless. You show how great the person is, how lucky you feel and — most satisfying to those who care about you — how happy you are together. That’s the prize for those friends who stood with you through the lonely years: the joy on your face when those years are over. But how do you do that when the implied ending of the show, from the outset, is meeting Her, before we actually get to the payoff?

And that, my friends, is what we need the ninth season for. It’s to sell us on Her. The show will almost certainly end with Ted meeting Her at that fateful train station, but we need to somehow see the aftermath, the scenes of a broken man finally put back together, that happiness that we’ve waited on for such a long time. Through a mixture of Her interaction with the rest of the cast and glimpses and allusions to the future Ted and the Mother will have together, the ninth season is here to prove to us that She has been worth the wait.

And judging just from the few scenes we’ve glimpsed of the Mother so far (Cristin Miglioti is flawlessly charming, sweet, and as dorky as Ted in all the right ways), I feel like we’re going to be sold pretty easily.

In a way, I’m upset to see it end. This is without a doubt the most heartfelt, emotionally sincere television comedy on the air, and while there are other shows I like, there is nothing else on right now that makes me feel for, care about, and root for the characters the way How I Met Your Mother has done for so long. After the final scenes, the final flashforward, the final lonesome moment of Ted Mosby’s life has come and gone, there will be a gaping hole in the television landscape. Something will eventually come along to fill the gap, something always does, but to take the place of this show is going to take something… well, there’s only one word for it… legendary.

14
May
13

How We Met The Mother

Spoiler Warning: I’m about to talk extensively about the season 8 finale of How I Met Your Mother, so if you haven’t seen it yet and want to remain-spoiler free, don’t read the rest of this post. Also avoid Facebook, Reddit, Imgur, IMDB, McClaren’s Bar, and Shoney’s. That last one has nothing to do with HIMYM, I just don’t like Shoney’s.

In the season 8 finale, after literally years of buildup, we’ve reached an apex of sorts. We end the episode 56 hours before the wedding of Barney Stintson and Robin Sherbatsky, and all of our heroes are at something of a crossroads. Barney and Robin, of course, are about to get married. Lily is preparing to leave New York City for a year to take a job in Rome. She doesn’t know, though, that her husband Marshall has been accepted for the judge’s position he applied for long before the Rome gig was even in the picture, nor does she know that (if the “your honor” Marshall’s brother tossed at him at the end is any indication) he’s accepting the job. And the “I” in How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby, is at the cusp of the biggest decision of his life. Still hung up on Robin but unwilling to disrupt the marriage of his best friend and the girl of his dreams, Ted is planning to move to Chicago after the wedding is over, something nobody knows except for Lily.

And as this all takes place, in the last seconds of the episode, we saw a new face — a pretty girl with a bass guitar and a yellow umbrella — walk up to a clerk in a train station and request a ticket to scenic Farhampton, location of Barney and Robin’s wedding.

First of all, let’s debunk some of the folks I hear trying to argue that maybe this actress, Cristin Milioti, is just another red herring, that she’s not the mother at all. Frankly, if that was true it would be the cruelest tease this already tease-heavy show had ever pulled. She fits every single bit of evidence about the mother that we’ve been given so far: that she and Ted will meet at the wedding, that she will be the bass player in the wedding band, that she carries a yellow umbrella, and most importantly, that the show’s creators confirmed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that she is, in fact, the friggin’ mother.

That said, many of the fans have had reactions on rather different sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, there’s the “that’s it?” crowd, the ones who expected to see her face and have the clouds open up and light shine down from the Heavens and everything suddenly become clear and perfect and music to play and the Israeli and Palestinians to lay down their arms and DirecTV and AMC to finally come to an arrangement that would allow them to show Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead and for everyone in the world to suddenly find room in their hearts to tolerate lactose and me to find the button I lost off that shirt last week. On the other side, we have the fans who are screaming, “We know who the mother is!” and running around having pillow fights and popping champagne corks and writing their acceptance speeches for “best internet meme ever” and poking each other in the bellies and giggling like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

And to those people who belong to either of these categories, my message is the same:

For the love of God, you people are still completely missing the point.

For those of you who were expecting a life-changing revelation, why? As I pointed out months ago, the revelation of the mother isn’t actually what this series is about. The story, from day one, has been about the events in Ted Mosby’s life that led to him –both physically and emotionally — being in a place where he could find his true soulmate. I must admit, I’ve been slightly annoyed with the last several episodes as they seemed to be backsliding — yet again — to the Ted/Robin connection that we’ve known since the first episode of the series would never pan out. It felt far too much like we were retreading familiar ground and not really progressing the characters emotionally. The season finale changed my mind about that, though. At this point, the impression I get is that we’ve finally brought Ted to rock-bottom. He’s fallen as far as he possibly can — he’s about to unravel his entire life just to get away from the situation that’s caused him so much pain. And strictly from a narrative standpoint, you need to get the character to that low point if you really want the climb back into the light to be satisfying. I hope that’s what we’ll see in season 9. But more about that in a minute.

For the people shouting with joy because — and I quote — “we know who the mother is,” I’ve got something to point out to you. No. You don’t. You don’t know squat about the mother, at least nothing you didn’t already know about her prior to last night’s episode — she’s Cindy’s ex-roommate, she plays bass in a band, she carries a yellow umbrella. The only thing you know about Mom that you didn’t know before the season finale is what she looks like, and frankly, that’s the least important thing about her. No disrespect intended to Cristin Milioti, she seems cute as a button, but what she looks like isn’t nearly as important as what kind of person she is, what her hopes and goals are, what eventually led to her playing the wedding… hell, what her name is. That moment where we finally got to see her face was a satisfying moment, but not because it was revelatory (as the people in Group A expected), but because it’s a symbolic promise of a final season that will draw this story to a close.

And as for that final season, let’s talk about that for a moment. Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, the show’s creators, have made it clear that the narrative structure of the final season is going to be different from the previous eight. They declined, of course, to explain just how it would be different, but I think they gave us the clue in the final moments of the finale. As the episode drew to a close, before a montage of where each of our characters was and the flash of Mom at the train station, we got a title card that read “56 hours before the wedding.” I think it’s possible — maybe even likely — that the final season of this series may actually go for an almost realtime structure, using the whole season to tell the story of Robin and Barney’s wedding weekend. (It won’t be exactly realtime, that would require 112 episodes as opposed to the standard 22, and that would be insane, but it may be close enough.)

Could there possibly be enough in those 56 hours to encompass 11 hours of television, give or take time for commercials or any double-length episodes they decide to drop in the mix? Maybe. There’s an awful lot going on with each of our five stars, and it certainly seems like Milioti is going to be at least a semi-regular character in the ninth season, not somebody we’ve gotten a glimpse of now only for her to fall away until the final episode. What’s more, this series has never shied away from non-linear storytelling. Flashbacks and flash-forwards in the story have been common from the beginning, and may be even more so in this final run. It would be too much, I think, for Ted and Mom’s fateful encounter at the train station following the wedding to actually wait until the final episode… that is, unless the rest of the season includes glimpses of them together in the future. That’s what we need at this point — we need to see Ted with his wife, we need to believe that their love can wipe out all of the pain and frustration Ted’s gone through in the past eight seasons. We need to recognize in this girl somebody who can make Ted Mosby forget about Robin Sherbatsky once and for all, yet still remain a part of her and Barney’s life (his kids call them “Aunt Robin” and “Uncle Barney,” hardly likely if these were friends who he walked away from before they were even born).

This, I think, is what we need. This, I think, is where the last season of How I Met Your Mother needs to take us.

If there’s anything else we can count on, I think it’s this: in the last episode, when Ted finally finishes telling the story to his kids, when we as the audience have finally reached the final emotional satisfaction of nearly a decade of storytelling, we’ll see Luke and Leia calmly get up off the couch and wander off, unimpressed by Dad’s long story, because that reaction out of a pair of teenagers would be the most emotionally honest ending of them all.

UPDATE: Looks like Bays and Thomas aren’t done giving interviews, and this one seems to indicate some of my thoughts about the season nine format are pretty much on the money…

http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/05/14/how-i-met-your-mother-season-9-plans-the-final-season-will-take-place-over-one-weekend

 

15
Jan
13

“How I Met Your Mother” – take the title literally

How I Met Your Mother Season 7As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the show How I Met Your Mother. And following the last few episodes, I’ve seen a lot of speculation online about the show… with next year’s season nine pretty much confirmed to be the final season and the second half of season eight already bringing us tantalizingly close to the actual meeting of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and “The Mother,” there’s a lot of chatter going on about who the titular Mother is. And while that’s by no means unimportant, I don’t think it’s as important as some of the other factors at play here. Things like the Mother’s job, her background, even her name are only important in how they play into the story of Ted Mosby.

So here’s your spoiler warning. I’m about to talk about specific plot points up to and including the January 14th episode. If you’re not caught up, you may not want to read.

Too many people are concerned about who the Mother is. They approach the story like it’s a murder mystery, trying to use each clue as it’s revealed to narrow down the field of suspects and find the Mother before Ted does. There’s a problem with this approach, though. Unless both the producers of the show and the show’s narrator (Ted himself in the year 2030) have constantly lied to us from the very beginning, the Mother is not someone we have ever met. We can’t narrow down the field because the list of potential mothers includes virtually any woman on Earth who has not previously appeared on the show.

Well, that’s not strictly true. Seven and a half seasons in, we actually know several specific things about the mother. But true to form, those details don’t actually point us towards a specific person, but rather to the circumstances of Ted meeting her. The genius of the show is that each fact we learn about her explains why one (or more) of the series’s many side-stories, subplots or tangents are not actually side-stories, subplots or tangents after all, but actually are integral to explaining just how the complicated tapestry of Ted Mosby’s life finally leads him to his true love. Let’s look as a few of the things we know about the Mother and Ted’s encounters with her, and how those clues actually point backwards rather than forwards.

  • In the episode “Definitions” (Season Five, Episode One) we learn that the Mother was a student in the first class Ted taught when he became a professor at Columbia University. However, on that first day he went to the wrong classroom – he was giving his opening day spiel to a class of economics students rather than his architecture class. While he no doubt couldn’t pick out his future wife in the auditorium of students, she would most certainly remember the strange young professor who boldly humiliated himself teaching the wrong subject. This justifies the season four story arc in which Ted almost marries Stella (Sarah Chalke). If not for their relationship Stella wouldn’t have reconciled with her ex, who then got Ted the professor job out of guilt, and therefore the Mother wouldn’t have seen Ted that day. I would be very surprised if this isn’t referenced when the two of them finally, officially meet.
  • In “Girls Vs. Suits” (Season Five, Episode Twelve) Ted dates a woman named Cindy (Rachel Bilson). Their relationship crumbles when Ted finds that all of the stuff in her apartment that he actually finds appealing belongs to Cindy’s roommate, and Future Ted reveals that Cindy’s Roommate is, in fact, The Mother (although at that point he does not actually meet her). Interesting information, to be certain, but considering how many one-episode girlfriends Ted has had, it doesn’t appear to be particularly significant at the time. As of this week’s episode, however, that is no longer the case. But we’ll get to that.
  • In “Big Days” (Season Six, Episode One) we learn that Ted will meet the Mother at a wedding, in which he is the best man. Important, but not enough of a clue to build on, except that it turns a storyline from later in the season — in which Ted is best man for his old high school buddy Punchy (Chris Romanski) — into a red herring… because it isn’t Punchy’s wedding after all.
  • In “Challenge Accepted” (Season Six, Episode Twenty-Four) we learn that Ted will meet the Mother when he’s the best man at Barney’s wedding. Now we know why so many of the Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) stories, going all the way back to season one, matter to the arc. It’s important we know that Ted is Barney’s “best bro in the world.”
  • In “The Magician’s Code Part Two” (Season Seven, Episode Twenty-Four) we learn that Ted will meet the Mother when he’s the best man at Barney’s wedding…  to Robin. This is probably the biggest, most important bomb dropped on us yet. The HIMYM story begins, in the pilot episode, when Ted Mosby meets Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), because he literally would not have met his wife if he wasn’t at Robin’s wedding. This explains the significance of huge swaths of the show, including all the stories about Ted and Robin’s relationship, Robin and Barney’s relationship, and even those stories about Ted and Victoria (Ashley Williams), an early Mother candidate whose path with Ted was derailed twice because of Robin. (It’s okay. Victoria turns out to be Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand anyway.)
  • In this week’s episode, “Band or DJ?” (Season Eight, Episode Thirteen), we learn the Mother will be the bass player in Barney and Robin’s wedding band. She gets the job because the first band they book will cancel just a week ahead of time. Disaster, until Ted just happens to run into Cindy again, who tells him that her old roommate’s band is available for that weekend.

I could go on, but the point is that none of these things are about the Mother’s identity as much as they are about how all the dominos of Ted’s life were arranged to get him – both emotionally and literally – in the right place at the right time to meet her.

The Mother’s name? Where she grew up? How long she and Ted will date before they get married? If that’s what you’re focusing on, you’re going to be disappointed, because the narrative structure of the story isn’t pointing towards these things as being part of the Big Payoff. Even the actress who ultimately gets the role is largely irrelevant, as long as she’s talented and has chemistry with the rest of the cast.

The emotional core we’ve been building towards for eight years now has not pointed to the revelation of any specific cast member. We’ve only encountered the Mother, whoever she is, in fleeting glimpses here and there. Structurally, this show has more in common with Se7en than an Agatha Christie mystery: the final character reveal is not nearly as important as what happens to our hero as he searches for that character. The emotional punch at the end of HIMYM isn’t going to be seeing Kevin Spacey’s face, it’s going to be finding out what’s in the box.

And that box, by the way, is where the writers have wiggle room for season nine, even if the meeting is at the end of season eight. Even once they meet, that doesn’t mean the story ends right there. Maybe she’s going out of town for a year and Ted doesn’t know (at that point) if he’ll ever see her again. Maybe he’ll do something outrageously stupid and have to find a way to win her back. Maybe any of a dozen obstacles will pop up that will allow us to end season nine, and the series, with a final emotional jolt equal to that of “The Final Page” (Season Eight, Episode Twelve), even if we’ve already known exactly who the mother is for a whole season at that point.

And that’ll be okay.

Because remember, the show isn’t called Who’s Your Mama? It’s called How I Met Your Mother.

19
Jan
12

In Defense of the Laugh Track

A day or two ago, during a Twitter conversation, a buddy of mine expressed surprise that the TV show How I Met Your Mother is already in its seventh season. Specifically, he said when he watched the first episode, his reaction was along the lines of, “A laugh track? Right, this is going to last.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him express a sentiment like this, and he’s be no means the only person I know who has felt this way. And I have an odd sort of reaction to it every time. While I’m not necessarily a fan of laugh tracks, I’m not instinctively opposed to them either, and in no way do I think the presence or absence of a laugh track is indicative of the quality of a show. Some of the greatest comedies of all time have featured either a laugh track or, even better, the laughter of a live audience — Cheers, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Sanford and Son… due to the sheer number of shows that have included the sound of laughter, it’s easy to argue that it has been present in most of the great English-language comedy shows of all time.

Let’s examine the perceived problem with the laugh track. The opposition, I believe, stems from the feeling that the producers of the show are being insulting or patronizing by cuing the audience to laugh, or that it speaks to an inherent lack of confidence in the material that requires the canned laughter so the viewer knows it’s supposed to be funny. In some cases, this is probably true — it’s a little less painful to watch a terrible attempt at comedy if we hear somebody laughing. But for most of us, that’s not nearly enough to disguise bad material. In fact, when used on a bad show, it can even serve to accentuate what’s wrong with it. For example, think of the critics’ current go-to example of terrible programming, the NBC sitcom Whitney. Among the show’s many crimes against the viewers, Whitney Cummings starts every episode by announcing, “Whitney is taped before a live studio audience. You heard me.”

Huh?

The “live studio audience” bit is standard, of course, it’s been used by sitcoms for decades to let the viewer know that, yes, real people were there when they taped the show and, yes, they really laughed. But Cummings takes it a step too far: “You heard me.” Suddenly she’s become abrasive and confrontational, as if she’s anticipating some critic using the laugh track to condemn the show and wants to cut him off by saying, “See? THESE people like it!” It’s supposed to set the tone with a joke, but it doesn’t work. Then again, “abrasive,” “confrontational,” and “it doesn’t work” are all terms I would use to define the show in general, so perhaps it’s more successful at setting the tone than is readily apparent.

Regardless, Whitney doesn’t suck because it has a laugh track, it sucks because it’s poorly written and performed by soulless automatons that couldn’t hold on to their jobs frightening children in theme park dark rides. The laugh track itself is just a convention of muti-camera sitcoms, and we’re so used to it that such a show would feel strange without one.

There are, basically, two kinds of comedies on television, single-camera and multi-camera, and each has different demands based on the way the television show is filmed. “Single-camera” shows are filmed like movies, with one camera in use at any given time, and no audience. Shows like this — such as Scrubs, The Office, or Community to name a few — allow for location shooting, outdoor filming, and give the director the opportunity to record a take as many times as he wants until he gets it right. The “multi-camera” technique was popularized by Desi Arnaz when he was making I Love Lucy. Like their predecessors in radio, early TV sitcoms were often performed in front of a live audience. The problem here is that you can’t do as many takes are you want with an audience.

People will only sit so long to be entertained, and even worse, the jokes lose their impact upon repeat viewings. Even the funniest scene ever written (and here I am specifically thinking of the bit in The Dick Van Dyke Show when Rob and Mary are afraid their child was switched at birth, only to find out the other family is black) will fail to elicit a laugh if you’ve seen it ten times in the past hour while the director tries to get different angles. Using several cameras to shoot different angles at the same time drastically reduces the number of takes necessary. The vast majority of TV comedies over the past several decades have been multi-camera, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when shows like Scrubs became successful, that single-camera began to regain popularity. (Virtually all TV dramas, by the way, are filmed single-camera, and thus aren’t particularly germane to this discussion.)

The result is two very different experiences for the viewer. Single-camera shows are packaged like movies, with more incidental music and greater opportunities for action or special effects. They come to the viewer in a very complete fashion. But multi-camera shows aren’t made like movies. They are performed and packaged like a stage play, and it is for this reason that laughter isn’t only expected, but almost required.

A stage play is far more immediate than a movie. There’s a greater energy and urgency, not only for the actor, but for the audience as well. Live actors can feel when an audience is enjoying a show and feed off that energy, and conversely, when an audience isn’t into it, the show suffers. There is nothing you, as an audience member, can do that will change your experience watching a movie, but simple audience consensus in a live play actually does make it better or worse.

Obviously, this isn’t true of a TV show, once you’re watching it at home. But the point I’m making here is that these shows — probably unintentionally — are designed in such a way as to imitate the shared community experience of watching a live play, which is different even from the shared community experience of watching a movie in a packed theater. And it is because of this that hearing laughter during a multi-camera show “feels” right, and why a laugh track added to a single-camera show “feels” wrong. In 2010 NBC rolled out yet another of their many doomed sitcoms, this one called 100 Questions. This single-camera show was weak to being with, but the producers did it no favors by adding in a laugh track. This sitcom convention, which is almost unnoticable when used well on a multi-camera show, is unbearably conspicuous in a single-camera setting.

By contrast, look at a multi-camera show with no laugh track. There are plenty of efforts on YouTube to strip the track from assorted shows, and most of them suffer from rather poor and obvious editing, but it’s enough for you to get the idea:

Even the funniest show, when stripped of its laugh track, feels like sitting in a play where nobody is laughing, and that’s a miserable feeling for actor and audience alike. The tone is similar to the  webcomic Arbuckle, which repackages Garfield comic strips without Garfield’s thought balloons, thus giving Jon Arbuckle the appearance of being a sad (well… sadder), lonely man who talks to his perfectly conventional pets as if they could respond. (This is not to be confused with the more popular Garfield Minus Garfield, which strips all characters and dialogue save for Jon Arbuckle himself, giving him the appearance of being a lunatic suffering from advanced schizophrenia. Although one wonders if The Big Bang Theory would feel this way if you edited out Johnny Galecki’s Leonard and left Jim Parson’s Sheldon by himself.)

To give one more example, this of a fantastic show where virtually everything was done wrong, look at Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. It was a multi-camera sitcom that, strangely, felt very wrong with a laugh track added in. When the producers dropped the laugh track, it made for a better show, but it also made it clear what the problem was: the show wasn’t really written as a comedy, but a drama. At most, it was a “dramedy,” and should have been shot single-camera, where it may have at least stood a chance. But Sorkin learned his lesson on his next show, a little thing called The West Wing.

While I can accept that a person can prefer the single-camera format to the multi-camera or vice versa, I soundly reject the notion that either format is inherently superior to the other. And I think the sound of laughter (I do prefer live audience to canned laughter, but that’s another discussion) is hardwired into the genre the way comic books use panels. Is it possible to do without? Sure — but it feels… off.

If, perhaps, we were to eradicate the laugh track entirely, we could learn to live without it. Twenty or thirty years from now, it could be considered quaint, and the next generation would find it unusual if someone tried to bring it back. But it’s part of an experience that has been conditioned into our brains, and that’s really hard to change.

25
Sep
11

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 238: Geek TV 2011

Blake is alone for this week’s short episode, in which he talks about the last few weeks of Geek TV! He gives an opinion on the last couple of Doctor Who revelations and chats about the season premieres of Community, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. In his double-picks this week, he approves of Scott Snyder‘s Batman #1 and the new take on Star Trek coming from IDW! Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp.com!

Music provided by Music Alley from Mevio.

Episode 238: Geek TV 2011




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