Monday, November 05, 2007

"Tell him you saw a ghost. Tell him it's haunted!": How I Met Your Mother

If How I Met Your Mother is never going to be a big hit (and it seems increasingly unlikely that it ever will be one), I think part of what's keeping it from hitting that Friends status so many have predicted for it is its sheer devotion to having its characters (all sympathetic to a fault) make really stupid but realistic decisions, ones that seem destined to screw up their lives. We know from the future scenes that Lily and Marshall are financially well-off in the future and that their marriage is sound, but it seems more and more like there's going to be a long, hard road on the way to achieving that stability. Obviously, there are bigger things standing in the way of HIMYM's hit-ness (its network, for one, as well as its timeslot and its format, which goes against the grain of what's "hip" now), but the show's dedication to treating these characters as real people who mess up and make mistakes goes against the typical sitcom grain.

In particular, the show has now shown Lily and Marshall committed to living with a lifestyle they can't afford, in an apartment that's well outside of their income bracket (the show played a bit fast and loose with buying an apartment, but that was fine because of how the plot played out). On top of this, Marshall has committed to a job that he doesn't really like and one that will cause him to betray his principles and ideals (or at least stretch them), and now he's in it completely, largely so he can float his wife's debt. Sure the show spins great comedy out of all of this, but this emotional core has a lot of bleakness in it and gives the lie to what a lot of sitcoms do, which is leave the characters in a place where they never have to worry about money ever.

Now, HIMYM's universe depends on Marshall and Lily being together, so the moment where everyone worried that Lily had called a divorce lawyer never seemed as threatening as it could have (and it was mainly interesting for the reactions it spurred in Ted, Robin and Barney, who have very different attitudes toward commitment). We know that this show would never go so bleak as to dissolve the Erickson-Aldrin marriage now that it's together, but giving the two of them such big issues to surmount pushes that central tenet of the show far enough to believably portray just how fragile the setups of so many sitcoms are (after all, Robin wouldn't hang out with Ted and Barney without the Marshall/Lily glue).

The episode was tied together with a smart recurring gag where someone would say something smart, then Bob Saget would say, "But what they really said was," followed by what was really said. The gag itself was only mildly amusing, but the way it showed how these characters have a long way to go before they grow up enough to stop chasing instantaneous pleasure gave the whole episode a bittersweet undertone. Most sitcoms eventually become about people who are too old to believably do the wacky and farcical things that propel the episodes. This sitcom seems to be about people going through the painful process of growing out of that.

All of this philosophizing should not cover up that this was another very funny episode, particularly in the subplot where Barney used Marshall and Lily's prospective apartment to score with a beautiful woman. I also liked Ted's CSI deconstruction of various bits of garbage to reconstruct Marshall and Lily's fight (complete with putting on his glasses and saying a snarky one-liner), which didn't go on too long, as these sorts of things tend to do on sitcoms. And, hey, I'm down with any episode that uses the word "jackassery."

The final revelation of what Dowisetrepla really meant was the coup de grace for the episode. Marshall and Lily wanted too much to play the knowledgeable grown-ups but they were unable to just ask the questions a real "grown-up" might have. Life in the HIMYM-verse is all about playing at making the tough decisions but really just going along with whatever comes along first. It's unpleasant, but unusually realistic. And very, very funny.

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