Monday, March 31, 2008

"I have one. It's called my marriage license.": How I Met Your Mother

While How I Met Your Mother's first post-strike episode had strong mythology but weak jokes and story and last week's episode had a strong story and mythology with a few good jokes, The Bracket was an out-and-out winner, taking what I can only assume was a mandate from CBS to include the NCAA tournament in some way and turning it into one of the better extended comic riffs in the show's history. HIMYM has always been good at gags where a long list of goofy nicknames rolls along, with each topping the last, and the scene where the gang debated the many women Barney had wronged built perfectly, even if the final four were not as funny as the others (Marshall's indignance when no one agreed with him that "Dead wife's kidney" was the winner was almost as good as Robin getting every single match-up wrong). And the rest of the episode was just as good, containing only a handful of clunkers. The pre-strike "How I Met Everyone Else" was better, but this is a strong second for the season and firm proof that the writers are back on track after a few meandering episodes early this season.

One of my favorite things about the late, lamented Newsradio (a show whose run has a surprising amount in common with HIMYM's run) was the way that every character had a different relationship with every other character. This must have been tough on Newsradio, which, at its height, had eight regulars with completely divergent personalities (as I opined in the top 100 list, this made Phil Hartman's death in many ways a death knell for the show itself, so inextricably tied was he to the rest of the series), but I think it's one of the best examples of this principle. I tend to like relationship-based comedy, which is just a step beyond character-based comedy. While I appreciate a show like Seinfeld, where the characters themselves were so distinct that they all related to each other in basically the same fashion (Kramer's relationship with Elaine, for example, was not terribly different from his relationship with Jerry), what really impresses me is a show with a well-defined ensemble where all of the players also have well-defined relationships -- again, think of Newsradio or Mary Tyler Moore, where a Ted and Murray scene would always be different from a Lou and Murray scene.

To a very real degree, this is part of the reason for why I've never embraced the American Office as wholeheartedly as others. The main five have vaguely different ways of relating to each other (largely -- except for Ryan -- taken from the British original), but how many really well-defined relationships do we have once we get out into the rest of the cast? Granted, this is probably a function of there being something like 15 regulars on that show, but someone like Stanley is largely only funny because of his point-of-view and the things he says, not from how he comes into conflict with Dwight or anything. In the larger ensemble, there are, of course, some really well-done relationships (Michael and Toby's weird animosity is one of the best things about the show), and the individual characters are so well drawn that this almost doesn't matter, but I still occasionally don't get the sense that these are people who have complicated pre-existing relationships. Compare this to 30 Rock, which in its second season, deepened a lot of the tertiary characters and their relationships to each other, to the point where even the most one-joke regular character (Kenneth) seems deeper simply because Frank exploits him in a different way than Liz does.

This is all a way of burning up a lot of space so I can get around to saying that I think that How I Met Your Mother is a show where all five of the regulars have really well-defined relationships with each other (well, actually, I'm not sure I've seen a Marshall and Robin scene, but, then, I haven't needed to). The writing and the energy in a Ted and Lily scene is different from the energy and the writing in a Barney and Lily scene. Now, of course, this is infinitely easier to do on a show with just the five characters (and notice how I said basically the same thing about The Office's central five above -- I apologize for nothing!). Tonight's episode, funny as it was, was also a fine example of how even an under-utilized pairing can make for great comedy. Witness Barney and Lily.

Now, Barney and Lily probably would rarely have occasion to hang out (and every time they've had a storyline together, it's been a unique event), but the rare times they do make for good television. Something in Barney brings out Lily's motherly side, while something in Lily makes Barney even more of a cad. Bouncing the two off of each other has been a good time in the past, and as long as the show doesn't strain too hard, I think it can be a good time in the future.

But there were even more examples of how the characters can flip and play off of each other, even in little one-offs. The ease with which Ted pointed out that Robin giggles when she lies rang true with the way their relationship had been so important to them and then so abruptly ended. Marshall and Lily's pride at each being the only other sexual partner the other had had was a terrific call to the way their marriage is strong and yet goofy. Even the gag where Barney had pretended to be Ted was shot through with the weirdly competitive camaraderie the two have.

"The Bracket" wasn't a perfect episode, but it was terrifically funny, and in its throwaway line at the end (about how the narrator would get to the woman tormenting Barney), it tossed in a bit of mythology for the rabid fans as well. The series has responded to the threat of cancellation the best possible way -- by making great episodes that almost demand it be picked up again. Here's to hoping for a third week of good ratings!

(Side note: I also watched The New Adventures of Old Christine, and while the show itself is a bit weaker than it's been in the past, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' work this season is absolutely terrific. Check it out while you still can. Also, Jason Alexander was on tonight, and it took me, like, five minutes to realize why that was stunt casting.)


mook said...

No comment about the Doogie Howser callback?

Lame? Inspired?

Jennifer said...

Hey, someone else has noticed that Marshall and Robin have never been teamed up! I always thought they should try that.

Spanco said...

I hooked with this show after watching some episodes. Recently its next season has started. I have also a big list of how i met your mother episodes. Its really a great show.

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