How I Should Have Met Your Mother
An Exploration of a Beloved Series’ Missteps
(If you want to jump straight to the revision of seasons 7 and 8, click here)
I got hooked on How I Met Your Mother (frequently to be referred to herein by the abbreviation HIMYM) in the summer of 2011. I was living in Austin, Texas at the time still recovering from a breakup with a serious girlfriend, and I immediately identified with Ted. And to be honest, that irks me because I always hated it when teachers/professors asked who I “identified with” in a book or a movie or a play. I didn’t want to be the characters in the play. I wanted to believe they were real people I might be friends with. It’s not that I feel I am Ted either. His struggles just remind me of…ok, enough with that digression
HIMYM has long been a TV show loved by many for its bold dramatic lines in the midst of a compelling comedy. But by most accounts, the show has tailed off in recent seasons. Some place the decline as far back as the beginning of season five; I’m more generous. With a couple soon-to-be-discussed caveats, I don’t think the series really turned downhill until the beginning of season seven. At which point it quickly fell off a cliff, both from a dramatic and a comedic perspective.
While I may spend some time and consideration of the show’s comedic elements here, this is mostly intended as an exploration of the major dramatic plotlines, the emotional stuff that carries us through a season. The intent is to look at both the reasons why the last couple seasons as they stand didn’t achieve the same levels of quality as their predecessors as well as how some of the good ideas in them might have been better utilized. I’m looking to change the series as little as possible – this is not my show, just an attempt to redirect existing efforts in a more positive direction.
So without further ado, I present for your reading enjoyment: How I Should Have Met Your Mother!
Part 1 – Season 6
I think I may be slightly in the minority here, but I actually really liked season six. Some of the plot stuff, like the death of Marshall’s father, was telegraphed a little bit, but that was still an incredibly powerful moment. I loved the addition of Zoe to the group, and her relationship with Ted was unlike any other woman he’d dated. Everyone had something to do, but it all felt tied to Ted’s ultimate romantic quest. A lot of stuff was going on, but it all wove together.
The one thing that I hate is the frame at the beginning and end of the season, the flash forward to Barney’s wedding. Now to be fair, this is a hindsight hate. At the time, the flash forward, particularly the one at the beginning of the season, was thrilling. It had exciting nods to pieces of the HIMYM story we’d already been exposed to, and it signaled that the end was near. But what it also did was remove any tension regarding who Ted was dating and when he might meet the mother. I would have preferred the mystery of it all, and it would have been better from a dramatic structural perspective as well.
Key Plot Takeaways: Ted has another deeply important but failed relationship and continues to move forward in the “man I needed to become” to meet the mother storyline that began in season three or four, Robin and Barney are subtlely flirtatious, Barney starts getting serious about settling down, Marshall and Lily are moving into a new phase of life.
Part 2 – Season Seven
Season seven was disappointing not because of a lack of material, but primarily from an utter lack of execution. All too often it seemed that episodes were the result of last minute, late night “good ideas” that weren’t quite as funny as expected in the light of day. In part, I think the show got away from what made it funny. Several episodes in season seven were built on a joke premise rather than a dramatic one. For example, “Noretta” was built on the joke that everyone started seeing their parents in their significant others. That was what was most central to the episode, not some dramatic movement. The best humor of the show has come from characters being clever in relating to meaningful dramatic material. If you go watch some of the early seasons, the cast is always sitting around laughing at/with one another. You don’t see that very often anymore. Instead, it’ll be a joke for the audience that the characters all look at completely deadpan. Seeing the characters interact with one another as real human beings that had senses of humor was a huge part of what endeared us to the characters in the first place, and it also did a lot to set HIMYM apart from other comedies. Yes, it still employed openly comic premises from time to time, but they were generally exaggerations of real-life situations the characters might be going through (the “No Tomorrow” St. Patty’s Day episode comes to mind). It’s also worth mentioning that these issues are exacerbated when watching the season as it airs as compared to watching on DVD. When you can watch multiple episodes in rapid succession it’s easier to excuse one or two (or more) that fall below par.
What we ended up with in season seven was a season that seemed to squander most of its time and had to cram a ton of plot and character development into a very short time to make up for it. So several episodes, or at least parts of episodes, were hugely impactful even if they weren’t particularly well done.
Also, this is where the frame of the jump forward to Barney’s wedding completely falls apart. In season six it was at least unobtrusive. It happened, we went back to the “current” timeline, and that was the end of it. In season seven it actually becomes part of the telling. Old Ted is telling his kids the story of future Ted (the one at Barney’s wedding) who is in turn telling us about present Ted, who we see active through the season.
So with that, let’s take a look at some of the key plot lines for each character through this season and explore where they succeeded and where they failed.
Barney’s Many Women
Barney being with a lot of women isn’t anything new; his character is predicated on his ultimate “player” status. What was different about this season was his serious interest in several women, namely Nora, Robin, and Quinn.
We’ve of course seen Barney and Robin together before; he was interested in her for most of season four before dating her briefly in season five. But as we saw in season six, there was still a spark there. It’s subtle most of the time, but Barney still really cares about Robin.
That’s initially trumped, however, by his relationship with Nora, another woman who we met in season six. Barney is clearly smitten with Nora, but then throws that away to chase Robin, and he turns to a serious relationship with Quinn when that doesn’t work out. And therein lies the problem.
It’s hard enough to believe Barney when he claims to have real feelings for one woman, much less three in the course of a season. He’s so emotionally damaged it’s hard to take him seriously, even if he claims to have serious feelings for a girl (I actually thought his friends should have questioned him more on this point). Barney, of all people, needs time to develop his relationships. He can jump in headfirst like the relationally challenged person he is, but we’re meant to believe he really does love all three of these women. When he dumps Nora should be an intensely emotional moment, particularly followed by Robin’s rejection. He didn’t seem hurt enough by all this (he doesn’t stop talking to Robin, doesn’t go passive aggressive, nothing), and his relationship with Quinn moves WAY too quick, culminating in a proposal completely out of nowhere. I have to believe Barney would have talked to someone about proposing to Quinn before he did, and that could have been a powerful episode plotline both dramatically and comically. The show also gets proposal happy. Much like profanity, a proposal can have enormous emotional impact when used sparingly, but Barney’s proposal to Quinn is the third impulsive proposal in the show’s history and the second of the seventh season (following Ted’s proposal to Stella and Kevin’s proposal to Robin). It’s a crutch that the show’s leaning on way to hard in an attempt to inject high drama/tension, and by the time Barney does it the trick feels completely played out and unbelievable.
What really worked for me is Barney’s search for something more serious and fulfilling than his string of bimbos, but there’s just too much movement here. His is a character that needs to take time to figure all this out. I like that he goes back to Robin, and that’s a huge moment when she rejects him, but Nora and Quinn serve too much the same purpose. One of them needs to go. The emotional stuff Barney’s dealing with is the right emphasis, but the particulars of how it’s done feel off.
Robin’s story through this season is all about her self-conception as played out through her job and her relationships with Kevin, Barney, and Ted. As you look back over it all, Robin is forever recovering from failed relationships every bit as much as Ted. I believe very much she has psychological baggage to deal with. But she seems to arrive very suddenly at the conviction that she’s “a mess.” Her self-worth suddenly tanks, but we have little evidence of what pushes her to that point.
But putting that aside for the moment, her arcs with her job and relationships are important. Let’s start with Kevin.
Like many people, I was down on this relationship almost the entire time. It’s evident from the get-go that Kal Penn and Cobie Smulders have zero chemistry. The way they came together also made very little sense to me. Robin starts talking to Kevin because she’s hung up on Barney, but that’s never an issue they confront as a couple. Kevin seems perfectly ok around Barney (perhaps because he’s dating Nora), but that seems like something they’d have to deal with at some point. Kevin’s a clinical psychologist, for crying out loud. He knows stuff like that doesn’t just go away. I also detested his proposal. Kevin never seemed like the kind of person to be that impulsive, and his relationship with Robin is so…bland. They don’t fight, but there’s not a lot they seem to really connect over either. I didn’t believe they really knew each other well by the time he proposed. I like that Robin was in a serious relationship, and her choice of that relationship over Barney was extremely powerful/significant, but this particular relationship didn’t do the trick for me.
So about Barney: On the whole I think this is a good line. They do have feelings for one another, that’s apparent. I’m not crazy about the way it’s so forcefully reintroduced at the start of the season, but a lot of the way they circle each other without ever coming together it great for both of them
Which leaves us with Ted. For Ted, this is the central question of the season – what to do about his feelings for Robin? For Robin, Ted is her rock, but she needs him as a friend, nothing more. This is actually expressed pretty well, although the moments that communicate this fact aren’t well spaced, and as a result we get their relationship in a very herky-jerky manner. The scene where Ted tries to cheer up Robin with the Christmas lights, for example, is hugely powerful. It’s all a bigger deal for Ted, but it’s important to Robin’s character as well.
Marshall and Lily
Marshall and Lily are an interesting case because they’re at such a different place in their lives than all of their friends. Their storylines don’t take center stage this season, but still can provide a lot of interesting color. At times season seven did this really well, and at times it failed completely. Marshall has some movement based on his job, and that’s worthwhile, but this couple really takes a back seat to most of what’s going on in this season.
And then there was Ted, hero of our tale. Actually, that’s where this season frequently gets into trouble – Ted stops being the central figure. This is, after all, the tale of his grand romantic journey. On some level everything the show gives us needs to play back into that.
As mentioned above, the main question for Ted is set up pretty early: How does he relate to Robin, and is he really past all those old romantic feelings? I actually love how the show attacks this question on a large scale. Ted is looking for that next woman to really set his heart on fire. As much as Ted and Zoe butted heads, they really did love each other. And Ted’s finding it harder and harder to get excited in that way for a girl. It makes sense; he’s been looking for “The One” for the better part of seven years. It’s also abundantly clear that Ted still loves Robin, although it’s not clear what form this love takes until he actually confesses his romantic desires. I was really nervous about the show revisiting this territory, but although it did so poorly in terms of letting the emotions of it all really breathe, it did hit the notes you’d want really well. Really all I wanted from Ted was more presence. The season put him in the back seat too often when he needed to stay the central figure.
The reintroduction of Victoria right at the end was fantastic. It’s exactly the sort of thing which, minus that godawful frame that leaps us forward to Barney and Robin’s wedding, would be ten times more exciting than it already is, and it starts pretty strong.
Part 3 – Season Eight
Obviously this section is going to evolve as the show continues through its eighth season and into its ninth (and final) one. But as it goes so far, here’s what’s up:
I loved the way this season started, with everyone in a relationship. Much like the introduction of Zoe in season six it gave the show a new and fresh dynamic. And then it promptly ruins it by breaking up Barney and Quinn. And then ruins it some more by telling us in advance that Ted and Robin will both break up with their respective significant others. And then murders everything by not actually showing us Ted and Victoria’s relationship, a relationship which is and should be HUGELY IMPORTANT!
I’m not completely down on season eight. There are some good beats, some interesting ones. Although I’m not crazy about the particular way Barney arrives at his proposal to Robin (more on that shortly), that’s a fun moment, as is the completion of Ted’s building. Really, I find it hard to talk about season eight because I think it’s building from some shaky foundations in season seven. Soooo……
Part 4 – How I Should Have Met Your Mother
Eventually I hope to give this some episode-by-episode treatments (and maybe a few scripts), but for now I’m just going to run through the major plot revisions that would have, in my humble opinion, significantly improved seasons seven and eight. I’ll say again that these are the dramatic lines, and I believe comedy can be coupled with just about any situation. These characters like to be clever, and we should let them do their thing.
So here it goes:
The first three episodes are virtually unchanged. I loved Victoria showing up and these three do a pretty good job of setting up what this season is going to be about. The season premier should back off the overt “Robin is still interested in Barney” bits, but that attraction should still be subtly hinted.
Victoria’s pronunciation that Ted is too close with Robin still makes him start being conscious of how much time they spend together. Ted pulls away a little while on a search for the next girl to get him excited with diminishing returns. A fair bit of the episode where Ted agrees not to look up the girl on the internet (ssn 7 ep 6) returns. The first half of the season is about Ted continuing to sink into the depression over not being able to find a girl to go head-over-heels for like Barney is for Nora.
Robin, meanwhile, is going through one of the toughest stretches of her life. Work is a grind, she dates a string of throwaway guys, and her psychological issues of self-worth gradually manifest.
Barney and Nora grown into their relationship, much of which is spent breaking Barney of bad habits. When Nora’s not around we continue to see innocuous flashes of how good Robin and Barney might be together, like when they band together to meddle in Ted’s love life.
Marshall and Lily are preparing for the arrival of baby Marvin. They’re still going to be relegated to supporting roles by necessity, but I see them more as supporting their friends rather than having huge plot points themselves. The move out to the suburbs and back is all right, but I’m not sure it should be so heavily featured. We’re definitely removing the “Noretta” episode.
For Ted and Robin, the stress they’re building up culminates near midseason, and after a breakup Ted makes a similar pronunciation of his love for Robin and offers himself up. It makes more sense than the powerful but somewhat random offering of himself in season seven because Ted’s been looking at Robin as compared to the girls he’s been dating so far this season, and none of them compare. He misses spending time with her. She rejects him, moves out, and seeks counseling to deal with all the stress and questions about self-worth. Ted, of course, takes this very hard. He goes through a similar phase of trying to cope with Robin’s ghost in the apartment before eventually giving the apartment to Marshall and Lily. Maybe he even lives in his Westchester house for a while, although we don’t want him to mirror Marshall and Lily too closely.
Robin starts seeing someone fairly seriously. This might still be her therapist, although my impulse there is that it’s not. She also begins to rise through her company and gets back on air – things are looking definitively up for Robin. Ted, meanwhile, focuses on his career both as a professor and as an architect and seeks solace over Robin by talking to Marshall, Lily, and Barney. This starts Barney thinking seriously about Robin again.
As the season draws to a close, several things happen: Robin and Barney sleep together, which leads to Barney breaking up with Nora – now a much bigger deal because they’ve been together for quite a while – but Robin won’t leave her boyfriend for him. Barney takes Marshall to Atlantic city still and they go on a bender together as Lily goes into labor. That plays out very similarly, as they get back right in time for Marvin’s birth, but Barney won’t speak or be in the same room as Robin. It’s subtle neglect, though – no one notices anything’s up except for Robin herself. Robin convinces Ted to call Victoria as before and they ride off into the sunset.
We begin the season with Ted and Victoria together, Robin with her boyfriend, Marshall and Lily with a new baby, and Barney feeling very much on the outside of things and being very passive aggressive to Robin. Her rejection was a big hit because despite himself he still loves her. Robin’s relationship is once again strained by work, as her new anchor status has her working longer hours. Barney starts inserting himself back in Robin’s life and repeatedly makes an ass of himself. Much like the existing season eight this ends up with Robin breaking up with her boyfriend, Barney testing to make sure Ted is over Robin, and Barney swooping in to propose, but unlike the exiting season his “play” isn’t some drawn out master plan, it’s a reflection of him throwing himself at Robin time and again and falling on his face, because his wife isn’t someone he can run plays on. She’s the one who, much like Quinn did in the existing version, can call him on his bullshit.
Ted and Victoria, meanwhile, are pushing through happy despite some subtle flaws. As we build towards Barney and Robin’s wedding either at the end of season eight or somewhere in season nine Ted and Victoria cling to the idea that they’re right for one another despite ever increasing signs that they’re not. They break up before the wedding.
And that’s what I’ve got so far. As I mentioned, I hope to be expanding this in the future with more details and a continued reflection on season eight, but I figured if the broad strokes were there it was time to start sharing. Let me know what you think!