Thursday, January 3, 2013

Marriage and Mothers: The HIMYM Wedding Blues

How I Met Your Mother has always felt, to me, like it was a runner-up to Must See TV. It's funny, it's got charm, the wit is free-flowing and the characters have become, over the years, genuine pop-culture touchstones (Barney Stinson's bro-isms have, in particular, really taken off), but it's never been "appointment TV". I came late to the game, watching the first two seasons on DVD and then catching the rest on-air (or, let's face it, on-hard drive), and have been as invested as I get in a TV program: binge-y weekends, followed by months of ascetic ignorance. Wash, rinse, repeat. But unlike, say, Louie or Community, whose brilliance demands timely viewing, HIMYM holds a second-tier spot. I catch up on long train rides, or when I'm home sick with the flu.

For those who have never watched an episode, the premise is simple: Ted Mosby is telling his future children about how he met their mother. Bob Saget plays Future Ted in voiceover, laying his hindsight over the show's present-day action. Ted is friends with married couple Marshall and Lily, bachelor Barney and career girl Robyn, and they do most of their socializing in a bar. The show plays heavily with timeline, and there are dozens of flashforwards and flashbacks sprinkled throughout each season. In the past seven seasons, Ted has dated a whole bunch of women, but none have turned out to be the Mother.

The show is remarkably plot-heavy for a sitcom - if you miss a few episodes, you're left out in the cold. Characters meet, get engaged and break up in a few short months, and marriages unravel inside of a season. The Russian nesting doll-timeline can also make it extraordinarily difficult to pin down where, exactly, we are in the story.

But I kept up with Mosby 'n' friends because I could identify with them. The show was always careful to balance each character's personal and professional story arcs: characters often had to give up some of their dreams and struggled to find their workday joy. As a 20-something, I knew how the gradual narrowing of professional options feels, and it was refreshing to see it reflected back to me.

And as far as the relationships went, I dug that. In the first few seasons, Ted Mosby is an unrepentant romantic, convinced that his future wife will be coming around the corner aaaaany second now. But it's tough to keep that buoyant hope alive in the face of multiple failed relationships, and Mosby slumps in the later seasons. Of course, we know that he eventually finds love - hello, it's right there in the title - and so we half-heartedly keep rooting for him even as he falters.

So I have no problem with the premise of the show. Romance, sure. Comedy, sure. (Time-warping? Love that!) But in recent seasons, the show has been serving the premise that Marriage Is Always the Way, and it's to the detriment of the characters and the show.

Take, for example, season seven's framing device: Barney Stinson's wedding. As the season opens, it's the future, and Barney the bachelor is getting hitched, but we're not sure to whom. S7 marches Barney through no less than three relationships - Barney: who has always wolfishly played the field, whose pre-nups insultingly specify that his fiancee not gain any weight, who has a heart but thinks caring is as sexy as a pap smear. If the show was being true to the character, Barney and his bride would have settled into a mutually open co-habitatation set-up: Barney, the wolf who now has a den.

The show treats marriage as a salve for relationship woes, and when marriages fall apart, it's not because of conflict, but because someone falls out of love (Ted's paramour Zoe), or the love isn't there in the first place (Ted's parents). While we see plenty of mopey sadness when relationships fail, there's rarely anger. Two of the show's best scenes involve characters screaming in rage at (or about) their exes - death threats, irrational paranoia,  crossing boundaries, it's all in there, and it's great and honest. But those are mere moments in a sea of wishy-washy emotions. And then a few seasons later, the feels are back under the rug and marriage is proposed and everyone is so happy!

The Shakespearean trope of identifying a story as a "comedy" by whether or not it ends in a marriage doesn't mean that all your characters need to get hitched. Late-season Friends also fell victim to this (remember when Phoebe got married? Remember how little anyone cared?), but HIMYM is the worst for it. We know that eventually, Ted will get married. Why shove your other, more commitment-averse characters into the same little box? What purpose does it serve? And wouldn't this tightly wrapped show feel so much more diverse if everyone wasn't slowly converging on the altar like it was the nexus of the universe?

Look, I'm a fan of marriage - some of my best friends are married! - but when you're writing a television show, your story must serve your characters. Barney's been gradually transformed from a suit-wearing feelings-free douchebag to a schmoe with a nice wardrobe and some daddy issue, and that's not okay. Sure, give him an emotional back story. Give him a yen for a stable woman! Give him that woman, but don't force him down the aisle, and don't make it seem like his life will be lame if he doesn't get married. Just let him be.