Do you ever keep watching a show that you don’t like?
It takes you maybe two episodes to realize that it’s not very good, but something about it just compels you. Maybe it’s so bad you can’t help but watch the trainwreck. Or maybe, it’s so close to being good that you find yourself hoping that it’s going to pull itself together.
How I Met Your Mother belongs to the latter category.
It was almost destined to be popular: begging only the year after Friends wrapped up and on the surface, it’s almost the exact same show about white, 20-somethings living in New York City. Unlike Friends, though, How I Met Your Mother’s appeal seems to be with a fairly specific demographic: people who want to be Barney Stinson.
If the show feels similar to Friends, then Barney is the show’s amped-up version of Joey, the sleazy ladies man living the bachelor life. But Barney is just that bachelor life; his entire existence is built around being all of these stereotypes at once. It’s so cartoonish that I’ve seen people defend it as being some kind of satire; ‘Neil Patrick Harris is playing straight men the way straight people play gay men’ is a common defence I’ve heard. But here’s the thing: the show itself doesn’t support that reading. His friends make constant jokes about what a dirtbag he is, but everyone still lets Barney be Barney, with the only changes made for the sake of comedy.
While we’re on the subject of characters, let me say this: every actor in the main cast besides Harris is really, really bad. So many jokes are delivered as though they’ve been waiting all day to say them and everyone looks really awkward when they don’t have lines to say. It just doesn’t feel natural. Also, every character is a terrible person. Barney is so outlandish that it’s almost enough to make it work, but the rest of them are seemingly real people that are also complete jerks. This show is a paint-by-numbers of stuff that came off as romantic in corny 80s teen movies, but is obsessive and creepy in real life. They even come across that way on the show, no matter how hard it tries to be cutesy. Ted Mosby might be the single creepiest, most outright awful human being that any sitcom has ever tried to paint as a nice guy. The things he does in the name of romance would be fine if there was one of them in the whole show, but there are like ten of them in season one alone and with three or four different women to boot. One of them involves breaking and entering. One of them involves tracking down a complete stranger and propositioning them (even though they’re happily engaged). Ted is scary in ways that the show can’t just laugh off. And everyone else is a jerk.
But it’s so close to being better than that. When it’s not about Ted being a creep or Barney somehow being a worse creep, there are some funny elements. It’s at its best when it pushes itself to the cartoonish extreme and really inhabits the silliness of its world, like the cockamouse or the fabled history of Barney’s Bro Code. It doesn’t happen often enough (over half of the show takes places at the same table in the same bar with nothing particularly special happening) but when it does, it really shines.
In the season 1 episode ‘The Limo’, as the night is falling apart, Barney’s infamous “Get Psyched” mix is gone and all seems lost, the moment where Marshall comes running through the mist is genuinely uplifting. This show might be lazy, a bit cringey in places and definitely a touch problematic, but it can still make these moments shine. A bunch of dorky 20-something idiots trying to make life work is pretty fundamentally relatable and How I Met Your Mother is at least smart enough to take advantage of that.
That’s the thing: my issue isn’t that the show consistently falls flat, it’s that it’s all bad, it’s that it can be great but keeps squandering its own potential.
One of the things I do really love about the show is that somehow, in spite of its array of minor flaws in execution, it’s very meticulously crafted. It’s clearly intended as a successor to Friends, but it borrows a great deal from Arrested Development, from the zany plots and weird tangents to the almost cartoonish characters. A lot of effort goes into setting up certain jokes and moments in this show: flashbacks, narration from Father Mosby and different plot lines all come together to pull off some pretty well-executed jokes. If this sort of thing were built into the roots of the show it would be far better in execution. Unfortunately though, this starts to deteriorate as the show goes on. This is the biggest problem with the show: the promise of its earlier seasons keeps me going because there’s just enough that I can feel a really great show trying to spring out. I want the later seasons to pull it together and deliver on that but… it just doesn’t.
The final episode is so infamously awful that it almost single-handedly killed the legacy of the show, but the two or three seasons leading into it were a downward slope anyway. I have to turn the show off around season five or six. Past a certain point the story becomes too meandering: for a show that started on the premise of explaining how Ted met the mother of his kids, the show spends an awful lot of time on him meeting literally everyone else. It had some good ideas and I wanted it to figure out how to pull them off, but it ran out of good ideas before it managed that.