The final season of How I Met Your Mother entered production last week. Barney and Robin’s wedding is happening, and the mother has been revealed. But alas, the show had to end, both practically and creatively – a lot of the flashforwards showed events that are due to happen within a couple years (ex: Ted having a daughter by 2015) and it’s good to end a show before the quality decreases. Besides, it’s about damn time they got the mother into the show.
At the end of the season we will bid “adieu” to one of the better network TV comedies of the past decade. Here’s my analysis of what made it so good, and how other shows can take note.
1) Make your show’s most despicable character likable
Every TV show has a scumbag, a person who, if you knew in real life, you’d probably avoid, or at least you’d be embarrassed to have as part of your social circle. When handled well, these can sometimes be the most compelling characters. (Proof: The entire cast of Arrested Development, anything Larry David has ever touched.) When handled incorrectly, they can weigh down a sitcom.
The scumbag du jour is the womanizer. Almost every TV show has one – someone who isn’t tied down (except for the later seasons when they want to wrap things up), mocks the other characters for being in relationships, and is usually one of the more despicable characters on the show. They often end up being the show’s breakout character.
Barney Stinson meets all of these criteria. Yet he is seen as unique. Why? (Besides the fact that he is played by near-perfect human Neil Patrick Harris)
It’s because HIMYM’s resident womanizer is an otherwise respectable and – dare I say – awesome human being. Most womanizer characters are slobish losers with a distinct lack of charisma. Barney’s a fit, attractive, charismatic man who is financially stable and has some sort of actual job. He’s also one of the more complex characters on the show – he has daddy issues himself, lies convincingly while being somewhat gullible, dispenses complex advice he does not follow himself, and arguably goes through more character development than anyone else.
For a contrast, take the show Rules of Engagement, a sitcom that lasted seven seasons and had 100 episodes, and received more praise for its longevity than its quality. The show’s token womanizer was Russell Dunbar, played by David Spade. (For the sake of full disclosure, I rank myself as a David Spade fan – not a fan of many of his shows, but of him.) I’m going to let Wikipedia describe Russell:
“[A] shallow, womanizing single friend of the main characters… He is also an inept manager in his father’s real estate business… He is often mocked because of his… choice of wardrobe, and his penchant for prostitutes and young women with ‘daddy’ issues. He is also very wealthy, as a result of his father’s success, and frequently acknowledges this to lure women…”
He spends a lot of time mocking the main characters for being in relationships and mentioning his freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. One of the main characters once described Russell’s longest relationship as “three lapdances in a row.”
While doing research for this article, I came across a review of Rules of Engagement that describes Russell as “Barney Stinson, minus the charm, wit, delivery, and nice suits” – an apt description. He’s a loser. No one knows about the show. Make your breakout character a winner. I dare you to refer to any of the five main characters in How I Met Your Mother as a “schlub.” But you especially wouldn’t do that to Barney.
2) Have a strong web presence
Almost every time a website is mentioned on HIMYM, the makers of the show set up a corresponding website. While not all of them are still active (and I don’t have the space to list each of them) you can still find existing websites with a surprising amount of depth: http://puzzlesthebar.com/, http://tedmosbyisajerk.com/, and http://canadiansexacts.org/. Some of the sites even sold actual merchandise. The only other show I’ve ever seen this done for is The Simpsons. It’s beyond me why more shows don’t do this – it makes the show more than a show.
If a YouTube video of the characters exists in-universe, fans can count on finding it on the real internet. Exhibit A:
(For a list of active websites, visit this link)
3) Let the characters laugh
Sitcoms often exist in a laugh vacuum – even when the characters are making in-universe jokes or being ridiculous, other characters only respond in one of two ways: a) give a snide response or b) give what I call the Sitcom Girlfriend Death Stare. You know the one – hand on her hip, body tilted, frown, and two cold eyes staring right into the soul of the other character.
Not in HIMYM. For the first time I’ve seen in a sitcom since Home Improvement, characters laugh in-universe. Characters joke to mock other characters or break the tension – often to a laugh or a smile. If you need proof, check out many of the scenes in MacLaren’s .
4) Non-linear storytelling is your friend
Something many of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms of the past decade, such as 30 Rock, Scrubs, Arrested Development, and of course HIMYM, is the use of non-linear storytelling: flashbacks, fantasies, and flashforwards. It keeps up the pace of the show while demonstrating that things happen outside of the Locales of the Week. The use of other media – slideshows, commercials, clips from in-universe films – prevents the show from being handcuffed to a limited reality.
It also supports an unreliable narrative – a lot of the cutaways demonstrate what one character believes or claims to be true when in reality another version occurred. Time can be manipulated in a way that allows a thematic connection or a twist at the end of the episode. It also provides a way to cover up certain aspects not suited for primetime network television in a comical way without making excuses. Some episodes contain outright lies, but just go to prove that one should never let truth get in the way of a good story.
5) Have a multi-talented cast
Most sitcoms seem to be based around one comedian or actor and hinges on that one person’s strengths. HIMYM’s cast is more than a bunch of comedians or actors –it’s one of the more multi-talented casts on network television. Need Proof? I’ll just leave this here:
Jason Segel is a composer and singer, Alyson Hannigan was grudgingly involved in the Buffy episode “Once More With Feeling,” and Neil Patrick Harris is… well… Neil Patrick Harris – singer, dancer, magician, award show host. The show’s creators are in The Solids – the guys who do the theme. Last fall, a soundtrack was released of original music from the show. It’s remarkably substantial in terms of both size and content.
6) You don’t need an actual in-studio audience
This is something I never thought I’d say. I’m convinced that not having a studio audience allows a kind of artistic freedom. Maybe this is the BA in Communications talking, but HIMYM has some of the most impressive camerawork I’ve seen on a laugh-track sitcom. There’s deep focus, and impressive zooming, and tracking shots. This isn’t the only thing that benefits from not using a live audience. The writing is better for it as well because writers can focus on telling a good story with smarter jokes instead of writing jokes that get the loudest reaction.
7) Tackle more issues than “I can’t find love”
Sure, the central storyline of HIMYM is Ted finding his soul mate, but the show is about more than that – it’s what happens along the way to finding that soul mate. It’s not about some petty misunderstanding that pops up each week – it’s about overcoming big challenges. Throughout the series characters deal with post-break up life, debt, and unemployment.
Almost every character at some point accepts a lesser job out of necessity. When characters are unemployed, they don’t live in some fancy Friends apartment – they crash on each other’s couches. The story arc following Ted after getting left at the altar is one of the most accurate depictions of post-break up life I’ve seen.
It’s not a show about finding love, nor a show about growing up – it’s about growing up when you are grown up.
How CBS will fill the literal and figurative void once Ted meets the mother, I don’t know – but hopefully they will continue to takes cues from one of the shows that helped make them the number one network. Here’s to you, How I Met Your Mother. May you end more gracefully than the music career of Robin Sparkles.