Review: 'How I Met Your Mother' - 'The Lighthouse': Try a little tenderness?
A review of tonight's "How I Met Your Mother" — and many thoughts on why this will be the last regular "HIMYM" review by me as of now — coming up just as soon as I go stag to Coin-Con...
Kids, let me tell you the story of a TV comedy I love called "How I Met Your Mother."
"How I Met Your Mother" is the story of a young architect named Ted Mosby, who wants nothing more in life than to meet the woman of his dreams, settle down and start a family. And it's the story of his best friend Marshall, and Marshall's fiancée, then wife, Lily, who are a goofy, lovable, open-hearted pair who were made for each other. And it's the story of their friend Barney, a sleazy lothario with a catchphrase for every occasion, who's just amusing enough that the others keep him around, even as he annoys and/or disgusts them. And it's the story of Robin, who seems like she could be the woman of Ted's dreams, but who's destined to end up with someone else.
And kids, it's also the story of a Ted Mosby decades in the future, telling the story of his lonely wanderings as a single man to the two kids he'll create with the greatest woman he ever was lucky enough to meet. And that Ted Mosby tends to get distracted, or confused, so that he presents very skewed and personal versions of events, most of which have virtually nothing to do with how he met his wife.
And because of that crazy, time-bending structure, because the show features four exceedingly likable characters and one extremely funny one, because there is a creativity and energy and palpable sense of romance to the proceedings, "How I Met Your Mother" is one of my favorite comedies on television. It looks like an old-fashioned sitcom, shot on a stage, but it's a retro sitcom that's been reinvented from the ground up. It features so many scenes per episode, often set in many different eras (requiring both costume changes and, in Alyson Hannigan's case, wig changes), that it can't even be filmed in front of a live studio audience to capture their laughter. (What you hear is artificially provided later.)
Let me give you an example. The fifth episode ever of "How I Met Your Mother" — or, as we all started to call it after a while, "HIMYM" — was called "Okay Awesome," and it's just bursting with ideas and strange energy: Barney and Ted go to a club that's so loud that most of the dialogue is presented with subtitles, Marshall and Lily each somehow leap out their apartment window without sustaining injuries, Marshall takes drugs in the club bathroom to deal with a tooth injury and emerges doing an elaborate dance number, etc. And it does all of this while telling a sincere and thoughtful story about how much Lily and Marshall don't want to be the boring couple who don't go to the club for adventures, even as Ted aspires to be just as boring and happy as they are. Some comedies go through their entire runs without demonstrating this much clarity and wit; "HIMYM" did it in week five.
Or here's another: the first season ends with Ted the hopeless romantic literally making it rain in New York just to convince Robin to give him a shot. It's a big moment, and one that shouldn't work — especially since we know by now that Ted and Robin won't end up together — but it's exactly as grand and emotional as intended.
Or another: in the third season, long after Ted and Robin have broken up, Ted tries to seduce single mom dermatologist Stella, who claims she has no time to date. So he decides to give her an entire elaborate dating experience — including a cab ride, dinner and a movie, of sorts — all in the space of the two minutes she claims she can spare each day. It's another inventive, joyful sequence — scored beautifully (few sitcoms have ever used music as well as this one) to Big Star's "Thirteen" — that made me really root for Ted to find happiness, whether with Stella (nope) or someone else.
Or let me tell you about the time "HIMYM" submitted a no-questions-asked entry into the sitcom hall of fame with season 2's "Slap Bet." Ted tries to figure out why Robin freaks out at the very thought of going to a shopping mall; meanwhile, Barney and Marshall wager over Robin's secret (Barney thinks she appeared in the kinds of movies I can't tell you kids about), with the winner getting to slap the loser across the face as hard as he can. There are multiple slaps, an elaborate music video from Robin's secret Canadian teen pop star days, and a perfect distillation of every unique, smart, sweet element of the "HIMYM" formula. When the history of the sitcom is written, "Slap Bet" will be a part of that history.
Kids, I love Marshall and Lily as a stable sitcom couple whose happiness only makes them funnier. I love the verve and humanity that Neil Patrick Harris gives to Barney, who'd be pretty despicable in lesser hands. I love the iconoclastic Canadian spirit of Robin Scherbatzky, and how she doesn't feel like any sitcom heroine I've seen before. And I even love dippy, sometimes-douchey, doomed Ted Mosby, who for all his flaws can really sell a moment when he has to.
Of course, the "HIMYM" I've just spent several hundred words describing to you doesn't really exist anymore. The faces are the same, as is the style of jokes, but it's been on too long. The writers decided early on that they didn't want Ted to meet the Mother until the very end of the series, so they had to drag out his romantic misery long past the point of usefulness. As the show moved into middle age, then old age, the jokes got broader and the characters more cartoonish and/or mean. (Somewhere along the way, for instance, Barney went from someone the gang disapproved of to someone they celebrated.) This happens on a lot of comedies successful enough to last this long — when the kinds of jokes you've been telling for years with your characters get old, you start exaggerating certain traits for effect, then exaggerating some more, until they only faintly resemble who and what they started out as — and "HIMYM" wasn't immune.
Then we came to the end of last season, and we finally got to meet — at least for a few seconds — the Mother, played by theater actress Cristin Milioti. Ted's future wife had a face, and they had a time and place for their meeting — at Robin and Barney's wedding — and Milioti was joining the cast for the final season. After years of forced stasis, "HIMYM" was going to finally move forward again. The creators announced that the season would take place largely at Robin and Barney's wedding weekend, but also promised that this would just be a framing device for many glimpses of the gang, and the Mother, in the past and future. And Milioti appeared at length in the final season's first episode, and in a memorable scene in the second, and her presence immediately livened up everything around her. After a few bumpy years, "HIMYM" was going to pull a "Cheers" or a "Frasier" and end on a good note.
But you know what's happened so far. The Mother disappeared after those first two episodes, absent for five straight episodes before reappearing briefly at the end of tonight's show. The characters have only gotten broader and meaner, and for the most part we've been stuck at the Farhampton Inn, which has rendered a sameness to the episodes. Last week, I even came up with a checklist to see how that episode matched up with the rest of the season, and it was awfully close.
Of course, when you're coming up with checklists and struggling to differentiate one episode from the next, it's probably time to stop writing about a show every week, which is why this is the end of my regular "HIMYM" coverage. I've stuck with shows I haven't liked in the past, but usually because I found different things to say about them every week. With this one — which debuted only a few weeks before I started my first blog (here's the first time I discussed the show online) — I have run out of words. If they do an extraordinary episode — or, knock wood, a run of them — closer to the end of the series, I will happily write about it, but these reviews had turned into a repetitive weekly exercise in misery, and it's time to stop them.
And I feel good doing that after "The Lighthouse," which was actually one of the better season 9 episodes. It had the Mother only briefly, but the flashforward gave us a major moment in Ted and the Mother's future together, as he proposes marriage to her (and she says yes before he can get all the words out). It had Robin acting obnoxious and confrontational as usual, but it also had a couple of sincere moments between her and Barney (in flashback) and her and Lorettea (in present). As usual, I can't defend most of the Marshall/Daphne road trip — and the fact that they're still in Ohio at episode's end means that it will be a really long time, episode-wise, before he gets to Farhampton — but I did chuckle for "HIMYM" nostalgia's sake when he put The Proclaimers on after angrily taking control of the road trip music. There was even a vintage "HIMYM" running gag in the running tally of things the gang knows about Robin's mom.
I've been thinking of stopping this for a while, and almost did it after last week's show, but I'm happier to walk away on a slightly more positive note. I'm going to keep watching, and like the show's sappy hero, I'm going to keep hoping for the best, even as reality keeps giving me something else. But it's healthier at this point if I'm not writing the same damn screed every week.
What happens now? Plans are still in flux. We may have another writer cover the show for the remainder of the season, or I may simply present a short talkback post on the blog each week for everyone to discuss the episode. I'll have a post like that here next week, either linking to the new reviewer's take, or explaining that this is it. And like I said, if the show should happen to recapture the old magic for a half hour or more, I'll have something longer to say. I still want to be writing about "How I Met Your Mother," but I need it to be "How I Met Your Mother" more consistently for that to happen.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com