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'How I Met Your Mother' And The Invention/Convention Spectrum

Posted on 01.31.2012 at 22:02
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A new semester’s begun and sometimes I don’t have the energy or clarity of focus to read or write. (I feel like this will be a year of few books—a marked contrast to the previous—but I’m going to make every effort to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy.) It’s so much easier to flip on an episode of [insert title here]. And according to a number of friends, we’re in a small golden age of television; I have no shortage of recommendations for Things I Need to See. While in Maine for the winter Stonecoast graduation, I caught an episode of How I Met Your Mother, a show friends have been raving about for years (even leaving aside the presence of Bob Saget’s voice). With one episode, I got hooked. As a young adult fast approaching the big three-oh and seeing many in my social circle getting engaged (or married or pregnant), I recognize clear parallels between myself and Ted Mosby, the series’ central character. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

But as much as those resonances interest me—and do they ever—I’m also tremendously fascinated by the narrative possibilities of the show. In case you’re not familiar with the premise, HIMYM uses a frame story: In the year 2030, Future Ted (Saget) relates to his two children “in excruciating detail” the story of how he met their mother. The series doubles back to 2005, centering on Ted and his four friends in Manhattan—Marshall and Lily, whose new engagement precipitates Ted’s search for a soul-mate; Barney, a womanizer of unspecified employment; and Robin, Ted’s unrequited love interest (natch). I’m only mid-way through the second season but so far the bulk of the episodes take place in the modern day, with Future Ted providing voice-over and maybe context. Occasionally there’ll be a cut to the future (the show’s Now) and the kids’ dwindling interest.

For every good frame story I’ve read, I can think of two more that didn’t work so well; either they’re unnecessary, uninteresting, or just a lazy way to impose structure. While HIMYM’s frame story has, so far, proven fairly bland, it does mean the writers can add a few tweaks to the traditional three-camera sitcom. Most obviously, it lets Future Ted tell us asides his past self and friends are unaware of. Often these openings are played for laughs—when he tells us a thoroughly wasted law student will become the US District Attorney, for instance. But the writers also use it for pathos, like when Future Ted diffuses a romantic prospect with an off-hand “It didn’t work out.”

That Future Ted does this throws light on an interesting choice the writers made. Throughout his monologue, Future Ted refers to his friends as Aunt Lily, Uncle Barney, Uncle Marshall, and—you guessed it—Aunt Robin. This sets my writer brain in motion. If Ted and Robin have an on-again-off-again dynamic a la Ross and Rachel, then telling the audience the resolution of that effectively deflates the romantic tension.* Or does it? Because a good number of episodes give only lip service to the frame story, it’s easy to become invested in the characters, to forget that the story’s Now is almost twenty years forward in time.

Also, a recent study demonstrated that foreknowledge of a story’s ending didn’t reduce enjoyment. In fact, readers got more pleasure from knowing how it all turned out. A similar point arises in pop culture scholar Henry Jenkins’s insightful introduction to Interfictions 2. Jenkins asserts that all works of art exist on the continuum of invention and convention. Either extreme—complete innovation or complete predictability—is alienating to an audience. The study and Jenkins both posit that in many contexts we know how a story turns out anyway. (That can be as broad as the three-act structure or the careful breakdown of, say, some romance lines.) Even so, people digest certain stories, read retellings, see adaptations: the intrigue just may be in the details. The journey, not the destination.

Personally, I’m against spoilers, so I’m not wholly convinced, however much I think Jenkins is on to something. There’s another explanation** here, one that warms my writer’s heart: Future Ted is an unreliable narrator. He does omit information (though nothing vital so far as I’ve watched), he hears about some events secondhand, and occasionally his memory fails him. These moments are few, though. After all, this is still a prime-time sitcom and the wider viewing public can only take so much meta. (Witness the plight of Community.)

Still, the series has been going for six seasons and, so far as I know, isn’t winding down just yet. When I think about the sitcoms I’m most fond of, they’re definitely different, however many familiar tropes they use—Scrubs, The Office, Flight of the Conchords, the aforementioned Community, among others. How I Met Your Mother fits in nicely with that bunch, even if it does skew a little more conventional than I usually prefer. In any case, I’ve found it worth watching. And I’ll be very interested to see if the meta aspects of the show become more prominent as it progresses.

* I didn’t see a likely place for this: If it turns out that Robin isn’t the mother, then the show has (or will have) a deus ex machina on its hands. Unless someone becomes a part of the core cast over the next few seasons, pulling a romantic interest out of the ether will, I suspect, feel like a massive cheat. And then, of course, we have to wonder what the point of so much backstory was if it isn’t Robin.

** With a tip of the hat to Jeff for telling me about this.


Freddy Peterson
save_my_heart at 2012-02-01 16:23 (UTC) ()
How far along are you on HIMYM? Have you seen the current season yet? I think I will be more disappointed if Robin is actually the mother as opposed to some random character they might bring in.
iamrazorwing at 2012-02-10 15:08 (UTC) ()
Just started season three. It's interesting because the references to "Aunt Robin" are becoming more frequent, yet I think if it's a random character, the creators would be guilty of pulling the rug out. My theory is that this is as much a mystery story as a love story, so if a character brought in last minute is revelaed to be the culprit, it'll feel like a cheat to me.
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