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Why I Have Trust Issues With 'How I Met Your Mother'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 19th 2011 10:30PM
It's good for the sake of 'How I Met Your Mother' that this is a busy time of year.

The first time I watched 'The Best Man,' the show's season 7 premiere last week, I was extremely irritated. By Monday afternoon, when I found time to watch 'The Best Man' again, I was so worn out from Emmy duty and other tasks that what's below isn't quite an energetic rant.

It's more an elegy of serious disappointment directed toward a show toward which I still have a great deal of residual affection.

It's worth noting that there are two 'HIMYM' episodes airing Monday, but I've only seen the first one. If there's something worth saying after the second episode airs, and I have the energy to say it, I may amend this post. But I seriously doubt as to whether any of the issues I have with 'HIMYM' as a whole will be addressed, let alone resolved, in the second episode of the season. (Note: I've added one addendum below, now that I've seen the second episode.)

Here's one big problem: The whole "who is the mother of Ted's children" concept is played out. It is tired. It was device that had a shelf life that expired some time back. It was once amusing and a little bit fun. It's not any more. We don't know who the mother is, and we're not going to find out for a long time (as the Narrator Ted, who thinks we'll find this funny, keeps telling us. Dear Narrator Ted, Shut. Up. On this subject, you're not amusing).

We keep getting these feints and "clues" and alleged progressions that turn out to be, well, nothing. In 'The Best Man,' we're told that Barney's wedding is instrumental in Ted meeting the mother. Then the show never goes anywhere with that. We're just supposed to wait. Because seven seasons isn't a long enough waiting period, apparently.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The show needs to either stop referencing the mother or introduce her as a regular part of the gang and be done with it. As a storytelling conceit, it's a distraction. It's a growing annoyance. It's actively detracting from what is good about the show. It's had its day. It's pushing up the daisies. It is, in short, an ex-parrot.

So what does the season 7 premiere do? It doubles down on the whole "mystery bride" concept.

Lord, give me strength.

For seven seasons, Ted Mosby has been ensnared in the "Who is the mother" story line, and I'll fully admit, I did my share of stories about mother clues and "developments" along the way. The mother plot wasn't the reason I loved the show, but it was a fun add-on, if you will, to the kind of cleverness that 'HIMYM' does at its best. But, as I said, I'm extremely tired of it now (in part because the show does single-episode cleverness well. Season-long arcs that are structurally and not emotionally based are much, much harder to pull off and far less satisfying).

But now 'HIMYM' is putting Barney in a similar "mystery bride" story line? Instead of giving us real movement on the mother, 'HIMYM' is doubling down on the show's least pleasing, most distracting aspect?

Why? What purpose does it serve to not know who Barney is marrying? I call shenanigans. Major, irritating, possibly corrosive shenanigans.

I would argue that this move actually hurts the show, in that 'HIMYM' will have to make it plausible that Barney could have realistic, deep romances with two different women (and we've only ever seen him try that once, and that didn't work -- or, I should say, 'HIMYM' awkwardly and randomly decided it didn't work). 'HIMYM' will have to do a ton of heavy lifting to make it seem as though he could be headed to the altar with both Robin and Nora (or, God forbid, some other mystery woman).

I can't think of a good reason to put Barney in a "mystery bride" plot. I really can't. Of course, a story line in which Barney gets into a relationship with Nora while secretly pining for Robin and Robin stands by silently and nurtures rekindled feelings for Barney is perfectly good 'HIMYM' fodder. I've got no problem with any of that that. But why the "mystery" of who he's going to marry? It just seems like another artificial contrivance in a show that is already overburdened with a big one.

It also seems like a desperate maneuver to prop up interest in a show that is going into its seventh season. I can understand the desire to keep the media interested in 'HIMYM.' But I can't understand sacrificing the best parts of the show -- its focus on realistic life problems and the ups and downs of friendship and love -- to do it. As I said, the mother story is already tiresome. Another season-long mystery created just for the sake of having more than one gimmick isn't exactly going to help me re-invest in 'HIMYM.'

Let me break it down for you a different way. People have long compared 'HIMYM' to 'Lost,' in that both shows take a lot of narrative chances with structure and storytelling, and both shows are (at their best) about the importance of things like love, loyalty and hope. Remember how people got really, really sick of the flashbacks in seasons 2 and especially season 3 of 'Lost'?

Well, the show eventually found a way out of that box. 'Lost' changed things up narratively, not in ways that were universally loved, but it gave itself a new bunch of tricks and tools, and the show was better for it. Not just because the structure of episodes changed, but because they changed in ways that were designed (at least in part) to get us more deeply invested in the characters' journeys. I stuck with it all six seasons because, even when a particular story didn't work, the ongoing plots and structures were altered and tinkered with in service to the stories of the characters. For the most part, things weren't the other way around.

But nothing about 'HIMYM's' mother plot has changed in seven seasons. We get "clues" (Here's her roommate! Here's her ankle! Yellow umbrella! She's in Ted's class!) that never really go anywhere. Nothing about those clues or the mother plots have made us care about Ted more. In fact, I'd argue that his quest for true love in New York City has been overshadowed on occasion by the contrivances and the mechanics of the mother story line.

Season 1 Ted was a romantic, and sometimes he still is (or rather, a bruised romantic, which is what he occasionally is now, as in that cigar scene with Robin). But maybe we'd be more invested in that quest of his if he had had actual, real movement on this front. No, dating Zoey and his other relationships don't count, because, let's face it, who can really remember any of them except Stella? Maybe we don't care as much about Ted because his non-mother relationships seems so readily disposable.

(Addendum based on 'The Naked Truth') Case in point is the Victoria situation. At the start of the season 7 premiere, Narrator Ted says, "I never would have met your mother if it weren't for a wedding." Well, Ted didn't see Victoria again at a wedding -- he saw her at the Architect's Ball. And he met her way back in season 1. Now, unless you want to interpret things very broadly and say that because of some new belief or attitude picked up at or after Punchy's wedding, Ted wouldn't have spotted Victoria or wouldn't have been open to seeing her again (all of which is a vast stretch), Victoria is not the wedding-connected woman he speaks of. So Victoria's just another relationship that we can see will go nowhere, or Narrator Ted is just talking nonsense. Neither of these things is an attractive possibility.

As for the show as a whole, well, what if 'Lost' had stuck with the exact same kind of flashbacks all six seasons? You would have wanted to throw things at some point, right? Or, more likely, you would have just checked out. By not recognizing that the mother plot has become an albatross -- and by actually creating another mystery bride story line -- I almost wonder if 'HIMYM' is asking me if I want to check out. And I'm afraid of what the answer might be.

If a show has a narrative device, it should be about something. There should be a greater purpose to it. These mystery bride plots should help me care more about Barney and about Ted. In 'The Best Man,' neither of those things happened. In point of fact, the mother mentions made me fear additional stretches of the kind of frustrating non-progress that Narrator Ted likes to joke about. Ha ha! And I don't need a mystery bride plot to know that Neil Patrick Harris will absolutely nail whatever emotional material the writers throw at him. Why not trust him -- and the audience -- to already have that bond and be willing to go on that journey, without a contrived wedding mystery?

I get that some fans of the show like having these kinds of mysteries embedded in the show, and I didn't mind them for a long time -- as long as they weren't distracting. At this point, they're distracting. I'm guessing the show only has two seasons left (though that's not official at this stage). I don't want it to engage in yet more seasons of tap-dancing and evasion (remember how well that worked out for 'Lost' in the depths of its third season?).

I want to spend that time watching kick-ass episodes about characters I care about. I don't care whether or not the episodes have gimmicks or over-arching plots -- as long as they deliver the kind of humor and emotional moments that made me care about 'HIMYM' in the first place.

Of course, there were things to like in the season premiere, especially Drunk Marshall ("I will do this for the child"), Cobie Smulders in the phone call scene, and the dance between Barney and Robin. But everything was overshadowed by a structural conceit that has had no payoff in the past and does not promise a payoff any time soon.

I don't mean to foreground the mother thing: There are things that 'HIMYM' does much better. But the show keeps foregrounding these mystery brides, and if it's going to do so, it has to take me somewhere with all this. Will it?

I guess I'm sort of like Ted -- I've stopped believing. I won't stop watching, probably. I'm too far in for that. But I've stopped believing that the mystery bride plots will have a purpose and emotional payoffs that make them worth the long, seemingly pointless waits. And if that feeling continues, 'HIMYM' episodes may start stacking up, unwatched, on my DVR.

Maybe you have a different take. Feel free to leave it in comments.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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What a bunch of nonsense. Future Ted was actually acknowledging how long this story is taking and almost making fun of it.

There's a playfulness with the show and if a few moments at the beginning of an episode are so distracting that it's taking away from the enjoyment of the entire series, perhaps the issue is not with the show but with you. Everyone can like/dislike what they choose, but this isn't really a valid argument for a show that is sticking to its premise.

Here are the reviews of the episode that are a little more positive:

Episode 701: http://goo.gl/1kD5L
Episode 702: http:goo.gl/aVMON

September 20 2011 at 6:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

At this point I could care less about the mother mystery. I keep watching because I still care about the characters, unlike, say, Glee, which has already been deleted from my DVR because the characters became unrecognizable to me. But you're right about the episodes possibly piling up on my DVR. I'm fairly loyal, but I have my limits.

Please NO on the Barney mystery! Maybe two new kids will show up, and Barney will be telling them how he met their mother. :)

Thanks, Mo.

September 20 2011 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

For me it is not the mother mystery that is the particular albatross. I do find the writers references to it and taunting of the audience to be grating. However, I write that off as a Dad trying to annoy his kids and I can buy that.

The real albatross around the shows neck for me is Josh Radnor. The character of Ted has become increasingly more annoying as the seasons have persisted and I find myself not caring about him at all.

I think that if Josh Radnor had been a more extraordinary actor the writers would have given him more storylines with more emotional depth that had nothing to do with the mother (Alyson Hanigan has also not shown that much range as Lily, more no that later). Instead those storylines went to Jason Segel's Marshall Erickson, Neil Patrick Harris' Barney Stinson and Cobie Smulders' Robin Sherbotsky who have dealt in varying degrees with father issues. Robin's issues with balancing career and love life have been really interesting and Cobie Smulders has pulled out so much from those conflicts emotionally that she is at times the shows most three dimensional character. The fact Robin and Lily's characters have not have had as many storylines recently I think is more of a testament to The How I Met Your Mother writers not developing their female characters (The most overtly Lily moments are very external character moments of being able to eat lots of hot dogs and not catching keys. In my opinion feel that her humour has different rhythms than a traditional sitcom as she as very funny on Buffy. Yet, I feel the writers could have expanded her character by showing more of her previous life than just a terrible relationship with her ne'er do well father or at least bring him back now that this momentous time has come into her life.)

But I digress the most memorable thing I remember about Ted's character comedy-wise is the air kicks he planned to use against Sandy Rivers. I don't remember being emotionally invested in any Ted storyline recently. He just happens to go from success to success (architecture firm to own company to professor to GNB and then famous architect) which seem handed to him and unearned-literally in the case of the Columbia professorship/GNB architect. Marshall fought through unemployment, Lily struggled with her independence in San Francisco and Barney has suffered without his father.

I have seen Josh Radnor in one interview and heard him on The HIMYM podcast and he seems to be pretty much playing himself as Ted on the show and that is a very limited, unfunny and annoying scope of acting.

September 20 2011 at 11:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't have a different take but would note on the Victoria thing that, technically, Ted did first meet her at a wedding -- but a wedding in the first season. The fact that Ted's at a wedding in season 7 when he tells you he met the mother at a wedding doesn't have to mean that THAT'S the wedding at which he met the mother. HIMYM loves messing with the timeline, and in fact, I'd love for the show to pull that kind of switch on us.

Unfortunately, the whole mother-is-in-the-class, mother-was-Rachel-Bilson's-roommate storyline doesn't likely fit Victoria being the mother (unless she had on a really excellent disguise that caused Ted not to spot her in that class). And since I loved Victoria and would absolutely love for her to be the mother, I'm all the more angry at HIMYM for bringing her just back to (presumably) break them up again.

September 20 2011 at 10:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Megan Anne

Except Ted did meet Victoria at a wedding. In season 1 he first met Victoria at a wedding because she was made the cake.

September 20 2011 at 10:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I feel the exact same way. I actually really enjoyed these 2 eps (maybe I'm just happy Fall TV is back), but didn't care for all the Barney-with-the-wrong-tie shenanigans, etc. I thought one of the most enjoyable time periods for the show was when Ted was dating Robin. He wasn't super annoying (like he so often is now), and I knew Robin wasn't the mother, so I just relaxed and enjoyed the show. If they weren't so obsessed with the mother thing, I'd even be happy Victoria is back! (She is the only GF other than Robin I ever really liked.) But you know it's going to get screwed up somehow, and probably only in a few episodes. Like Stella--how was I supposed to care about Stella (or that she left Ted at the altar), when she was only in like 5 (crappy) episodes? Really hope they don't do the same thing w/ Victoria...in fact, I hope Victoria IS the mother, even though that would be dumb.

September 20 2011 at 10:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pat k

Hey Mo. You should try writing something positive for once.

September 20 2011 at 9:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That was a very long winded way of saying, "just get to the damn mother already."

September 20 2011 at 8:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Anthony Wickizer

I thought it was great. I am not watching just for the mother. I am watching for the journey. And that journey has been mostly spectacular.

September 20 2011 at 4:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was just disappointed that both episodes were very 'meh'.

And the daughter is the girl from Nikita and Kick-Ass?!
Never noticed, they need to give her more screen time.
If anyone is wondering I'm as ashamed of myself as you are for not knowing.

September 20 2011 at 1:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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