I was out dancing back when I was in college, and there she was…

Okay, that’s a lie. I hated dancing when I was in college. A-cha cha!

How I Met Your Mother is an odd duck. Every time I ever see an advert for it, it’s presented as yet another in a long line of efforts to reverse-alchemise the Friends formula. But HIMYM is, once the superficial elements of cheap marketing have been scraped away, really nothing like Friends. For a start, it’s funny. The character dynamics are more inventive and subversive: the lead is a guy – not a girl – desperately trying to be in a relationship; his initial love interest wants to further her career, not start a family (and critically does not change in this motivation); the player is both charismatic and outright sleazy, both loved and loathed by the laides; the most emotionally stable and sensitive character is the lumbering Marshall… More importantly, it recognises and acknowledges that its characters are flawed and often odious people. Not enough American sit-coms do that: typically, there will be a character or two that is there specifically to be hated by the audience, but they are tangential to the core group. It misses the point somewhat to make them be so one dimensionally unlikeable, when a better show will create a character we care about that also happens to be a complete jerk.

Almost like what happens in real life.

I’m not just referring to Barney, by the by, although he is the most overt and obvious example of the character type. In truth, the entire cast of their moments in the dark, but it tends to be on a spectrum of morality, running from most relatively moral and decent to least, in my estimation, as Marshall, Robin, Barney, Lily to Ted. Yes, Barney is more respectable morally than either Lily or Ted, since he at least is honest to himself and those around him in his motivations and character. He may not be very nice, but he doesn’t abandon the people around him. He even has the wherewithal to be utterly distraught when he breaks his own moral code. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

The structure of the show is also fascinating. As the show goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the narrator is increasingly unreliable (mixing up dates and events, skewing perspectives…). When Friends had a flashback episode, it was a gimmick, and more often another excuse to shove Courtney Cox into a fat suit. When HIMYM delves into its own continuity and history, it’s not for a cheap laugh but to establish or enhance motivations. There is a purpose present which is built into the DNA of the show – it’s a continuity which stretches out beyond the six-or-so episode arc cycle.. A throwaway joke in one episode may turn out, two years later, to be a critical plot beat. It may be planned, it may be serendipitous for the writers, but it nonetheless feels natural. Once a running gag is set-up, attention is never drawn to it so as to alienate a newbie (never mind the sandwiches, who caught Ted’s current ringtone, for example?) It doesn’t operate at quite the giddy level of Arrested Development, which at its peak seeded jokes referencing future events that you could only get on the second viewing, but then again AD was a commercial failure in part because it pushed itself so hard at the audience. HIMYM is much more friendly and inviting to a new viewer, albeit with a caveat: you need to watch multiple episodes before it really begins to click (the pilot was quite dull until its twist; even then, it took a half dozen episodes or so to really take off).

Irrespective of the slow burn, the show does have more obvious and ongoing issues: Ted is the least interesting character, and his quest to find his soul mate is usually the least interesting element of the show. Both of these issues were alleviated by season 2 (when he was in what we the audience knew was a doomed relationship) and we instead got to see more of the group dynamic actively in play. It also helped that the writers finally developed an interesting take on Ted as a hopeless romantic, after nearly driving us to dementia with Ted being an insufferable bore in season 1 (that they later make him a pretentious insufferable bore is fine, because he was in that still funny). There is an impressive level of discretion in play that the more charming and insidious Barney isn’t constantly shoved into the front and center of every episode (though his player Neil Patrick Harris is so perfect in the role, you could feel the temptation). The real revelation is Jason Segel, who is rarely anything less than wonderful as the utterly relaxed and nigh-permanently conflicted Marshall.

Maybe it helps that HIMYM isn’t repeated on every station over and over and over and oh my… Maybe it helps that my recent viewing was five seasons worth of material clustered together (which helped to view the ebb and flow of gaggery both short and long term)… But it really is the best ongoing sitcom coming out of the the States at the moment. I really wish other shows would try this hard with their light entertainment.

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