My girlfriend Audra and I decided to binge write about a show that we’ve both seen way too many times, How I Met Your Mother, in order to get to the root of our bizarre fascination with it.
Daniel: How did you find out about How I Met Your Mother? Honestly, until you showed it to me, it flew completely under my pop culture radar. I don’t know if that’s a testament to its popularity or lack thereof when it was actually on the air, but unlike shows like Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory, two sitcoms that I heard a lot about (mostly in complaints from other people), no one talked about HIMYM. It wasn’t until the show was done and on Netflix in its entirety that I watched people talking about it.
Did you start watching it when seasons were being put on Netflix, or did you see it on TV?
Audra: I was introduced to HIMYM by a friend in New York, who was already up on the HIMYM train. There was a well-known cult following that apparently started back in 2011. He had already watched all of the show thus far. I had seen it once on TV, I think, and I believe it was the episode with Lorenzo Von Matterhorn. At the time, it seemed like a cheeky typical sitcom with a few extra dirty jokes. Every time I was at his apartment, it was on. And just as HIMYM had claimed his TV’s soul, it hence claimed mine. 5 times from beginning to end.
I remember my friend asking me who I thought the mother would be, as if it was a Lost-esque mystery we were supposed to know already (THE MOTHER ISN’T EVEN REAL. WE’RE ALL THE MOTHER. THE MOTHER IS SECRETLY MARSHALL.) I promptly responded with “Robin, She has to be the mother.” He laughed at me. “Have you even watched every episode?” And then…. it began.
It began as a way to pass the time in New York so that I wouldn’t have to spend money, and then became an unhealthy part of my life that I do not retract. As it has for you, I believe. It gets in your brain. This lengthy story is akin to meeting a soulmate. We should make a show called, How I Met How I Met Your Mother” and make a biiiilllion dollars.
Daniel: It really does get in your brain in a way that’s inexplicable. Maybe it’s the mix between short term storytelling and long term pay off that makes it infinitely watchable. Or infinitely “listen to it in the background while you do entirely different thingsable.”
Was knowing who the mother was a big deal for you? I’m sure that we’ll get to the ramifications of who it actually was later, but it was never a huge point for me. I cared, but in the same way that I cared about the pineapple mystery or Barney’s job. It’s not something that really weighed on me or on the show. There were bigger stories to wonder about. Though, How I Met Your Mother is way more catchy than How The Secondary Lead Male Learned To Take Responsibility For His Life And Others (Sucks About What Happened To His Dad.)
What has led to your streak, though? Is it the characters that keep you coming back?
Audra: Knowing who the mother was was, actually, a big deal to me, but yes, only in the sense of curiosity. They had built it up for 8 years. And yes, the characters keep you coming back. Which is why it mattered who the mother was. Ted became Everyman. And Robin became Everywoman. And you want them to finally get a win. You watched him struggle and fail constantly. He dealt with heart break over and over again. They didn’t glaze over the processes involved in breakups and falling in love, while also caricaturing the clichés of ice cream and crying. They got irony and subtle humor while still employing a laugh track. It was a gauge that you could compare your life and breakups to, because despite the outrageous antics of Barney, the show follows some very real themes that aren’t the stereotypical sit-com fare.
The “empowered woman” has a huge role in this show and Josh Radnor commented on it in an interview, talking about how the women had the stereotypically masculine traits on purpose. Lily was sex crazed and smarter than Marshall. Robin was career focused and afraid of commitment and having children. Ted wanted to have a family and finding a perfect woman was his main goal. Marshall eats cake and talks to too many strangers. It was definitely a statement on male/female gender “anomalies” that are more common than mainstream television ever credits. Finally, a sitcom built on more than a failing marriage, where every punch line is based around a wife that nags and a husband that lies around, not doing the laundry. Not that that wasn’t represented in the show, but it still exemplified the counter-culture male/female ideals represented in our generation. I think Barney was the foil of that to reach those folks that still think football and babes are lifeblood. But even he was a pretty boy who got his nails done, played by a widely known homosexual actor. It reaches everyone.
The whole concept of the show, though, was based around how much more important the journey is than the end result. We get years and years of searching for a brief 1 season synopsis of Ted’s entire blissful (first) marriage. The bottom line was that this show is relatable. As my 20s progress, I experience a lot of the clichés of “growing up” and HIMYM captures the way we deal with the crap life hands you and ongoing friendships in a non-cliché way. Does it ever hit home for you?
Daniel: Man, I totally understand that. I haven’t dated in a while, thanks to the person that I’m currently writing this answer to, but Ted’s career path? I get it. In season 2, he gets to design this huge building, but really wants to add to the NYC skyline, and the progress of that dream kind of starts and stops for years, while he goes and does other things. It’s something that I’m just now starting to wrap my head around – there are cool things that seem obviously in your future (and they are!), but no matter how hard you work towards them, your life is going to take these tangents that aren’t necessarily bad. Just different. They make you a more diverse, experienced person. Ted started his own business and became a professor before he ever saw the fruition of his GNB skyscraper plans. That rings true for me. Like with the mother, Ted couldn’t get his dream right away. It wouldn’t have been worth as much if he’d spent the last 7 1/2 seasons of the show as Ted “I’ve Reached The Pinnacle Of My Life” Mosby.
This might sound stupid, and it also might sound like something that I should have learned through real life (though I spent my sixth through ninth grade years thinking that I’d get married to Hilary Duff, so real life lessons have always been about six years behind movie lessons), but HIMYM also told me about how okay it is to forgive your friends sometimes. They can act like shitty people sometimes, but very rarely are they actually shitty, malicious people. They might momentarily have their own interests at heart in ways that will make other people feel bad, but these moments are often indicative of the time, and very rarely of the personality. You can get in spats and arguments and hate what the other person is doing, but unless it becomes a trend that threatens to not just ruin your day, but hamper your life, friends often come around. HIMYM taught me the power of sticking with someone, and seeing the best in them, rather than saying “They cut me off in traffic? IGNORING THEIR PHONE CALLS FOR THE NEXT 2 YEARS.” Real life will probably teach me this lesson when I’m about thirty-two, so I look forward to having this revelation again in the future.
Are there any characters that you identified with on the show that weren’t members of the main 5?
Audra: Well, I have an uncanny amount in common with Robin (Says every basic b**** ever while holding a Starbucks mug and claiming to be afraid of commitment and being really good at throwing down with the boys), but if I have to pick another, I would say…. None. I really don’t think any of them match me. I could maybe relate to Stella because she’s fickle. All of Ted’s girlfriends, besides Robin, are really girly and like cake, weddings, and romance. And the other female (or male) side characters are mostly there for comic relief. Patrice, Brad, Randy, Stewart and Claudia…. None of them are really designed to be relatable in a positive way. Not that we haven’t all been Scooter at one point. Or Jeanette. Other than the main characters, everyone else in the show is designed to be a caricature. I guess I could relate to Tracy’s (The Mother) sense of humor and love of making food sing and nerd interests. I’m guessing you ask because you have someone in mind for yourself?
Daniel: No, actually! Well, aside from what I wrote about earlier with Ted’s career stuff.
And yeah, we’ve all been Scooter. I’ve been Scooter at multiple points that I can remember, for two different people. Just this “You said you like hiking? I could be a TRAIL GUIDE. I could go back to school and get a degree for that!” or “You like food? I could be a CHEF! It would take a while, but I could cook everything you’ve ever wanted!” I think HIMYM does a good job in showing you all the diverse kinds of relationships that you can have, whether they’re reciprocal or not. It’s all usually meant to be played for laughs, but I do kind of feel for Scooter. His How I Looked At Lily show would be super sad. I’d watch it for four seasons though, I bet.
Favorite plot, or season? I think the show certainly hits its stride around the middle of season 2 and then loses steam after Marshall’s father dies. I don’t think Season 8 or 9 are as big of disgraces as some people on the internet do, but there’s something missing during the home stretch of HIMYM. Since it’s winding down to the end, it loses a bit of its spontaneity. HIMYM is always best when it feels like anything could happen, and every door is open.
Audra: The show itself is kind of sad from all other perspectives besides Ted’s… If they did it from the perspective of Robin and you leave out the final episode, it’s really sad and pathetic. “We dated for a year…. 20 years ago….and you never let go. (except that time Robin floated away into the sky before her wedding).
Gasp! How dare you say any part isn’t perfect! Marshall’s father dying was definitely the strongest acting in the show. I cry every time. I guess some of it is dragged out. But Stella and Jeannette and Quinn, the bad-at-acting stripper, and the second time Victoria shows up… Ok yea, I see your point. It does lose some steam. But the jokes stay strong and the characters grow. The Robin- Barney thing was really weird and never hit home for me. I never saw their connection. I don’t think they have good repartee and I kept waiting for them to call off the wedding. But they really developed and rounded out the characters. You’re bound to lose some spontaneity when that happens.
I really like season 9. It’s really enjoyable. And I like the new set in Farhampton. You’re right. There is something missing and I can’t put my finger on it. But I think they did the best they could. They really screwed themselves over by talking up the mother, when Robin was the true love all along. I also can’t think of a way they could have done it better.
My favorite plot is too hard to pick. NEXT QUESTION. THE MOTHER. Did she live up to your expectations?
Daniel: Yeah, she did. I do wish that we’d gotten more time with her, but she’s such a calming, pleasant presence in this storm of wondering why Barney and Robin are getting married when they literally question their compatibility every hour. That’s why their divorce was such a non-shock. Of course you got divorced. Every episode of the last two seasons began with “I don’t know if we’re right for each other,” and ended with “Aww, we’re great together.” Doesn’t build a lot of confidence. So seeing Ted happy and sitting down and just chatting with his wife was a nice counter to that.
Now, you lived in New York for a little while. How does How I Met Your Mother do on reflecting life there? I know that you watch a ton of shows about NYC and balk because that waitress could not afford that two story brownstone, but does How I Met Your Mother fare any better?
Audra: I get livid about the unrealistic standards set for poor people in New York by countless TV shows filmed in LA claiming to be New York. If you make less than $100,000 a year, you frugalize your life. It’s really difficult. It’s barely mentioned, minus Lilly’s credit card debt and the time she destroys an $8,000 wedding dress, and the time Marshall says “Thank god we don’t have to pay for utilities” in reference to the winter wonderland Lilly created (Having this information with zero research required really shows that I need new hobbies, doesn’t it?)
And Lilly’s credit card debt is a sub-plot directed around her inability to stop buying designer shoes, while they deem Marshall’s Columbia law degree as a non-factor in comparison to the shoe debt. If you own 20 pairs of designer shoes, ringing in at a minimum of $500 a piece, you’re looking at being 10k in debt. She had way more than that if it topped Ivy League college money… It’s ridiculous. There is no mention whatsoever that eating out, drinking at a bar, going to clubs, losing bets, living in an apartment on the Upper West Side are all detrimentally expensive aspects of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In my estimation, with their mediocre salaries (school teacher, non-profit lawyer), their debt would be triple digits. Minimum. Not including the big expensive wedding for 200 people that had pepper crusted lamb catered.
Ted probably does alright, but he goes through a huge chunk of unemployment. And becoming self-employed as the cap to that saga does not equal the ability to hire an assistant or the ability to go to a bar. You can’t. He must have had massive amounts of savings (in his early 30s) or be deeply in debt from that brief period of time.
Robin, the low end reporter, who probably makes enough to survive decently on a budget, is the only one who has gobs of money in the end and we find out that her parents are rich. This makes sense. Yet, she never picks up the bar tab (according to Ted) and also probably had enough money from her Robin Sparkles days (which she never mentions,) to get her through her starter years.
Barney makes an undisclosed (massive) amount of money and does alright, but they fail to mention that people who make tons of money exclusively hang out with other people who make tons of money (in New York). He also spends ALL OF IT. He offers 10,000 for Robin’s diary. He buys a diamond suit. He buys custom-made designer suits in general. He has a gambling problem and a high end apartment. There’s no mention of the cost to import said suits out to Farhampton and rent an extra room for them. Unless you’re Donald Trump and own the company, there’s no way to sustainably live that way. But it makes for a better story.
If we re-wrote the show with realistic activities based on their collective incomes, it would be a show about them sitting in their tiny studio apartment that they’re all sharing, drinking Bud lights and dreaming of being able to eat a fancy dinner or take a girl out to eat.
Also, I dated in New York some, and there are men afraid of Ok Cupid, purely based on the fact that there are tons of women willing to go out with them just for a free meal. Dating is expensive. And casually flashing sushi and caviar is a requirement in the land of status-is-everything. Young start-ups meet women in Central park, or for coffee. Because you can easily spend $100 on a night out, and that’s modest. Bud Lights start at $6 in NYC and I’ve seen them cost $14. If you want to meet a woman in New York, she better like pizza.
One more discrepancy that eats at me is their ability to get from one place to another… It takes an hour to get anywhere. And they take a lot of cabs, which is also for the well-established. The subway is the main form of transportation there, for all income levels. Cabs are for special occasions or emergencies. If you decided to go out to Brooklyn at 3am (Nothing good ever happens after 2 AM), you will get there at 4 AM. And if you stop along the way to pick up vegetables for juicing (seriously, I need a new hobby), you will get there at 4:30 AM. And then you will be tired. And then you’ll never get the chance to cheat on your girlfriend that lives in Germany. And Robin’s a reporter. Do you really think she has weekends off? No. She will be at the studio around that time. What about being tired?? Why is nobody sleeping and nobody’s tired?? You’re in your 30s! You can’t still be doing that!
I could keep going. There are plenty more times where what happens in TV is incongruent to what happens in real life, but that could take all day. It’s TV. It’s not real. That’s the point. It makes me wish I had a different, more luxurious experience in New York, but I didn’t even have a low end salary, so I merely survived. The fun times I had were funded by someone else’s wallet, unless you consider binge-watching How I Met Your Mother in my tiny apartment while drinking $9 wine from the grocery store “fun times.”
Sometimes I wonder if producers and actors just lose touch with reality after making so much money. Every actor starts out starving, though. They have to know.
Daniel: If someone asked you “Audra, I know that this is a grocery store and we’ve never talked before, but I’ve heard that you’re an…ahem…How I Met Your Mother goddess. I’ve never watched it before, and I only have time to watch one episode before I spontaneously combust. What is one episode that encapsulates everything great about HIMYM? Quick! My insides are on fire!”, how would you respond?
My perfect HIMYM episode is “Trilogy Time.” Watching them imagine how grand their lives will be in three years, and seeing how nothing has really changed speaks to me on an existential level. Aside from being a super funny episode, it’s the episode that hits closest to home. “In 3 years, I’ll be famous, with more money and better things! How did I get here? No idea! All I know is that all of my dreams came true, just because I thought they would!”
Audra: Yes! Excellent pick!
Ok, I picked three. There are 2 kinds of episodes in every sitcom. Story lines filled in around jokes, and jokes filled in around important story lines. These may not be the most plot heavy or the best acted, because that’s a different list. But the three we can pick for a first timer are as follows….
“Nothing Good Happens After 2 AM”– I Love this rule and this title. Great episode. Contains an important plot piece, potential excitement about Robin and Ted finally hooking up, (but with drama because he’s still with Victoria, sort of,) and some hilarity with Barney. Just all around hits home regarding the ongoing themes, and typical character interactions.
“How I Met Everyone Else” – I don’t know, I just like it. I like their backstories and laughing at how lame everyone is in college. I also love the story about how Barney gets owned by Marshall, when he dares him to hit on Lilly.
“The Naked Man” – CLASSIC. Hilarious, unconventional, never-been-done-before, slightly crass humor. The reason we love How I Met Your Mother, which is a great way to get a first look at the show.
Does picking 3 mean I just caused this hypothetical person to spontaneously combust? If so, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.
Daniel: That person is dead. There are pieces of them literally everywhere. You didn’t follow the rules, and they blew up. As long as you’re okay with it, it’s cool, though. Their dog was adopted by a nice stranger who had a family member that also spontaneously combusted. Together, she and that dog will face the hilarious trials of life in the Big Apple. Combusted! debuts this fall on TBS.
All in all, what does HIMYM mean to you? Why, specifically, is it your go-to choice for binge watching ahead of all things? What part of it speaks to you the most at this point, and do you see it continuing to speak to you in the future? For me, though it’s a fictional show, it’s kind of nice to have one where the characters grow up with each other. They have career insecurities that plague them, and they often approach relationships in baffling, questionable ways, but the series constantly upholds the fact that friendships are the most important thing. As long as you have people that are willing and ready to help you, you’ll be alright.
Audra: I can agree with that. It definitely is comforting to think you’ll have a set of friends that get to see the outcome of your life alongside you, however rare that actually is.
I think there’s also an element from the show that excuses your thoughts and behavior. Like, oh, well this show is realistic in its jokes (It’s funny because it’s TRUE), so Lilly’s over-reaction to Ted calling her a bitch is also realistic, and therefore I am validated in my stupid argument that transpired with a person I was close to that one time. Or, it’s ok to leave someone because they’re just not “it.” I think there’s obviously a (thin) line separating what’s there for joke-purposes and what’s there to hit home. And those moments make you feel better about your decisions. Or at least make you able to say, hey, Hollywood thinks it’s normal to get drunk in a bar every night, so if we lower that bar to actual expectations in real life, I’m still not doing that bad!
Maybe that’s not the typical answer. But it definitely played a role in my love of the show.
And here’s where I sound crazy. Because they created this really relatable and fun, feel-good show where everyone finds happiness and follows their dreams and acts impulsively, but still comes out on top and survives all the awkward moments and bad decision making, with decent careers in the long run and insanely hot bodies despite the junk food and alcohol they consume…. Because of all those good feelings interspersed with character flaws, they kind of feel like your friends after a while. And I just want to hang out and do dishes, or zone out and play solitaire at the end of the day with people I feel comfortable with, but don’t actually have to talk to.
The fact that I think I have friends in my TV may be a little piece of what obsession looks like, but we all do it. And maybe your friends live in the news, or the celebrities in a gossip mag, or any other TV sitcom designed to validate your disastrous marriage, shitty job, or not-so-perfect family. We all like to watch a version of ourselves, with a view from the outside.
Sitcoms are comforting and non-committal. That’s why they’re wildly successful, despite horrible acting, stale jokes, and excessive laugh-tracking. How I Met Your Mother is the comfort food of television.