My wife and I sat down together for the new episode of How I Met Your Mother last night, and although the pre-credits segment gave me the bad feeling that it was going to be a weakly phoned in episode where things like Ted saying “oh CRAP” in response to a seemingly innocuous phone message are supposed to count as punchlines, we both ended up highly amused by the Rashomon-riff proceedings. Not once did my wife exasperatedly groan, “I just want to know who the mother is!”
Coincidentally enough (or not so coincidentally, considering the ubiquity of syndicated reruns of HIMYM and how often my wife and I flip to them as default background stimulus) I just recently caught the old Season 2 episode “Aldrin Justice” which was not merely referenced but actually namechecked in last night’s ep. So it was pretty top of mind for me to see the connections being drawn between the two storylines, for good and bad.
The absolutely praiseworthy aspect of the continuity between “Aldrin Justice” and “The Ashtray” is that it makes a point about life that rarely gets enough due: everything constantly changes and things rarely remain settled. That’s an inherent advantage of long-running serialized stories like modern tv shows, that by virtue of not being self-contained they can always re-open closed doors (or wounds) and re-examine things. In movies and novels, whatever obstacles must be overcome they are generally considered thoroughly vanquished by the final reel or chapter. In “Aldrin Justice” Lily causes no end of trouble for Ted after Ted gets her a job at his firm because Lily can’t stop treating Ted’s boss the way she would treat an unruly five-year-old, all of which leads to Lily’s epiphany that she’d be happiest as a kindergarten teacher after all. It’s very tidy. “The Ashtray” brings up the idea that Lily actually continues to be deeply ambivalent about teaching kindergarten and regretful about giving up all of her art-related dreams. Some people might see this as the writers not having a good handle on their own characters, or simply not bothering to remember what ground they’ve already covered on the show, but not me. Six years is a long time for anyone, and a profound number of things have happened to Lily in those six years, and it’s completely realistic for her opinions to have shifted and evolved to the point where she may very well be contradicting something she said earlier. Life is like that, not a matter of finding the one philosophical attitude or course of action that will bring you happiness forever, but getting up every morning and evaluating everything around you and everything inside you and making adjustments (going and getting it, energize, as well) as necessary. So fair play there.
The downside of the particular mechanism used in both episodes, confiscating (read: stealing) Hammond’s baseball in the earlier one and the Captain’s ashtray in the latter, is that it makes Lily out to be completely insane. I want to buy into Lily being a gifted kindergarten teacher, and I do consider one prerequisite of the job to be the ability to understand a five-year-old’s developmentally appropriate perspective. I do not consider a prerequisite of the job to be the inability to differentiate between small children and grown adults. Simplified black-and-white rules for behavior are excellent and important tools for molding the behavior of younguns who still have immense capacity for change. Applying those same standards to fully-formed human beings is wrong-headed; not only does the real world not operate like kindergarten, I don’t think it’s really supposed to, and idealizing that environment as The Way All Things Should Be is irrational in a way that goes well beyond the usual suspended-disbelief tomfoolery.
I’m aware of the irony here, in that part of me likes how HIMYM is willing to say that no one is ever finished growing, learning, and changing, and another part of me insists that there’s a finite window for actively influencing people’s development and ignoring the fact that it has closed is not terribly charming, and it all comes out of the same extended storyline. But there it is.
Then again, it’s just a sitcom. Ted screaming like a mezzo-soprano when startled is never not funny. Rondo Alla Turka playing whenever Barney implements a page from the Playbook is never not funny. If HIMYM needs me to turn a blind eye to Lily’s own weird incomprehensible blindspots, I suppose I’m willing.
On Sunday night, while much of the pop culture savvy world was watching PBS as they aired the Season 3 finale of Downton Abbey, my wife and I were watching the Season 2 finale on Blu-ray. We still have the Christmas Episode yet to go, and then we shall see how long we can hold out before ordering Season 3 for ourselves. I suspect not very long, which means that reasonably soon we’ll be in the same waiting-for-Season-4 boat as everyone else.
I am now prepared to admit that the stakes did in fact escalate as Downton Abbey went along through its first couple of seasons. On the one hand, the second season is almost entirely consumed by World War I and it’s all but impossible to handle that historical tragedy with a light touch. Still, on the other hand, the Earl of Grantham’s household suffered exactly one casualty between outbreak and armistice. (And then one more from the Spanish Flu, depending on how far we stretch the definition of “household”.) I would still say that the show as a whole has a standard formula for introducing problems and dispensing with them quickly and straightforwardly, although exceptions to that rule do seem to be slowly yet steadily multiplying.
And, quite possibly, my wife and I may be at the tipping point right now. I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of headlines online yesterday about Downton Abbey Season 3’s shocking cliffhanger ending and ponderings about how it may be the cruelest show on television. I resisted the urge to click on any of said headlines, but it does appear to portend a noticeable increase in the number of misfortunes befalling the Crawleys which are not rapidly and painlessly solved. Not that it matters, as both my wife and I are totally hooked on the show and would be unable to turn away at this point. I’m not even entirely sure what about it draws me in so much, beyond all the escapism and whatnot I’ve documented before. I’m just a sucker for melodrama.
Speaking of inability to turn away, in keeping with my resolution to finish Smallville by working through its penultimate and ultimate seasons, I did manage to watch the first four episodes of Season 9 already this month, which keeps me on pace (for the moment). The show has of course gone completely bananas at this point, to the point where I have no choice but to assume the writers were mandated with keeping things going as if their target audience did not care in the slightest about continuity with the earlier seasons. Granted, I always assert that the target audience is not comic book geeks but teen soap devotees; trust me, though, people who get into soaps care more than slightly about continuity. Still, it’s an amusing trainwreck. (And there literally is a wreck of the Metropolis elevated train in the Season 9 premiere. Well played, sirs.)
I remember when Smallville was a show about fathers and sons, about Clark Kent grappling with the parallel expectations of both his biological sire and adoptive dad, and Lex Luthor struggling with the toxic relationship between himself and his father, as well as the unlikely (and deeply ironic) friendship between Clark and Lex. By Season 9, the elder Kents and all of the Luthors are no longer anywhere to be found, which I guess makes sense since Clark isn’t a kid anymore. But when they ditched the trappings of Clark’s teenage years, the essence of the show, what did they replace it with? Mostly young adult angst, which is a lot trickier to do well (without becoming exceedingly annoying) than teen angst, plus a lot of will-they-won’t-they love-hate stuff with Lois Lane.
Oh, and weird fetish-service.
I’ve talked before about fan service in Smallville, and I suspect there’s going to be no shortage of that as I barrel towards the finish line. It’s entirely likely that half the time I don’t even notice it anymore because it’s so ingrained in the show’s character. But I have noticed a recent spike in the number of times that Tom Welling picks up and carries one of the actresses, sometimes under extremely flimsy pretexts. Obviously it’s usually Erica Durrance, as above, the Lois to his Clark, but Cassidy Freeman (playing Mercy, the new nominal Big Bad) got a similar ride the first time their characters met. Which of course only leads me to wonder, “Wait, is this, like, a thing?”
Which of course it is, it must be, I am familiar with Rule 34, thanks. I’m just apparently old school enough that the phenomenon of everything in the world (including cradle-carrying) being some kind of turn-on for somebody only occurs to me after a little thought, as opposed to instantaneous association. I suppose all in all it’s nice to see Smallville rolling out new (bizarre) tricks in the titillation trade even at this late stage in the game.