Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sit-coms and truth bombs (HIMYM finale, part 1)

So How I Met Your Mother has broadcast its final episodes and all that’s left to do now is overanalyze the bejeezus out of it. Which obviously entails dissecting exactly what happened at the end, so SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT to anyone who hasn’t caught up and/or reached the finish line yet.

Still with me? It’s actually fairly apt that I would lead off with a spoiler warning, because spoiler warnings in and of themselves are fairly emblematic of the information age we live in, bobbing along in a sea of professional critics and armchair commenters all enabled by the vast all-power of the internet. It consciously occurred to me, somewhere in the last fifteen minutes or so of the HIMYM finale, that it was a show that I cannot, in retrospect, imagine watching without the internet, and in some ways I can’t imagine even existing unto itself without the push and pull of online fandom (and, sure, haterdom). It certainly would have been a radically different viewing experience.

I’ve already copped to a prime example of this, when I explained how the significance of the flash-forwards in the episode “Vesuvius” were lost on me until I went online and read some comments about a working fan theory that the Mother dies before Ted starts telling his kids the story in the framing device, and in fact her absence in the future is in large part the justification for such prolonged remembrances of the past. Things got a little more complicated in the intervening weeks, because the whole question of whether or not the theory would prove correct got taken up in all corners of the blogosphere with any connection to television and/or pop culture. Because the show is a 200+ episode institution and was heading towards its grand climax, there were interviews with the cast in which they were pointedly asked about the Mother’s demise. There were opinion pieces which morphed into naked appeals to the showrunners to please, please get the ending right and make it a happily ever after for Ted. There were e-mails and blog comments exchanged between me and friends (mostly noted friend o’ the blog Harvey Jerkwater) rigorously examining the evidence and the precedents. I didn’t really write any more here for public consumption, but I read about it. A lot.

In an alternate universe with no interwebs, I would have been a bit oblivious in my reading of the fifth-to-last episode and then probably devastated by the revelation in the final montage. But here in reality, because of the extant communal e-consciousness, I went on a much wilder roller-coaster ride, being hipped to the probable ending and processing it and making peace with it and then somehow managing to find a lot of people earnestly promoting counter-theories, so many with such fervent dedication that I began to nurse a little hope that maybe it was going to be happily-ever-after after all, only to have that ultimately taken away by the canonical text as it unfolded in real time, which was still a little devastating but in a completely different way. For the record, I like the universe better with the interwebs (which really shouldn’t be in question at all, but there you go).

That’s a microcosmic example, but in practice HIMYM has always been a show enhanced by the constant online dialogue. It’s much like The X-Files or Lost, both in having a devoted and vocal fanbase (in near-constant battle with detractors) and in supporting its own world-building mythology and central mysteries. The crucial differences, though, are that (1) HIMYM was a comedy, not a drama, and therefore harder to get too serious about, and (2) I really, truly do believe that the showrunners knew all along how things were going to be resolved, whereas there are strong arguments to be made that shows like X-Files and Lost made things up as they went along (and infuriated a lot of people who expected more cohesive vision along the way).

Not to get too far off the path here, but allow me to take a moment to say that for a while now, and (I imagine) for the future, I’ve identified myself as a HIMYM defender. I keep bringing up this notion of fans vs. haters, and I am admittedly a fan. I’m glad I got into HIMYM and I had a rooting interest in it ending well, both for my own satisfaction with the entertainment itself and for purposes of not being undercut in my intentions to continue defending the show going forward. I am biased, both by liking the show and by wanting it to be something worth liking. Consider that my acknowledgment of the grain of salt with which you should take my pronouncements about how Carter and Bays were working with a solid plan that they stuck to their guns on. Consider the source. You can find a hundred examples on this blog illustrating how I go crazy for stories about stories and storytelling, and HIMYM had that in spades. So I can’t claim true objectivity, and I’m not really trying to.

Funny enough (he interrupted himself again), midway through the hourlong finale last night my wife brought up a question (which wound up being astonishingly prophetic, but I swear this is how it went down) about the whole idea of Robin drifting away from the group through the years from 2015 to 2024 or so. Because my wife, as well-versed in HIMYM-arcana as I am, recalled all the earlier episodes where Ted has pointed out how Robin is a wonderful “aunt” to the kids, as evidenced by the cute-as-pie crayon pictures of the kids and Aunt Robin at the zoo and somesuch. My wife couldn’t reconcile that with the image developing of Robin always being on foreign assignment as a cable news correspondent. I theorized off the top of my head that her travel schedule was grueling enough to make her marriage to Barney unworkable, but it wasn’t necessarily constant globetrotting. Doubtless she would come back to New York every few weeks or few months, and since she was no longer married, what would she do with that downtime? Visit Ted and his family, and do fun things on them with her copious disposable income. The logistics are almost besides the point, though. The real crux is that Ted is a romantic who sees the best in people, especially his friends, and puts the best spin on everything. Maybe his kids only see Aunt Robin four times a year, but that’s not going to stop Ted from proclaiming, and genuinely believing, that Robin is the best honorary aunt of all time. (Obviously there were other complicating factors in terms of Ted’s feelings, but we weren’t 100% aware of that at 8:30-something last night.) Point being,as Ted gives Robin the benefit of the doubt, I give HIMYM the benefit of the doubt, and so it goes.

And a lot of people never gave HIMYM the benefit of the doubt, and while there are plenty of legitimate criticisms you could level at the show the one that sticks in my craw will always be “Just tell us who the Mother is already!!!” And again, in this bold new digital frontier we are expanding every day, I have to take into account the fact that a lot of people’s primary hobby is trolling, and it’s almost impossible to tell who drops “Just tell us who the Mother is already!!!” onto a comment board because it distresses them greatly and who deploys it knowingly and sadistically to watch the nerd-fans lose their minds. But let’s take it at face value (because trolls, in and of themselves, suck and are easy to dismiss) and give the sentiment a final, exasperated sigh. People often lamented that HIMYM betrayed its own premise, by which they meant it betrayed its own title, as if that were the same thing. To me, it’s kind of like a person reading a novel and saying, “Wait a minute, this book is about war! And race and class issues! And how hard it is for a woman to be strong and independent without becoming, or being accused of becoming, a gold-digger or a harlot! All of those things are still with us today, why did they even call this book ‘Gone With the Wind’?!?!? Just tell me about the stuff that isn’t around anymore, already!” A title is not an implicit promise of what the work will be exclusively focused on, and even if it were, once more for the slow kids in the back, HIMYM was a comedy. Straying far afield from any supposed promises of its title is funny, because it subverts expectations.

I do of course have further thoughts about the ending of the series, the what and how and why of it all, but I will save that for another post. This one has already gotten too long for its own good, and I really need to go catch up on reading all the various online thinkpieces about the final episode. Tune in next Tuesday for part 2.

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