Chitchat: Bays, Thomas and How I Met Your Mother are just trolling us, right?

I talk television with a lot of people. Friends, family, other critics on Twitter, vagrants on the street. I just love talking about TV. Because I don’t have the time and resources to do a podcast like I used to in college, I’m going to sort of replicate that experience in textual form in a new recurring feature. Basically, I’ll just exchange a few emails with someone on a particular topic. You’ve seen this kind of thing done tons of other places, but it’s something I enjoy doing so expect more of it here on TVS.

Hiya, folks! As you may or may not know, I am current in the midst of a period that necessitates I keep my television criticism to a minimum. But although I do not really have the time to fit much in, I cannot stay away. There are too many interesting things to discuss. That is where a feature like Chitchat comes in handy. This week, I exchanged emails with two TVS favorites at once (I know, cray), Andy Daglas and Wes Ambrecht. The three of us discussed the last few controversial episodes of How I Met Your Mother, Robin and Ted’s relationship and how we’ve grown to accept that Craig Thomas and Carter Bays are just screwing with us.

Cory: Mr. Daglas, when we did our Best/Worst podcasts back in December, I distinctly remember you expressing a lot of disenfranchised feelings towards How I Met Your Mother. We are now a few months later and the series has burned through a few pretty big plots and twists in the last few episodes. I just had to get your take on what’s been happening on HIMYM recently. How do you feel about the series returning to the Ted-Robin well? And how do you feel about the series quickly backing away from that story with a half-cocked promised quasi-“ending” to their relationship? 

Andy: Thanks for checking in, because it’s true that I have an unusually strong bond to How I Met Your Mother and its characters. The return of the Ted/Robin pairing, however sclerotic, does feel like a long-running franchise evoking its roots, like Buffy‘s seventh season reopening Sunnydale High, or Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade delving into the Third Reich. Not to compare Mosbatzky to Hellmouths and Nazis, of course, but there’s definitely a “let’s recapture the magic” sense to it.

In a vacuum, I’m okay with this story for these characters – falling back into familiar ruts from your past, especially ones you have fond memories of, is totally sensible for people in the places Ted and Robin find themselves in. But this story isn’t being told in a vacuum, and I’m less satisfied with why the context that precipitates it exists.

The fact is Ted has been in a pretty miserable place for several years now. He’s not where he wants to be in life (seven years since he decided to settle down, and no closer to his goal), and he’s been through every level of heartbreak you can conjure up, on both sides of the equation. As for Robin, she could be in a comfortable place that fits her character – pursuing her career and not spending a lot of time thinking about romantic roads not taken – but Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have decided that everyone on this show deserves/desires a relationship above all else, and so Robin is contorted into these circumstances.

Meanwhile, the ability to tell the smaller, slice-of-life stories that HIMYM mastered in its early seasons has faded (Marshall and Lily’s uneasy morph into domesticity being an exception). Maybe it’s because they’ve just been on the air for so long and they’ve run out of material. Or maybe they’re burning through so many plots this year because they’ve lost the confidence in telling those simpler stories. Friends experienced a similar shift in its last two or three seasons, becoming much more heavily serialized and often counting on momentum to fill in for nuance. Is it a paradox of the sitcom story engine, one that most shows never face because they don’t make it to seven seasons and beyond?

Cory: Your point about the story in and out of a vacuum really hits home with me. I wrote earlier this season that HIMYM has become, for me, a series that’s basically all about the vacuum. This season has had a slew of legitimately great, moving and powerful moments, but viewing them together as part of a larger, coherent narrative that means something for Ted, Robin or even Barney makes way less sense. I totally see the value in returning to the Ted and Robin relationship; Frankly, I’m fine with the series eventually flipping the audience the bird and making Robin Ted’s wife (whether that means she’s the first one and not The Mother, or actually The Mother). And I’m particularly intrigued by a Ted-Robin-Barney love triangle, if only because it would put interesting tension on Ted and Barney’s relationship in a way that we’ve really never seen.

But because the season tried to reach this point by using Kevin as the primary obstacle, with Ted floating around on the periphery until it was time for him to do something important, it felt slightly out of the blue once Ted proclaimed his love. Then to simply burn through more Ted and Robin, Robin and Barney and Barney and Ted stories in 21 minutes seemed severely misguided to me. And of course, the series couldn’t resist smacking the audience in the face with the possibility that it will just return to it again because, as you suggest, the romance card is the only one HIMYM has left in the deck. 

Watching HIMYM is an especially odd experience because of all the extratextual stuff — We know about The Mother, but we also know that this is all part of a two-season story and we often have Bays and Thomas’ bullshit rhetoric in our minds as well. I’m constantly intrigued by how often Bays/Thomas actively screw with the audience, so I’m not surprised when something like this happens. Yet, while I can still feel the emotion in the moment (mostly because of the performances, and oh by the way, it’s nice to be reminded that Josh Radnor can do a little acting), it’s hard to ultimately care about, well, anything. Wes, let me bring you in here. What’s your relationship with HIMYM at this point and how do you feel about the last few episodes in particular?

Wes: HIMYM is a show that I sort of stumbled upon midway through its first season, after FOX pulled Kitchen Confidential from the schedule, leaving me with a 30 minute window between Arrested Development and Everwood. The show hooked me pretty quickly with its fun character dynamics and blatantly romantic stories. And, by the end of season 1, I was fairly invested in Ted’s quest for love.

Since then, my love of the show has waxed and waned. Like most people I adored the Ted/Robin pairing that season 2 gave us. Unlike most, I was also fond of the Ted/Stella pairing from seasons 3 and 4. Even the show’s 5th season had enough individual moments like “The Window” to keep me sated. But, last year’s misguided Zoey arc left a bitter taste in my mouth and made me question whether Bays and Thomas were just as directionless as their protagonist.

The answer so far this season seems to be a resounding “Yes!” Ted has been adrift for some time now, which I can empathize with. But, he’s also done very little to change that. Personally, I was hoping Victoria would help straighten him out, but her reappearance has served little purpose outside of “Ducky Tie” itself. Instead, Ted’s love life has become an afterthought this season. 

Excluding the awful “The Slutty Pumpkin Returns,” the writers have rarely addressed Ted’s quest this year. In lieu of Ted stories, Bays and Thomas have given us the Nora/Barney/Robin/Kevin quadrangle to chew on. That had variable returns for me. I liked most all of the Nora/Barney stuff, was largely apathetic towards the Robin/Kevin material, and cringed at all of the Barney/Robin stories. 

All of this brings me to last week’s rather abysmal “The Drunk Train.” Other than Becki Newton, nothing about “The Drunk Train” worked for me. The emotional reveals were sloppily handled. The drunk train gag was too broad. Robin came out of her relationship with Kevin looking like an indecisive train-wreck; and, Ted’s sudden reveal felt like the writers pandering to shippers. That said, I quite liked the fallout from his reveal and just about everything else the show did in “No Pressure.” In fact, my only real grievance with “No Pressure” is the final scene, which felt like Bays and Thomas attempting to leave open a door that Ted himself had just closed. In other words, I don’t ever want to see a Robin/Ted story again. They both need to move on, sooner rather than later.

Cory: You both hit on something that is curious to me. I know that HIMYM, at its core, is a romantic comedy, but in recent seasons, it feels like the series has almost solely relied on “coupling” as a story engine. Whether it is Robin and Barney, Ted and Robin, Ted and Zoey or Robin and Kevin, those stories dominate the narrative. Worst of all, the series constantly tells us that these relationships don’t even matter that much. We know that all of Ted’s relationships are part of larger wheel-spinning, but Robin and Barney’s various entanglements are also sort of weightless despite their prominence in the narrative. The three single people just find other single people (or each other), cycle through typical beats and then the series writes it off as “part of the journey.” Why, Andy, should we care about any of these relationships when we know the series has another one around the corner, or worse, explicitly tells us it’s not going anywhere? Doesn’t that automatically remove our investment? Can’t they come up with anything else?

Andy: I think the problem is less about a philosophical divide between journey and destination than about a journey that has been traveled too many times by now. HIMYM has often evoked comparisons to another popular series that built up a surfeit of mystery (something about an island, I think), and in both cases, the endpoints are never as interesting as the character moments along the way. But HIMYM has examined 20- and 30-something relationships from every conceivable angle by this point – long-term but doomed, short-term but enriching, amicable break-ups, virulent heartache, irresistible singlehood, immovable monogamy. The romance vein is tapped. 

And beyond exhausting the writers, that hurts the lead character as well. This isn’t just a romantic comedy, but a comedy about a romantic – a guy, Ted Mosby, who’s developing ideas about love and commitment but retains a doe-eyed optimism. Well, after seven unfulfilled years that optimism either gets beaten out of you or starts to ring hollow. HIMYM has struggled with both.

In my opinion, the only way out of the spiral is to do what Bays & Thomas are adamant they won’t do – introduce the mother, integrate her into the gang (better than any of the recent guest-star paramours, hopefully), and settle into new kinds of stories about the endless transition to adulthood. Do any of these people still have careers, by the way? (Except for Marshall and his string of wacky bosses.)

What do you gentlemen think: Can fulfilling the show’s premise restore its promise, at least for one or two last seasons?

Wes: First off, I don’t think it’s fair to say that recent seasons of HIMYM have been powered almost exclusively by coupling stories. Last season gave us the search for Barney’s father, the death of Marshall’s and the build-up to Lily’s pregnancy. The latter of those three was only successful some of the time, but the other two were arguably the best arcs Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segal have been given, respectively. 

Still, at its heart, HIMYM is a romantic comedy. Thus, season long romantic entanglements are somewhat necessary. As I mentioned earlier, I am a staunch defender of Nora and the chemistry NPH had with Nazanin Boniadi. But, for every Nora, we’ve also gotten a Don.

This season we’ve spent a great deal of time on the Kevin/Robin relationship, enough that I could have been fooled into thinking they had a future together. Last week, Kal Penn signed on to a pilot for ABC, indicating that he is ready for series regular work again. Had HIMYM decided that Kevin was the man for Robin and locked Penn up for next season, I would have been more than OK with that. That they chose not to speaks to Bays and Thomas’ unwillingness to close certain doors. They love having the Barney/Robin well to go back to. They love teasing fans who think Robin could still somehow become the mother (whether by magic or science). They love having options. Unfortunately, those options have become a crutch for the show. 

Andrew makes several good points about Ted as a character. After seven unfulfilled years, he should feel like a wayward soldier of love. That’s a story I’d love to see mined. Instead, Bays and Thomas have decided to have Ted come to terms with the notion that he’s simply not ready to get married later this season. I don’t know about you guys, but that strikes me as offensive to the audience.

If given the reins to HIMYM, I would quickly introduce the mother. We know Ted meets her at Barney’s wedding, so marrying Barney off would instantly become my top priority. I’ve never been a fan of Barney and Robin as a couple, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that it’s their wedding we’ve seen clips of, especially now that Becki Newton has taken a pilot at FOX. So, make the Barney/Robin union the season finale and spend next season integrating the wife into the clique.

On a side note, many of the show’s fans have decided that Ted’s wife is Barney’s half-sister. Should the show travel down that path, how would y’all feel about it?

Cory: Wes, you make a solid point about the series’ other stories and I quite liked both Barney and Marshall’s father-related issues. But it does feel like the series has completely run out of things to do with Ted, whether romantic or not. Maybe I’m the only one, but I’ve always been in Ted’s professional life and I think the series has completely dropped the ball in showing us much of Ted, the architect, or Ted, the college lecturer. What, exactly is Ted even doing right now? Heck, that could be a story right there. If Ted isn’t given any professional stories and really any other romantic stories other than the occasional mention of how static he feels, the character lacks all purpose. Unfortunately, this is has been the problem with Ted since his relationship with Stella (more or less) and after so many years, it is hard for me to get invested in anything Ted does, let alone pay attention to all the clues about The Mother. 

It is so odd to me how Bays and Thomas actively antagonize the audience, apparently because they can. It seems obvious to the three of us — and many others — which the series needs to make moves in regard to The Mother, but Bays/Thomas refuse to do so and therefore, Ted remains stuck. And while they’ve given constantly good material to at least two of the other supporting characters, it’s confounding to me that they haven’t figured out how to write any quality Ted stories. Based on this conversation, it appears that we would all prefer that the series just introduce The Mother and move forward from there. If that person is Barney’s half-sister, fine. If it’s a stranger, fine. Frankly, for me, if it’s Robin, whatever, fine. I don’t need to see The Mother in like I need to know the answer to a question. I’ve never watched HIMYM for the identity of The Mother and all the possible clues. I just want them to stop stalling. Andy, your thoughts? Is there any way that the series can improve its handling of Ted without introducing The Mother?

Andy: Cory, you brought up something I was thinking about during my last reply – what happened to these people’s jobs? Ted and Robin both got some strong early season material out of their chosen career paths, and navigating the divide between their dreams and the day-to-day reality. It both complemented the romantic quests and gave the characters vital shading that made them more fully relatable. As Future Ted has often informed his by-now-fully-grown kids, this isn’t just the story of how he met his wife – it’s the story of how he became the man he had to be in order to meet her. That growth entails more than a scattered and scarred romantic history, a fact it seems HIMYM‘s lost sight of.

My answer to your question of whether the show can improve sans Mother is both yes and no. On one hand, it can improve by returning to stories about other, non-coupling aspects of their lives (like Barney’s and Marshall’s arcs, as Wes mentioned). On the other hand, I’m convinced that such a shift (at least with respect to Ted) won’t happen so long as Bays and Thomas have Mother Tunnel Vision.

At the very least, is it too much to hope for one more solid Ted Mosby: Architect story that sees the return of Bryan Cranston as Hammond Druthers?

Wes: I’ve already insulted the Zoey arc, and I don’t want to harp on it because I love Jennifer Morrison like nobody’s business, but it’s important that we remember her arc was a work adjacent one. She and Ted met and came into conflict over the erection of the new GNB building. That was a season long story that involved Professor Mosby and Architect Mosby. It wasn’t a good story, and was vastly overshadowed by the material NPH and Jason Segal were given, but it was a work-related story nonetheless.

In “Challenged Accepted,” Ted finally demolished the Arcadian and started work on the GNB building. And yet, we’ve barely addressed the actual construction of said building at all this season. Ted’s sudden success was briefly touched on in “The Naked Truth,” but we never saw him at the build site. Are we really expected to believe that a project riddled with problems in the planning stage is being built without any complications? 

I can forgive HIMYM for shying away from Robin’s work stuff, because we know she doesn’t really flourish as a reporter until being sent to cover foreign news stories; and, they can’t write Cobie Smulders out. “Tailgate” did a good job showing us Robin coming into her own, and this week they sent her to Russia. Baby-steps but acceptable ones, for now. Similarly, I can forgive the lack of Lily work stories, as she is very likely on maternity leave. That doesn’t, however, excuse them for telling the rather terrible Marshall work stories we’ve seen this year. I’ve never been a Martin Short fan, but the material they’ve written for him is particularly grating.

Since neither of you bit on my question about Ted’s future wife being Barney’s half-sister, I’d like to briefly address my issues with it. Before casting Jennifer Morrison last fall, Bays and Thomas also met with Minka Kelly and Jacinda Barrett. As with Morrison, both Kelly and Barrett are in their 30s, and therefore of a comparable age to Ted. Barney’s half-sister is supposed to be a traditional undergraduate college student, which means that she is all of 21. At 21, I’m an entirely comfortable with the idea of marriage, but I know almost no one else my age that is. That paired with the age disparity between her and Ted creates a litany of problems for me.

Cory: The idea of Ted dating a 21-year old makes me shiver in fear. That sounds awful. Like I said in my last response, I really don’t care who The Mother is or how we meet here, but that option is certainly not the most appealing. It’s possible that a younger woman could spark certain traits within Ted that aren’t so pretentious or annoying and obviously, age ain’t nothin’ but a number. I’m skeptical, though. 

Ultimately, I think the fact that we’re talking about a possible Mother candidate, one that’s dominating speculation among fans, is telling. Bays and Thomas want the audience to be speculating and theorizing about the identity of The Mother. And I get it, that is the basic hook of the premise. But there is an odd disconnect between that hook and the kind of things Bays and Thomas blow off about in interviews or the kind of things the series puts forth. Everything on HIMYM is supposedly about the journey, the road to maturation and true love or whatever. I’m fine with that. However, because of Bays/Thomas’ unwillingness to pull the trigger on well, anything, related to The Mother (and, of course, the series’ runaway success), that journey is stalled; it’s more frustration than maturation, for both Ted and us.

The series, not unlike Lost, is trying to serve two masters and it’s becoming ever-cumbersome. Whereas Lost‘s showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (basically) never wavered from their assertion that the story was about the people and the journey and audiences sort of refused to listen, Bays and Thomas have the opposite problem: They won’t listen to their audience. As we get to the end of our conversation here, I’m wondering: Is there anything that could turn you away completely from HIMYM, and how do you think this season ends? Will we, in fact, meet The Mother?

Wes: At the point, I’m in too deep. Nothing could really drive me away from HIMYM completely. So, congratulations to Bays and Thomas! They can continue telling mediocre stories and know they’ll always have at least 1 guy who sticks with them.

As for how they season ends, your guess is as good as mine. With Becki Newton expected to recur through the remainder of this season, there won’t be a great deal of time to work on the Barney/Robin romance. That means the season either ends with Newton’s character leaving Barney at the altar or no wedding at all. And, as aforementioned, no wedding means no mother.

Andrew: As we’ve discussed before, Cory, I too am stuck with HIMYM for the long haul. The characters got their hooks in me in such a way that bailing out isn’t really an option, short of Ryan Murphy somehow seizing control of the show as part of a bloody campaign across the writers’ rooms of Los Angeles.
At this point, I tend to doubt that the future Mrs. Mosby will appear until the final arc of the final season, and we know this isn’t the final season. So I agree that the last few episodes this year will rekindle Barney & Robin one way or another, culminating in 1) A cliffhanger and 2) A whiplashing misdirect. That’s how the game is played.

But in spite of all that, I won’t give up hope that the show can hit (or approach) its heights again, even intermittently. “The Ducky Tie” and “Tailgate” are fantastic examples of that this season. And while they’ve had story problems, the last several episodes have demonstrated that Bays, Thomas, and Pamela Fryman are still willing to experiment with structure in interesting ways – this isn’t a creative team that’s just going to mail it in 22 times a year and coast on strong ratings. Hey, if you’re going to be a HIMYM fan, you’ve gotta have a little naive optimism in your DNA, right?

Cory: Now that I think about it, I am convinced that this season ends with Barney being left at the altar. I’m not up on all the clues, but have we been told that Ted meets The Mother when Barney gets married or just “at Barney’s wedding?” If it’s the latter (which feels like a Bays/Thomas hoodwink-type move), then I’d imagine that Barney somehow decides to marry Becki Newton’s character and is ultimately let down. That sets up big things for Barney and Robin into the next (and hopefully last) season and also hopefully puts Ted on the path towards something substantial as well. Rushing a Barney-Robin wedding doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me based on what we’ve seen over the last half-dozen episodes and I think this production team would love to pull out some wedding shenanigans again (it is their thing, I guess). I am still convinced that next year will be the end, if only because the cast’s profiles have outgrown television. Like you, Andy, I’m optimistic that Bays and Thomas will actually listen to the loud cries to move forward without taking two steps back. But I’m definitely expecting to be jabbed with a dumb twist just the same. 

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