Thursday, August 30, 2007

“How I Met Your Mother” Shows Traditional Sitcoms Can Still Work

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

It’s a tough time to be a devotee of traditional sitcoms.

It is almost hard to imagine there was a time when a network could air two hours of half-hour comedies on a night, and that lineup would rule the ratings and be dubbed “Must See TV,” as NBC did on Thursdays in the 1990s. It’s also hard to picture that in the 1996-1997 season, the schedule featured “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown” “Mad About You,” “NewsRadio” and “Spin City,” all at the same time. All of those shows were traditional, multi-camera offerings taped in front of a live audience.

What a difference eleven years make. In the upcoming season, ABC is not returning a single half-hour comedy, CBS and the CW each have three holdovers, NBC brings back four (all on Thursday night), and Fox welcomes back only one non-animated sitcom (CBS, ABC and the CW have some mid-season replacements). None of the networks are introducing a whole lot of new comedy programming this season. CBS, Fox and the CW will debut only one half-hour sitcom each, ABC has three, and NBC does not have a single new half-hour comedy on the schedule. (And, as I discussed on August 9 in this space, TBS’s attempts to fill the void have, for the most part, fallen well short of the mark.)

Of the few comedies on the schedule, many are not even traditional, multi-camera sitcoms. Sure, I love NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup, featuring the top-notch “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” and “The Office,” along with the entertaining “My Name Is Earl.” But all of those shows are single-camera productions that, while truly innovative and feature superior writing and acting, are not the traditional multi-camera sitcoms I grew up with, like “The Odd Couple” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” If comedy was thriving on television in the single-camera format, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the problem is that there are hardly any comedies on television anymore, regardless of format.

In fact, not counting the new shows being introduced this fall, there is exactly one multi-camera sitcom currently airing that is at the same quality level as the shows from the 1996-1997 season I listed above: “How I Met Your Mother.” As a hip, interesting show about twentysomethings on CBS, a network whose programming generally tilts towards the old folks, “How I Met Your Mother” has struggled to gain big ratings, earning just enough viewers and critical acclaim to hang on for a third season beginning this fall. It may be shot in a traditional, multi-camera format, but like classic sitcoms of the 1990s, it employs an innovative structure, making it an uneasy fit with the other more traditional (read: boring and cliché) half-hour programs CBS surrounds it with, namely the overrated “Two And A Half Men.” This season “How I Met Your Mother” will be paired with a new show, “The Big Bang Theory” (8:00 and 8:30 on Monday nights), that looks like it has the potential to be a good fit. Time will tell.

“How I Met Your Mother” follows five twentysomethings living in present day New York City. The stories are flashbacks, the tales of an off-screen narrator (an uncredited Bog Saget) telling his two kids, not surprisingly, how he met their mother (we don’t know yet who turns out to be the wife). Saget is the voice of Ted (Josh Radnor), an architect who for the first two seasons pursued, finally reeled in, and then lost local television anchor Robin (Cobie Smulders). Ted lives with his two college friends, longtime couple Marshall (Jason Segal, a member of Judd Apatow’s unofficial repertory group) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan of “American Pie” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), who married in last season’s finale. Hanging around to provide outrageous comic moments is the gang’s friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris, playing a cleaned up version of his fictional self as portrayed in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”), a walking ball of id in a suit (always in a suit).

What I love about “How I Met Your Mother” is that the writers/creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have taken a conventional setup (post-collegians coming of age in New York), placed it into a conventional format (the multi-camera sitcom), and then proceeded to regularly and systematically blow it all up, producing something that is like nothing else on television. While the show has trended to more traditional storytelling (no doubt a network “note” to try and boost ratings), it still plays fast and loose with sitcom rules of plot and character. A signature “How I Met Your Mother” move is letting a storyline play out and then going back to a seemingly insignificant moment and revealing the events from a different character’s perspective, only to have that moment take on new and important meaning. The episodes are constructed like the best films, where you can go back and see the seeds that were planted to justify exciting payoffs and twists.

Bays and Thomas also give their actors some of the sharpest comedy lines this side of Dunder-Mifflin and Sacred Heart Hospital. Barney’s fun and games with the English language (usually involving some riff on how “awesome” he is, or how “legendary” one of his exploits will be) get all the attention, but all of the characters get the chance to kill with expertly constructed dialogue, especially the playful repartee between Marshall and Lily.

The writers also cook up some of the most inspired and bizarre plot scenarios on television. Again, Barney gets the high-profile ones (for example, episodes built around his belief that Bob Barker is his father and his exploits with his gay, African-American brother, played by Wayne Brady), but there are plenty to go around. Last year’s two-part finale had you convinced Ted and Robin were either expecting a child or concealing that they had eloped, only to reveal at the end that they had broken up but wanted to hide the fact from their friends so as not to ruin Marshall and Lily’s wedding day. In another episode, Robin’s deep, dark secret (and fear of malls) is exposed, but it’s not what anyone thinks (including Barney, who is so convinced she was a porn star, he engages in a “slap bet” with Marshall over it, with Lily as the referee). Turns out, it was her career as a bubblegum pop singer in Canada when she was a teenager (under the name Robin Sparkles) with a song (called, of course, “Let’s Go to the Mall”) and video that were pitch perfect for the genre. (You can see a clip from this part of the show here, and the Robin Sparkles MySpace page here with the video in its unaired entirety.)

Where the show really excels is with its characters. As over-the-top as Barney is, these are five people that truly like each other, and that we, as an audience, like to spend time with. Ted and Marshall rival J.D. and Turk of “Scrubs” for the title of the closest heterosexual guy couple on television (their sword fight to determine who gets their apartment after Marshall and Lily get married was a piece of physical comedy worthy of the best moments on “Frasier,” only to be topped by the ensuing scene in the hospital after Lily is accidentally stabbed). You could argue that, really, Ted, Marshall and Lily are in one big relationship, with this idea becoming more overt late last season with Ted’s aborted move to Robin’s apartment. Left by themselves, Marshall and Lily go from liberated to terrified at the prospect of not having Ted around, with Marshall coming to the conclusion that they were like a rare South American tree that needed to grow around a second tree to survive. When Ted returns home and Marshall and Lily sandwich him into a hug, the moment was both gut-busting funny and poignant, all at the same time, with Radnor’s confused look acting as the cherry on the sundae.

“How I Met Your Mother” provides weekly proof that the sitcom is not (or should not be) a dying art form. I just hope enough people watch this season to keep the show going. If “How I Met Your Mother” gets canceled, and if none of the new shows take hold (how much faith do you have that a thirty-minute comedy featuring the Geico cavemen will last?), what are we left with? The sitcom, with a long and rich history, ranging from “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” through to “Seinfeld,” could become extinct. That is something that Barney would certainly not think is awesome. And he would be right.