Written by: Patrick Kelly, CC2K TV Editor
How I Met Your Mother has never claimed to be Arrested Development. It’s obvious that it’s never aspired to be anything more than an atypical CBS comedy, targeting a different demographic than the usual—the old and the humorless. And although it’s never claimed to be anything more than a ploy to gather CBS some sort of solid base to replace the dying, it’s becoming more than that. Slowly. So, if you started to watch but dismissed it as a “CBS show”, that means it’s worth watching (again).
Take its first three seasons. If you took off the CBS logo, you’d still be able to tell it was the standard CBS comedy: three fixed cameras, two main sets (the bar and the apartment), and one central goal/joke per episode. The biggest tell would be the characters, characters that fit roles so snuggly you become convinced that they were the result of spring focus groups. Girls, what do you want to see in a leading guy? Result: the whiny, reliable and romantic Ted. What personality can both guys and girls sympathize with? Answer: The sarcastic, goofy, loyal, imperfect Lilly. Everything on the show seemed too well placed to be considered a legitimate comedy: Stand here, say this joke at the end of your line, create curiosity with unusual story structure (the premise of the show: Future Ted, somewhere around the year 2030, is playing an infinitely long tape for his children to see how he met their mother. You are watching the footage that they see.)…
Had it not been for Jason Segal (who plays Marshall), who’s solid in every show/movie he’s in (most definitely Slackers), I probably would have stopped watching after the fifth episode. Aside from him, it was bland and predictable show, consisting solely of a whiny lead character, a gimmick (even though Neil Patrick Harris is legit, that’s essentially why he was picked—especially after Harold and Kumar), a ‘hot” girl (in Robin) and a recognizable, solidly funny female lead, Alyson Hannigan (who plays Lilly). There was absolutely nothing to the show, other than the simple controlled process that every CBS show slugs through. CSI: Miami. The Big Bang Theory. They’re all the same. And, though, I have no doubt that CBS gave absolutely zero thought to the chemistry among the characters/actors (and all thought to focus groups), the group itself is now responsible for a solid and authentically funny show, which, in turn, means that the writers (and the producers) have figured out that the only way to build real characters and be funny at the same time is to write specifically towards the comedic strengths of its main characters (which should, obviously, be the norm, but is not).
It seems like they have seen that Marshall, as an extension of Jason Segal, is the best possible way to play that character and, wisely, have appropriated that to every other main character. Take Ted for example. He was bogged down with the same problem most comedic leads run into (mostly in film): With their main goal being to move the story, the “funny” parts involving them are not that funny at all. Jason London in Dazed in Confused. Jason Biggs in Saving Silverman. Jason London in Out Cold. Every male lead in a tween chic-flick, ever. They are off-balance and their lines just come across as corny, because they are not as funny as each one of their “buddies”—which would go unnoticed if you couldn’t see that they are still trying to be. This is exactly what Ted was like from seasons one and two, overshadowed by the laugh-inducing lines of others but still awkwardly trying to be laughed at. But, that all has changed in season four (and partly in season three). The qualities that came across as annoying only to the viewer, are now inherent qualities written into his character. His annoyingness becomes part of the character, which allows the other characters to make fun of it, thereby making his character funny in the end. Just as the writers used Segal’s inherent knack for timing and NPH’s quality that he is, in fact, NPH to the show’s advantage, they are using Ted’s naturally annoying qualities to advance his character, thus advancing the show (the best example of this is last year’s Slapsgiving episode).
Now, it might seem like I’m saying that Ted’s real life counterpart, Josh Radnor, is annoying. He could be, but I am not. I am simply saying that the show is benefiting in a huge way thanks to the writers’ awareness of how each character is perceived from the audience’s standpoint. The writers/producers could have just taken a victory lap right after the initial airing 4 years ago, assuming that the “If it airs on CBS, it will last 10 seasons regardless” rule applied. But they didn’t. They saw Segal’s talent and used it. They saw the chemistry/awkwardness between Lilly and Marshall could be a show itself. They saw that Robin had to be Canadian and, therefore, ridiculous, to keep the balance among the group. And they let the lead be funny. The show might be too generic and two fixed for a lot of comedy watchers (who have begun to expect every show should be as good as Arrested), but, overall, it’s good in terms of comedy and great in terms of CBS programming. If you haven’t watched it, try—at least just to see Segal and his proper sense of awkwardness (nearly every episode). If you have watched it, try again. I truly think it’s worth another shot because now it’s more than just a formula.