I Re-watched How I Met Your Mother: It’s Fine…But Not Legendary

Ups and Downs Upon a Modern Re-viewing

We’re solidly past the 1-year point of COVID. The phases of quarantine are now ultimately too familiar. We’ve gone through the binge-eating and binge-drinking. (Re)watching everything on your various streaming queues. Starting and quitting various personal projects. The unenthusiastic attempts at getting in shape. The shame at failing to get in shape and the return to binge-eating. Rinse and repeat.

Like you, I’ve made every effort at trying to fill the time, a difficult prospect when you’re single and live alone. I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve purchased and read. I finished my dissertation and began the drudgery that is the job search during a pandemic. A few weeks ago, I officially reached the point where I started going back to things I had not visited in a long time. One of those was How I Met Your Mother.

It’s been a long time since HIMYM went off the air. Immediately after that and since, critics and fans alike have gone over the show’s run. At one point considered the heir apparent to Friends, the show became a major part of the cultural zeitgeist. Slap bets. The Bro Code. Robin Sparkles. Haaaaave you met Ted? The utter confusion as to why Future Ted sounds like Bob Saget? HIMYM was a major part of the mid-00s to mid-10s and for a lot of people, remains a fondly remembered TV show by legions of fans.

I’m not going to rehash the numerous points which have already been made. The show as a whole has been combed over, particularly the final season and that ghastly finale. I want to take a minute and talk about the things that I noticed upon watching the show again. All 9 seasons, all 208 episodes. I was never a major fan of the show although I did enjoy it. I actually never watched the final 2 seasons when they originally aired, so this viewing was interesting for me. Some things I remembered, and others really popped out to me. So here are some ups and downs from my trip. I’ve left out some of the things that others have noted, and this is by no means a comprehensive analysis of the show, so don’t be surprised if there is something you liked or hated that I don’t mention.

The Downs

  1. The New York City Love Fest/Porno Show

Hey. Here’s something I bet you didn’t know. HIMYM was set in NYC. I know I know; you’re shocked. A lot of TV shows are very famously set in NYC. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, despite the persisting myth that everyone wants to live there (hint hint; we do not). Any number of popular and unpopular shows have been set in NYC.

The thing about this show that sets it apart (and not in a good way) is the sheer amount of what can only be described as semi-pornographic adulation for the city. Seemingly every other episode makes some reference to “the greatest city on Earth” and/or goes to unnecessary lengths to disparage other cities. The tired jokes about New Jersey sound like they come from rejected SNL scripts. The jokes about St. Cloud and Cleveland read like they written by someone flying over the cities.

The creators of the show clearly wrote while they were drunk. Not on booze, although it would explain some stuff. No, they were clearly drunk on the semi-intellectual naval-gazing Kool-Aid written for people who feel that constant pang of inadequacy, the people who feel like they cannot and will not amount to anything in life if they aren’t New Yorkers. In an effort to write and ode to NYC, the show inadvertently made me hate the idea of living there more than I already had.

An important thing to note while we’re here. This obsession with NYC is really not with the entire city; it’s just Manhattan. I cannot recall many instances where the gang ventures into The Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn. Occasionally, they go to Staten Island, but these forays are almost exclusively to make jokes about the suburbs. The absence of these places from the story and the fetishization of Manhattan makes NYC seem like a vastly different place than the reality, which leads to my next observation.

2. The Appalling Lack of Diversity

New York City is a highly diverse metropolitan area. Queens alone is one of the most diverse locales in the world. It’s curious then that the principle cast and nearly all of the characters they interact with are white. Like, super white. The same kind of white people who are responsible for gentrification but were simultaneously responsible for it (an awareness the show never had the courage to address).

Where are the people of color? Where are the people from other backgrounds and cultures? How is it possible that the gang has basically no non-white friends or romantic partners? Did the show need to be an in-depth exploration of urban life? No. It was funny and feel-good escapism.

But is it excusable to have a show set in New York City and hardly any substantial roles for actors of color (aside from Barney’s brother James, who was played by Wayne Brady)? Absolutely not. You cannot claim ignorance or act like it wasn’t intentional, as this same criticism was levied at Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex & City. When casting a show set in NYC, it’s a choice, conscious or otherwise, not to have more diversity in your cast.

3. The Many, Many Transphobic Jokes

American culture and society have changed a lot in recent years. Much to the chagrin of conservatives and the fresh batch of Nazis that have suddenly come out of the woodwork, social justice, equality, equity, and representation have become major societal touchpoints. Despite what the right would claim, this is not an attempt at cishet/white/male cultural erasure; it’s a genuine effort to make a fairer and more inclusive America, an acknowledgement of past and current sins.

Trans rights and trans identity have become major parts of this conversation. More and more openly-trans and nonbinary actors are getting roles in cinema and TV and the long-overdue normalization of the larger LBGTQ community is underway.

This makes it all the more difficult to watch the show. I lost count of the number of times the characters made jokes about trans folks. Perhaps the most common was when one of the male characters (mostly Ted and Barney) would meet a girl. Invariably, the show would introduce some unnecessary and unrealistic sitcom tension about “what was wrong with the girl.” Easily the most common guess was a terrified and repulsed “Oh my god did she used to be a dude?”

This joke smacks loudly of trans and gay-panic defenses, a poorly but all-too-frequently utilized defense by bigoted men accused of murdering gay men, trans women, and a range of LGBTQ people. The idea of dating, kissing, or even sleeping with a trans person being the peak of repulsion is grotesque, and it’s song this show played far too often and doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny or defense.

4. They Are Absolutely Alcoholics

This point is going to sound trite and hypocritical from someone who, if you’ve read some of my other pieces, is known to be a regular bar customer. That being said, the principle cast of HIMYM is comprised of full-on alcoholics. I’d be willing to bet that at least 90–95% of episodes take place in a bar or include the gang drinking/getting drunk. While there is nothing wrong will drinking socially with friends or enjoying a drink at the end of the day, the gang seems to pretty well cross the threshold; they seem to be drinking/drunk/or hungover more than they are sober.

The problems of having a cast of characters we are supposed to like that are all “functioning” alcoholics notwithstanding, once you see it you can’t unsee it. And it explains a lot of the poor behavior — the paranoia, the lying, the personal and romantic troubles — are all explainable by the character’s being drunk pretty much all the time. How can you expect to get your life together and see things clearly when your view of the world is parochial and booze-soaked?

5. Ted is AWFUL

Ok. I wasn’t going to rehash the more common issues with the show (notice the absence of Barney, the last season, and killing off Tracy) but this needs to be said. A lot of hay has been made about how awful Ted is. The fact that he is telling his kids about drinking, smoking, and his years of casual sex. The fact that he treats women badly. Or how about how he claims to be this punch-drunk romantic but is more than willing to join Barney on his quest for casual sex. Or still yet, his insane pretentiousness (honestly, he would be impossible to be friends with in real life; why the fuck are you speaking in Italian, Ted? Just shut up and watch the movie).

Perhaps nothing is more annoying that the fact that he whines and pines after Robin the entire show, ultimately ending with the damn-near criminal death of The Mother (Tracy, who literally doesn’t have a name until the last episode) and his nauseating run back to Robin, calling into question if he ever actually loved Tracy in the first place.

Ted is a asshole. He’s not a bad person in the sense that he should be in jail (although maybe…he does commit a lot of theft). He’s a bad person in the sense that he is the kind of person who would complain about the representation of white people in Get Out or the people “ruining the neighborhood” without realizing that he was one of the people who ruined it in the first place. What makes Ted awful is that he’s a narcissist, a person who is selectively nice (and by extension mean when he wants to be), and someone whose perspective on the world comes from a childish and unrealistic view of the world that doesn’t exist. As the main character in a show of people we are ostensibly supposed to like, Ted is terrible. If you added some cursing and outright malfeasance, he’d fit in more comfortably on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The Ups (all of the Ups come with the caveat that they exist simultaneously to the Downs I just mentioned, so keep that in mind)

  1. Marshall and Lily

Do they have their problems? Yes. Lily leaving Marshall, Marshall not siding with Lily more, the fact that they both lie to each other over and over. There are issues with them, to be sure. But the hands-down best couple (and possible best characters) in the show do make it watchable. The sitcom-esque nonsense that is rammed into the show to create drama often gets in the way of a relationship that had the organic potential to be, and often was, spectacular.

2. When They Just Hang Out

The real moments where the show shines, demonstrating the potential that so many people identified when the show hit its peak in the third, fourth, and fifth seasons, were when the gang just hung out. Thanksgiving episodes, episodes when they are just goofing around (“Best Burger,” “Intervention,” “Arrivederci, Fiero,” and “3 Days of Snow” are all examples of this dynamic) and shows were they dealt with real issues (“Bad News”) show the often sparkling chemistry between the leads. The latter episode, for example, and its direct follow-up “Last Words” are at times captivating and gut-wrenching. Every little boy who ever had a dad, not a father, whose dad was the best friend, wept when Marshall lost his father. Anyone who has ever struggled with coming to terms with the changing challenges of adulthood can empathize with the struggles of “Arrivederci, Fiero” and “Best Burger.”

Ironically, the best episodes are the ones where they lean away from Ted’s romantic life and instead focus on the daily comings and goings of life in your 20s and early 30s. Had the show embraced these aspects, perhaps it could have met the lofty expectations that so many people placed on it.

3. It Tried to Embrace Real World Problems

Transitioning into adulthood. Struggles with identity. Loneliness. Unemployment. Death, loss, and parenting. In the process of watching its characters grow up, HIMYM dealt many of the aspect of life that many of us are forced to deal with.
— Except for Barney, everyone in the gang goes through periods of unemployment, forced to crash at the apartment of a generous friend.
— Except for Marshall, all of the characters are children of divorce or single-parent homes.
— Marshall loses his dad.
— Ted gets left at the altar.
— Robin discovers she can’t have children.

The characters are not always portrayed as well as they could have been but at their cores, they are all painfully human and that allows us to feel their problems and, often, to relate.

4. Tracy, aka the Mother

The titular character, Tracy is not introduced on screen until the final season. She goes unnamed until the finale. We always knew that the show wasn’t going to reveal her too soon — naturally, meeting the Mother was going to signify the end of the show — but was sadly got far too little of who was easily the best acted, most relatable, and (despite her minimal screen time) most developed character in the show. Tracy (played expertly by the uber-talented and criminally underutilized Cristin Milioti) was the best part of the show and easily outpaced the rest of the cast in the finale season.

Tracy was a real person with problems, ambitions, traits and faults that make her sympathetic, genuine, and likeable. The show could have turned her into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and to some degree she is a bit, but instead he became the shows greatest triumph and its most lamentable failure, as her minimal times on the show leaves us feeling that we missed out on something great.

The glut of shows about 20/30 somethings in a big city has made it hard to break out. Many have tried and failed to reach the insane heights of Friends. Some struggled to even be good. How I Met Your Mother was likely never going to reach those heights, critically or commercially. The show had many flaws, some organic to the characters, some due to writing, some due to the length (few shows can be good for more than 4–5 seasons).

All of the criticisms of the show are fair, while perhaps some of the praise it got is a bit undeserved. A show with enormous potential that occasionally got it right was ultimately a bit less than that. Art and entertainment do not need to be perfect to be enjoyable. Neither are they required to stand the test of time. All art is a part of the time and place where it was created and this show is no different. Imperfections are often what makes someone or something relatable and even likeable.

Like all the burgers Marshall and the gang try before finally finding just the right one, HIMYM can be satisfying but rarely is it legendary.

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Bradley J. Sommer

PhD in History. Studies race, class, and urban America. Advocate of equality in higher education, housing, healthcare, and employment. The "B" in LGBTQ.