Sunday, November 4, 2012

How I Met Your Mother (Season 7)

Creators: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Starring: Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan
Original Airdate: 2011-2012

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

How I Met Your Mother isn't the first sitcom to have its eventual end date up in the air as it heads into the final stretch, but that fact probably provides little to comfort the writers, who you'd figure would be scrambling right now. After a near-flawless first four seasons, and two more almost as excellent, for the first time in its run, HIMYM is starting to show its age. Seven years in, that's more than understandable, and while it might be a bit harsh to say it's "jumped the shark," it's definitely treading water and the fin is visible. Perhaps I'm guilty of glossing over some of the minor issues with Seasons 5 and 6 in lieu of praising all that went right earlier, but now those creative hiccups are now starting to become a big deal. The biggest of which is a previously uneven storyline reappearing, causing logic and humor go out the window in favor of pandering to fans. It's not so much what happens or doesn't this season, but how creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas mishandle it. Characters in situation comedies have to grow and as they do it isn't uncommon for the creative direction of the series to suffer both inevitable and avoidable growing pains, and that's never been more evident than during this season, which is easily its weakest yet. They may still get over that hump and go out strong but they've officially made some head-scratching choices before possibly getting there.

What's funny is that in interviews Bays and Thomas have both strangely cited Lost and Breaking Bad as narrative influences on how they mapped out this season, which I'd assume refers to confounding viewer expectations on how the characters' journeys will play out. Unfortunately, there isn't a surprise or risk to be found and there aren't even as many laughs as usual. And after what's at least a somewhat promising start to the season, it all comes crashing down, concluding with a disappointingly predictable and anticlimactic finale. That's not to say the season doesn't still have its moments (mainly in the first half), but that's mostly due to the five leads who could probably make a live reading of the phone book seem funny and interesting. Luckily, they have material a bit meatier than that and one actor has a career episode that's easily the highlight of these uneven 16 and should go down as one of the more emotional arcs of the series. But the show is otherwise spinning its wheels, seemingly just killing time until the clock runs out.

After losing a bet, Barney is forced to wear "The Ducky Tie"
When we last left the gang Season 6 had opened and closed with a flash-foward revealing that lovelorn, soulmate searching protagonist Ted Mosby (Joshn Radnor) finally meets The Mother of the show's title the day of a wedding sometime in the near future. Unsurprisingly, the womanizing Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) is revealed to be the groom in that season's final minutes, leaving only the question of whom his bride could be and exactly how Ted will meet the woman of his dreams. That I feel completely comfortable revealing that Barney's bride is Robin (Cobie Smulders) without even so much as an accompanying spoiler warning should give you an indication of how much of a surprise it is. Yet her identity is strangely presented as a shocking mystery almost on par with the eventual reveal of The Mother. And it's fine that it's unsurprising and even that it feels like the wrong choice creatively, but if it's the expected outcome, why present it as a big secret? So right off the bat, the entire season carries a sense of purposelessness as we know whatever relationships Barney and Robin embark on will fail so they can end up together. Season 7 is all about keeping them and Ted busy until the big wedding day, which will presumably occur at the end of the eighth season, which may be the series finale. Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) are also tied up as they prepare for the birth of their baby and try out suburban life by moving out to Long Island.

This might be the first season where these five friends don't feel like a unit. I'm sure the argument the writers would make is that as the characters get deeper into their thirties, mature and take on greater responsibilities, it's only natural that they'd grow apart somewhat. But did it have to be done in such a manufactured, uninspired way? As much as the character of Ted often catches flak as the show's weakest link, it was only after seeing him relegated to the sidelines in favor of Robin and Barney, that I came away with a new appreciation of how his quest and Radnor's self-aware performance has anchored the series up to this point.. There's hardly a yellow umbrella to be found this season, but there are two new characters serving as romantic placeholders for Robin and Barney until they rediscover their feelings for one another. The worst of whom is Robin's court appointed therapist-turned-boyfriend Kevin, who's drably played by NPH's Harold and Kumar co-star Kal Penn in what's easily the series' least successful guest starring arc. And that's being kind. Penn (usually a good actor) barely even seems present in scenes and Kevin's entire relationship with Robin is about as exciting as watching paint dry since the character isn't given a single personality trait outside of just simply being a normal, boring dependable guy who isn't Barney. But what's worse is that he's somehow indoctrinated as an honorary member of the core five and even sharing a seat with the gang at MacLaren's for what feels like the entire first half of the season.

Barney and his new stripper girlfriend Quinn (guest star Becki Newton)
Robin's relationship with Kevin is doomed from the get-go, but boy does it take a long time getting there as every humorless episode spent with this guy slowly sucks the life out of the show. Becki Newton fares slightly better as Barney's new stripper girlfriend Quinn, but it seems like a creative step back after his relationship with Nora (Nazanin Boniadi) in Season 6 explored dimensions to the character we didn't know existed. But of course she was too likable so the writers had to get rid of her, which is emblematic of the entire problem with the show right now. Bays and Thomas seem determined to go the Barney/Robin route at all costs, regardless of whether it's the right choice or not. And it may be, but they've yet to supply a reason why, especially considering their initial pairing directly resulted in a creative rough patch for the show in Season 5. They still have a season (and maybe more) to sell this relationship and come up with some funny twists and surprises but thus far it's definitely feeling like a Ross/Rachel situation from Friends. Something being done to please rabid fans who care about nothing other than the two major characters ending up together. This is how all sitcoms get into trouble toward the end of their runs, with showrunners writing for the fans instead of the characters.  NPH and Smulders obviously work extremely well together so it's no fault of theirs, but it'll be interesting to see if the characters' bond translate into any kind of romantic chemistry since that's always been lacking. Even Ted seemed to have more of a connection with her.

We already know that none of Ted's relationships will work until he meets The Mother and now we know that none of his friends' will either. The inevitability of his situation is understandable since that's the show's hook, but now we know a whole other outcome, so the writers made double work for themselves since they'll have to make the "how" of Barney and Robin's eventual union interesting too. Ted's quest to find "The One" is really pushed to the sidelines this season in favor of this as his only true story arc comes with the surprising return of one of the show's most beloved characters, ex-girlfriend Victoria (Ashley Williams). Her brief comeback in what's arguably the season's best episode, "The Ducky Tie," is a welcome one that also feels essential in moving Ted toward being ready to meet The Mother. If there's one thing all longtime viewers of the series can agree on, it's that Victoria is the closest to being a perfect match for him and that Williams has always been delightful in the role. That storyline doesn't feel manufactured, nor does Ted's desire to sort out his still lingering feelings for Robin.

There's also the payoff to an infamous Season 1 flashback as we meet the infamous "Slutty Pumpkin" character Ted fell for on Halloween in 2001 but never saw since. Short of The Mother, it's about the only major reveal the show still had up its sleeve and they definitely deliver a huge name with guest star Katie Holmes, who couldn't disappoint if she tried, despite playing a character who's supposed to be a big disappointment. The actual execution of the episode, "The Slutty Returns," feels a bit off, and becomes another example of the writers just not knowing what they have, as most sitcoms would be lucky to have Katie for a cameo, much less an entire episode. They get her for an entire episode, she does really well, and yet they still somehow make it seem inconsequential. It also begs the question that with all the guest stars who have lined up to date Ted Mosby, are there any suitable actresses even left to play the show's title character?

Guest star Katie Holmes as "The Slutty Pumpkin"
Having already exhausted Sarah Chalke, Mandy Moore, Danica McKellar, Rachel Bilson, Jennifer Morrison and more in extended guest arcs, it seems as if they've burned through every satisfying Mother candidate possible, in addition to setting the bar really high. And now after crossing Katie Holmes off the list of potential candidates, you have to wonder who can measure up to Ted's (and viewers') now impossibly high expectations. Of course, that's working under the assumption fans still care who the The Mother is, or even did to begin with. Some don't, which is understandable. The show really isn't "about" that anyway and you certainly couldn't blame Ted's future kids for not caring anymore after listening to their father ramble on for hours about all the women he slept with before meeting their mom. But I'd counter that to argue the eventual reveal is more important now than it ever was considering Bays and Thomas seem to have given everything else away. There may be few other surprises left, but as ridiculous as the wait's been, it's still the one major series-long story arc they haven't botched. Of course, all that could change when she's introduced, as the pressure shifts from the writers to whomever is given the honor (burden?) of playing the coveted role. If one thing's certain it's that this definitely wouldn't be the time for the big name stunt casting they've been so fond of throughout the series' run. Contrary to popular opinion, the best approach would be to save her for the end and get it over with quickly, as to avoid the potential prolonged disappointment of seeing their relationship not play out to expectations. Assuming they cast the right actress and the writing's strong enough to support her, there's no reason it can't be done effectively in the last episode.
Given Jason Segel's rapidly increasing film commitments over the past year or so, it comes as little surprise that Marshall and Lily see a a bit less face time this season, although I definitely wasn't expecting them to be displaced from the group altogether. The show's always been at its weakest when the writers try to "spin off" one or more of the characters and introduce different settings. It's fairly obvious early on that the Eriksens in the suburbs just isn't going to take so the whole storyline becomes a matter of sitting through a bunch of plot contrivances and forced humor until the characters realize it. In a way, this is a compliment since these five actors work so well together that having two of them suddenly take leave for a while it becomes crippling. Luckily, this is realized by the end of the season, but not until we've had to sit through the clumsy housewarming episode, "The Burning Beekeeper," which plays with time and location to tell what feels like a complicated, extended joke lacking a punchline. There's also so much of guest star Chris Elliot as Lily's selfish, board game creator dad Mickey that he may as well have been bumped up to a series regular. He's funny in small doses, but the character gets grating after a while, especially since we know the redemptive arc that usually accompanies each of his appearances.

Episode 7.15 ("The Burning Beekeeper")
With Marshall finally leaving the GNB boardroom behind to pursue his dream of practicing environmental law, guest star Martin Short comes aboard as his new boss, the kooky Garrison Cootes. But as strange as it seems, I actually miss Marshall dealing with the corporate drudgery associated with his old job, as that contrast often resulted in some really great moments. Who can forget his encounters with "Artillery" Arthur (Bob Odenkirk), his visits to Barney's office, or him walking out of the company bathroom with a magazine and a giant grin on his face as his co-workers looked on in disgust. The brilliant sixth season episode "Natural History" expertly foreshadowed Marshall's eventual change in career direction, but as is often the case in sitcoms, once a character actually gets what they want, things can suddenly become a lot less interesting. In fact, there's such a lack of work-related scenes this season for everyone you'd be forgiven for assuming they're all unemployed. This is especially true for Ted, who hasn't had a workplace scenes in about two years. Is he still teaching architecture?  What about that GNB building he's designing? This may seem like nit-picking, but seemingly minor stuff like this really helps flesh out the show's universe, giving the series a season-to-season consistency and providing viewers with a greater long-term investment in its characters.

The less said about the messy two-part finale, "The Magician's Code," the better. Besides featuring the birth of Baby Marvin "Waitforit" Eriksen and an eventually pointless proposal, they squander all the goodwill Victoria brought at the season's start by bringing her back under circumstances so ill-conceived I almost mistook it for a dream sequence. It pains me to say Season 7 is the series' most uneven yet because even with all its flaws it's still more enjoyable than just about any sitcom on the air and I wouldn't dare consider jumping ship before it reaches its conclusion, whenever that may be. Better news is that it's still capable of producing surprises and laughs with emotional episodes like "Symphony of Illumination," which shockingly delivers the news that Robin can't have children and features Cobie Smulders' all-time best performance. At this point it seems most of the notes the show is hitting have been dramatic rather than comedic, which is expected as everything starts to wrap up. What's even more certain is that HIMYM needs to end soon.

Robin receives shocking news in "Symphony of Illumination"
It's understandable CBS wants to squeeze every last dime out of a show still producing tremendous ratings this late in the game and go nine seasons, but creatively that decision is suicide. The current eighth season should be its last, if not for fans, than for the five enormously talented actors who have carried the show for almost a decade, and deserve opportunities to move on and test the water with different projects (especially Radnor and Smulders, who've spent their entire careers on it). We're rapidly approaching the point where the series will wear out its welcome, so here's hoping this increased sense of urgency will inspire Bays and Thomas to step up and pull out all the stops. If there's any consolation, it's that some of TV's finest finales weren't originally conceived as such, with their writers having to make split decisions under the gun, as the possibility of another season still hanged in the air until literally the last second. They say they're going ahead and writing the eighth as if its last and this year's flash-forward heavy premiere certainly confirms that tactic. We now know exactly the "when" and "where" of Ted meeting The Mother. All that's left is the "how" and the "who." And seeing how everything else ties into it. Will the show continue after that? I hope not. But here's hoping they can get there without any more filler and the series can be given the send-off it truly deserves.  


Jennifer Aguiar said...

The more things change the more things get interesting in this all-new hilarious season of How I Met Your Mother. Ted’s (Josh Radnor) search for “the one” continues while Marshall and Lily (Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan) hope to become parents Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) makes an uproariously awkward attempt to find his real father and Robin (Cobie Smulders) finally feels like a true New Yorker. Featuring epic guest stars like Katy Perry and Jorge Garcia as “The Blitz ” Season Six is filled with just plain awesomeness.

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