Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How I Met Your Mother (Season 8)



Creators: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Starring: Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan, Lyndsy Fonseca, David Henrie, Bob Saget(voice)
Original Airdate: 2012-2013

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                                                **Spoiler Warning: This Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers**

So, there's this moment that comes at the end of Episode 20 of How I Met Your Mother's penultimate season, titled, "The Time Travelers," in which Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) attempts to persuade Ted (Josh Radnor) to stop moping at MacLaren's and go with him to see Robots vs. Wrestlers: Legends or he'll regret it in 20 years. Before long, future versions of Ted and Future Barney show up to confirm that. Then comes the kicker: Ted's really sitting alone at the bar. Barney, Robin (Cobie Smulders), Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel) are all too busy with their own lives to go with him. And all the events that occur in the episode actually happened five years ago, as a lonely, dejected Ted replays them in his own mind.

It'll be 45 days until he meets the mother and Bob Saget's narration informs us that if he could go back, he'd spend it with his friends. Ted imagines himself knocking on the mother's apartment door and introducing himself early, saying he'd do anything to get extra time with her. The entire sequence is Season 1 level quality, proving that creators Carter Bay and Craig Thomas are still capable of pulling off the magic when necessary. The moment encapsulates what's best about the series during another season where not enough of the rest does. It's the first time the end actually feels in sight  while even vaguely addressing crazy fan theories that Ted might be telling this story from a rubber room, or that he and The Mother, down the road, may no longer be together.

We've seen Ted Mosby depressed over the past 8 years, but we've never seen him truly hopeless until now. He's given up and is well on his way to rock bottom, which presumably arrives the weekend of a certain wedding that will somehow end for him in the rain on a Farhampton train platform with "the girl with the yellow umbrella." And now, shockingly, she's here. Bays and Thomas definitely saved their biggest play for last this season and while it's a shame it had to follow nearly three years of wheel-spinning and stalling, it does feel like a giant weight has been lifted off the show by revealing her to us (if not Ted just yet) and insuring we'll be getting to know her a lot better soon. Just doing that is a controversial decision in itself so it remains to be seen just how much that will positively or negatively affect their eventual meeting, which is one of the last big weapons the writers can still claim to have up their sleeves at this point.

Teds and Barneys in "The Time Travelers"
Unmistakably, and no matter what has come before, that meeting will still be a MOMENT. How much emotional impact it'll carry is now up to them and the performance of an untested, little known actress.  But as difficult as it is to digest, there's also a full season's worth of developments that came before that reveal. Well, sort of. Mostly it was just more of the same, with very few exceptions. But the good news is that for the first time in a while things at least look promising for a strong finish. It's certainly no secret that we probably shouldn't even be talking about an upcoming ninth season and this story should have been tighter and wrapped up a lot sooner, but because the show continues to financially thrive for CBS, these are the cards we've been dealt.

Most of the first half of the eighth season is spent cleaning up a gigantic mess the writers got themselves into at the end of a pretty awful seventh season. In their defense, they accomplish this as quickly and efficiently as possible, even if there's no getting around the obvious fact that none of it should have happened to begin with. Robin and Barney are each in committed relationships (though not with each other...yet), Lily and Marshall now have a baby and Ted had shockingly run away with Victoria (a returning Ashley Williams) on her wedding day. Of course, we know that none of these relationships will last, as we've continually gotten flashforward glimpses of Robin and Barney's wedding for the past few seasons. They're interspersed, as usual, with the show's main framing device of Future Ted recounting to his kids (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie) the story of how he met their mother. And it's a story that's become increasingly long-winded and detailed, with seemingly no end in sight, at least until this season's potentially show-saving final shot.

Barney's engagement to stripper Quinn (Becki Newton), Robin's not-so-serious union with himbo Nick (Michael Trucco) and Ted's second go-around with fan favorite Victoria all collapse within a span of five episodes collectively known as "The Autumn of Break-Ups." That this doesn't even qualify as a spoiler of any sort should give you an idea how painfully predictable and unfunny they are, with the only relief coming from the aforementioned Farhampton flashforward in the premiere and the fact that we're now finally freed up get down to business.Why Ted, who was so memorably left at the altar himself, would run away with another man's bride on her wedding day is a question we'll continue to ponder. Along why Victoria was brought back to be labeled as a "slob" and give Ted a Friends-inspired ultimatum. Or why Barney seems to be the only one who can't see that marrying a still working stripper could create an issue.That business at hand is of course the path to Robin and Barney's wedding, which at this point almost has to feel rushed considering they weren't even together at the start of the season. But this is at least one development I didn't mind to see rushed since we already know how it ends up. 

I was curious as to how Bays and Thomas would handle the Barney-Robin engagement and was pleasantly surprised. I half expected a long, drawn-out courtship between the two to kill more time but instead they took a clever, short-term approach I can't completely give away. Let's just say they did a good job getting Barney to the place where he could believably settle down with Robin, without sacrificing the key narcissistic, womanizing, lying, scheming qualities that have made Barney Stinson, as played pitch-perfectly by NPH, such an entertaining character over the past eight years. While I'll never be thrilled with the pairing just out of its sheer predictability and the absurd fan devotion it inspires, they did just about as good a job as they could getting there while their backs were against the wall and the series' future time frame was still very much in the air.

The two-parter (titled "The Final Page") not only works as a welcome callback to classic HIMYM story devices like Barney's "Playbook," but also circles the show back to Ted's inability to let go of his feelings for Robin. Unlike many, I don't have a problem with that at all. That's where the story should be at this point and is in many ways the series' most realistic aspect. Why should he be over her? She's one of his best friends and has done very little overs the years to dissuade him from pursuing her, always keeping him in her back pocket as a possible romantic option in case things don't work out. And even as pathetically as Ted can come across, you almost have to admire his dedication and refusal to give up despite being trapped squarely in her "friend zone." As we know, there's only one person capable of triggering him to let go of Robin and until she shows up I'd say it's fair for the writers to go back to that well as many times as they see fit.

The finale hints he may have found one last ditch attempt to slide back into her good graces, even if it comes at the expense of his friendship with Barney. It's clear that we're definitely headed toward a major Ted-Barney battle in the final season and that feels right given that the two of them have never really sat down and hashed out this Robin situation. One of the season's more memorable images comes when Ted stares out from the window of the building he designed, seemingly a success, yet alone as his best friend proposes to the woman he's still in love with. I also appreciate that they finally gave us an update on that GNB building, Ted's teaching career and the renovation of his dream house in Westchester, all of which haven't been mentioned in what's felt like five years.
                 
Robin as her alter ego "Robin Daggers" in "P.S. I Love You"
From the description of it, you'd figure the series is an hour-long drama instead of a 30-minute situation comedy, but this season does bring some laughs to balance out the angst. Cobie Smulders has consistently proven herself to be the most improved actor of the five and it's become especially noticeable in these latter, weaker seasons. This one at least gives her the opportunity to briefly slip back into her most iconic and hilarious persona and one of the series' most satisfying long-running gags. Robin's not so secret past as Canadian pop sensation "Robin Sparkles" and the resulting flashbacks and music videos have resulted in some of the show's biggest laughs. The episode "P.S. I Love You," in which Barney unearths a Behind The Music-style documentary chronicling her career fall, features an onslaught of inside jokes and hilarious Canadian celebrity appearances (Dave Coulier!), proving the show is still at times capable of channeling its early greatness.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the handling of Marshall and Lily's adventures as new parents. It's always been speculated that bringing a baby onto a sitcom can be a death knell, if not a sure sign your show has "jumped the shark" While this doesn't feel like it deserves such a declaration and is more just a reflection of the general course of things, the two sure aren't given much to do this season aside from changing diapers. But that could possibly be considered a step up from the previous season, when the couple was so busy playing house on Long Island that Segel and Hannigan were absent enough to barely qualify as series regulars anymore.

Supposedly, Segel was the lone holdout in signing up for a ninth season, and with a burgeoning film career and Marshall's arc having run its course, he could hardly be blamed if he wanted out. Marshall ends the season with yet another career opportunity (this time for a judgeship) presenting itself just as Lily aspires to follow her professional dreams abroad. Despite being wasted for most of the 24 episodes, Lilly does share a couple of meaningful moments with Ted, which is a relief since their talks have been sorely missed of late. One leads to a surprisingly deep confession from her, while the other unwittingly pushes him further along in his path to meet The Mother. But as absent as Marshall and Lilly may occasionally be from the gang's booth at MacLaren's, it's at least a relief to not to see guest stars filling their seats.

If there's any improvement over the previous  year it's that guest stars are used more sparingly and we don't have a repeat of an underdeveloped character like Kal Penn's Kevin being incorporated into the group for half a season and boring us to tears. Or worse yet, nabbing a huge name like Katie Holmes, only to do little with her. Chris Elliot and Ray Wise make their respective returns as Lily and Robin's fathers, Peter Gallagher appears as Ted's former college professor, Abby Elliot has an arc as Ted's crazy girlfriend, Amber Benson finally gives a face to Barney's long-lost sister, Alexis Denisof briefly returns as Sandy Rivers, Seth Green plays a former classmate of Marshall and Lily's, Mike Tyson shows up as himself, Rachel Bilson cameos as Cindy again, Kyle Maclachlan is back as "The Captain" and Keegan-Michael Key and Casey Wilson make a memorable appearance as an obnoxious couple in the finale. This list is actually pretty conservative by HIMYM's standards. But there's really only one guest star anyone wants to talk about.

A lonely Ted looks out from inside his newly completed GNB building
It's almost surreal finally having a face and an actual name of an actress attached to The Mother. It happened. We saw her. Supposedly, Radnor was pushing very hard for the choice to be relative unknown and, to an extent, I get it. While we all had to throw away our lists of fantasy picks for the role, the fact remains that anyone who isn't complete unknown would carry with them at least some degree of baggage because the audience would already be familiar with them. And it's not hard to like the idea of us meeting and getting to know a fresh face as Ted is since we've been with him on this journey the entire time. Someone unexpectedly sweeping in out of nowhere who we've never seen before dovetails nicely into the show's theme, while giving a working actress, who may not have otherwise gotten a chance, an opportunity to break through to the next level.  You also have to consider that in this age of the internet and social media it would be nearly impossible for Bays and Thomas to plug the leaks and be able to keep anyone resembling a major name a secret from rabid fans. Oh, and they used up every possible actress already. That's the part I most have a problem with because it could have so easily been avoided.

When I first saw The Mother my immediate reaction was one of mild disappointment, the blame of which I'd put at the feet of the writers and my expectations, not Cristin Milioti, who until now was best known for her Tony nominated performance in Broadway's Once, a guest spot on 30 Rock and a big screen credit playing comedian Mike Birbiglia's sister in his 2012 low budget indie gem, Sleepwalk with Me. When she made her entrance to the strains of The Shins' "Simple Song" in the final moment of the season finale, "Something New," I didn't recognize her at all. So, mission accomplished there.  But the disappointment no doubt stems from the usual let down bound to accompany an appearance that's been built up for nearly a decade. Maybe she's just not quite how I expected Ted Mosby's wife to look. Maybe not the right height or weight. Is she not pretty enough? Or maybe she didn't speak exactly how I expected. Then I realized she's competing with nothing except our own imaginations and the unfair expectations the writers have spent the past several years burdening her with.

It probably all goes back to that infamous 100th Episode, "Girls vs. Suits," in which The Mother's then-roommate, Cindy complained to Ted how she just couldn't compete with "the girl with the yellow umbrella" and that every guy she tried to date just instantly fell in love with her. And that was it right there. If Rachel Bilson (who proved she could have handled The Mother role herself) is made to feel insecure and jealous then the idea is already planted in viewers heads to expect the unreasonable. Not helping any is Ted's notoriously high standards and the producers' penchant for stunt casting, as former dates or girlfriends played by Bilson, Holmes, Sarah Chalke, Danica McKellar, Mandy Moore, Jennifer Morrison did set the bar fairly high for the title character despite their characters' obvious faults. Are the writers trying to tell us something by foregoing the temptation to cast a big name actress or a traffic-stopping beauty, but rather a conventionally cute, average girl who seems extraordinary to Ted? I'd say so. We'll see whether the gamble pays off.

Our first glimpse of The Mother, played by Cristin Milioti
It probably would have been impossible for any actress to deliver on all our expectations in just a single moment. Luckily, Milioti will be given more time than that to fulfill those expectations, and she only has to believably fulfill them for Ted, not us. Ultimately, it wouldn't have mattered whether the actress chosen was a huge name or an unknown just as long as she's right for the role. A vocal minority of fans already think she's perfect for this and, if it's any consolation, the reaction to her casting was about ten times more positive than you'd expect given the circumstances. She isn't a disappointment. At least not yet. It just remains to be seen. And we'll apparently be seeing a lot of her as she's apparently joining the cast as a regular in the show's final season to interact with the gang before finally meeting Ted. So this isn't merely a walk-on. It's a lock that we'll be learning more about her side of the story with a whole extra season suddenly available for them to play around with.

The decision to have the final season unfold 24-style during the 56 hours leading up to Barney and Robin's wedding is a a polarizing one. Expect tons of flashbacks and flashforwards to fill in the gaps, lending even more weight to the assertions that this is the Lost of sitcoms, now thankfully minus the mystery. Truthfully, their new approach heading into the final lap couldn't have come at a better time since the main problem plaguing HIMYM over the past few years (besides simply its age) is a tired formula that's enabled Bays and Thomas to take as much time as they need to tell their story with as little forward momentum as possible. But now she's here and they don't have that crutch to lean on anymore. They were smart to finally remove it themselves, even if viewers who have somehow hung in there since the 2005 premiere had already lost patience. Having binge watched the show's previous seasons last year, that level of fatigue hasn't set in for me, but it's easy to commiserate with anyone who decided enough is enough and jumped ship.There's certainly been a nosedive in quality these past few seasons and with it comes a reminder of the kinds of creative problems sitcoms face when they overstay their welcome. But there are few other characters I'd rather have overstay that welcome than these five and most of that has to do with the talented actors who play them. Even as the material has sometimes wavered, their work in front of the camera never has.

Over the years, HIMYM has kind of evolved into comfort television. A familiar place where you can hang out with people you like going through similar problems. And that's why, despite complaints, we keep coming back. When the series concludes there's at least a possibility that it will play well as a whole, marginalizing some of the criticisms that appear to be a big deal now. Whereas the series' seventh season just felt like more filler, this one at least had flashes of the show's glory days interspersed with the mess. And out of that comes potential. The idea that the season 9 may not at all resemble the eight that came before is intriguing when you consider how stale things have gotten. A major shake-up and format change seemed necessary and Bays and Thomas should at least be commended for realizing that if they were planning to go one more season, a whole new game plan had to be implemented. Despite sometimes striking a sour note along the way, the end is finally here, and accompanying it is a feeling of cautious optimism and anticipation longtime HIMYM viewers haven't experienced in a while. The only question left is whether it's come too late.                                    

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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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