This was not a great season of How I Met Your Mother, even granted that it’s one of those shows where every new season is always going to be unfavourably compared to one season in particular. (The show has always been entertaining, but no season has been as strong as the second.) It wasn’t terrible, it just felt like the show was spinning its wheels a lot, producing few standout episodes, and culminating in a finale that seemed tossed-off and seemed almost like a shrug. That last part doesn’t bother me — most shows don’t need big season finales — except that the show had done four self-consciously big season finales in a row, so the casual nature of this episode once again felt like the writers not quite getting it right. It’s like they had the big life-changing elements, Robin learning to value love over career (big mistake, Robin; all men in this universe are douches and not one is worth sacrificing your career over — update: okay, Marshall’s not a douche, he’s a doormat) and Lily and Marshall deciding to have a child, but they couldn’t make them feel like more than just another TV episode. And part of the strength of the show, traditionally, is how it takes familiar story elements and infuses them with an epic feel.
This is nothing the show can’t recover from, since its strengths are still real enough, the cast is still strong, and even as recently as a week ago, turned out a very strong though not great episode (“The Wedding Bride”). I think I agree with those who suspect the show has been suffering from a small-scale case of Creator Abandonment Syndrome, the thing that happens to a show when the creators are working on something else and spreading themselves thin. In this case, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas spent part of the year working with two of their other writers on a new pilot that didn’t sell (“Livin’ On a Prayer”), and that might account for the show’s uncertain tone and feeling of been-there, done-that in the selection of stories. I’m sure it’s not like they’ve never been in the room, just that the other writers would have to do more. And when that situation comes up, the show often finds itself retreading old ground, as if the writers are asking themselves what the bosses would have done here, instead of coming up with new solutions.
There’s also another syndrome this season has suffered from, which reminds me of the sixth season of Frasier — an ominous comparison, since that’s the season when that show’s quality dipped irreversably. Both HIMYM season 5 and Frasier season 6 began with what I believe the TV Tropes people call an “Aborted Arc,” a story arc that is set up, followed through, but dropped early because it just isn’t working. The fifth season of Frasier ended with him losing his job at the radio station; the fourth season of HIMYM ended by setting up the possibility that Barney and Robin could be a couple. The subsequent seasons went through with these ideas; in fact, not only was Frasier unemployed, leading to lots of “Frasier is unemployed” stories (as well as, in the clip below, meta-references to the show’s new spot in the slot vacated by Seinfeld), but Niles, trapped in a messy divorce case, became poor and had to give up his swanky lifestyle.
(Oh, and a plurality of Frasier season 6 episodes were directed by Pamela Fryman, who is the director of HIMYM. Not that there’s a connection there; neither show’s problems were the director’s fault.)
And then the shows abandoned these arcs very abruptly — Frasier got his job back in the course of one episode, Niles blackmailed Maris into granting him a quick and inexpensive divorce, and Barney and Robin broke up suddenly — and tried to go back to the way things were before. But I mean exactly the way things were before: Frasier’s the pompous radio shrink, Niles is the upper-class dweeb with a crush on Daphne, Barney is the disturbed sexual athlete.
But something happens when a show tries to restore the status quo after breaking off an arc very suddenly. It may turn out that the jokes that worked before aren’t as funny as they used to be. This is because once you go back to the status quo, it feels like a throwback to the way the character “used” to be, and therefore the audience senses that these ideas are not as fresh as they once were. It’s not that you can never bring a character back to the way he or she was originally conceived. But a show that’s passed 100 episodes already is in danger of seeming like it’s rehashing old stuff. So what happens when you play down “Barney is a horndog who cannot be true to one woman” jokes for a third of a season, and then go back to them? You’ve got an aging show that is quite visibly and recognizably going back to a type of joke that it had already established as an old joke, part of what they used to do. Even if the writers intended all along to go back to cartoon Barney or radio-shrink Frasier, it’s not the same, because the audience has been conditioned to view the jokes as a bit old-hat. It’s the same reason why a show rarely uses its catchphrases once they’ve become established in the world’s vocabulary (Barney almost never says “suit up!” unless it’s a self-parody moment). A show is in trouble if the audience sees a joke as a callback to the glory days, rather than something fresh and organic to the character and the series.
Which means… what? I don’t know; I prefer Cartoon Barney to Relationship Barney, in the abstract, and was initially kind of glad to see him back. But I can’t deny that most of Barney’s scenes this year have a sort of nostalgic feeling, as in “remember when that guy was really funny?” It’s like trying to make the Fonz a cool rebel again after he became a wise schoolteacher: even if you preferred the character the old way (and who didn’t?), it wouldn’t be as good, it would just be a rehash.
(Well, at least Barney/Robin will always be less damaging than Fonzie/Ashley. So HIMYM has that going for it.)
I think that’s part of the reason why HIMYM has felt like it’s marking time this season; it’s been trying to go back to older joke sources that the audience recognizes as belonging to the best years of the show. And there’s a possible snowball effect, in that once we realize the Barney jokes are a bit old then the other stuff — Ted-looking-for-love stories and all the rest — seems a little old too. It could be that the only way for it to get back a feeling of freshness would be to find some new ground to cover, by which I don’t really mean trying to grow the characters (as we saw with Barney, that can actually hurt the show if it doesn’t work) as in finding new stuff for them to do. Ted as a teacher, implausible as it was, at least provided a new setting and new story possibilities, but it seems to have been nearly abandoned; didn’t you think the finale would come closer to indicating at least how he knew The Mother was in that class? But that was at least sort of new. Other sort-of-new stuff may be needed to cope with the problem that we know just about all the stories they can tell about five young people looking for love in New York.