This season of How I Met Your Mother has revealed a split in the way different fans view the show’s most popular character, Barney. Sometimes the show treats him as a pure cartoon character, whose serial womanizing and wacky schemes are played purely for laughs. And sometimes the show suggests that he might have real feelings and stuff.
That’s not unusual — except for Cosmo Kramer, the designated “wacky” guy on almost any sitcom will have moments where he turns out to be vulnerable and human. John Larroquette on Night Court is the guy Barney most resembles, right down to the suits, and he followed exactly the same pattern: most weeks, he’s pure comedy guy, and once in a while he’ll show his vulnerable side. Other examples are the “Bill’s Autobiography” episode of NewsRadio, any WKRP episode focusing on Herb, and some — not all — Mary Tyler Moore episodes focusing on Ted Baxter, the ancestor of all these characters. (The ancestor, I mean, in the sense of being a completely cartoonish, outsize character in the midst of people who are otherwise semi-realistic. Though that’s obscured on NewsRadio because other characters soon got more cartoonish than Bill, but looking at the pilot, Bill was the Ted Baxter guy and even Andy Dick’s Matthew was sort of subdued.)
But because How I Met Your Mother incorporates some serial elements, or at least some Cheers-style ongoing romantic entanglements, we see the characters’ circumstances changing in front of us a lot more than we would on those other shows. And this season, the show finally bit the bullet and gave Barney an actual romance that lasted for more than one episode, as he and Robin decided to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Then, and here is where the controversy comes in, after the show broke them up, Barney immediately reverted to his old cartoony self. More importantly, perhaps, the show reverted to doing cartoonish episodes about Barney’s wacky girl-getting schemes. It was as if nothing had happened, despite the occasional references to his breakup with Robin.
Now, last night’s episode placated fans by addressing the fallout from the Barney/Robin breakup, and by implying that Barney (and by extension the show) was wrong to pretend that everything could go back to normal with no problems. But that doesn’t really settle the controversy, especially since you just know they’re going to do more wacky womanizing Barney episodes. (They want to run another few seasons, you know.) The controversy is over whether a character like Barney should grow, and behave differently, and display more complexity, or whether he should continue to be more or less the same, with the occasional speed bump like the Robin relationship.
I personally think I’m in the “more or less the same” camp. It’s part of comedy — not just sitcoms, but comedy — that characters don’t change that much. Comic characters, and particularly supporting characters, are defined by certain broad characteristics and specific obsessions (“humours” as they were called in Shakespeare’s day), and if you take those away, or even alter them slightly, the character does not exist any longer. The cartoon Barney is Barney, at least as far as I’m concerned. You can “grow up” a lead character, or a character who isn’t completely comic, but the wacky supporting character is basically there to do the same things over and over again for our amusement. Letting him learn and grow would be like letting Jim Ignatowski or Ted Baxter act normal. These characters can change their circumstances (Jim got rich, Ted got married), but they are doomed to display the same basic character quirks every week for as long as the show lasts.
This is not to say that “wacky” characters can’t grow. Barney has grown, in the sense that we’ve come to know more about what drives him to act the way he does. We know, from various episodes, that his antics stem from some rather serious emotional problems (it’s almost a running gag that people point out that he’s not “awesome,” he’s actually sick and needs help). He can’t change the way he is, but we can learn new things about why he is that way, and that’s “growth” in a sense. And even the silliest characters often change over the course of a series, but the changes tend to be small, incremental, even unconscious.
But as to letting him grow out of his childish habits, idiotic challenges and massive overcompensation — no, I definitely hope that doesn’t happen. I think the writers understand that whenever they let Barney show his human side, they can’t wait too long before letting him be a cartoon again. Comedy characters can grow, but for the most part, they can’t learn. Or at least if they learn, they have to ignore the lessons and do the same thing again.
It may be that the show led viewers astray by implying, early in the season, that he might change his ways and turn into, as James Poniewozik put it, a “real boy.” I personally thought it mostly came off as putting this very cartoonish, over-the-top character in a different situation than usual (a semi-committed relationship). It didn’t really make him a different or more real character; he just seemed like the same guy, but unable to do the stuff he usually does. To use another example from the past, it was a whole lot like that season the Fonz dated Linda Purl (who became Pam’s mother on The Office, if you’re into these inter-sitcom connections). That was a situation where the producers, unlike HIMYM’s, were consciously and openly trying to shake things up and change the character — but it didn’t work. The character was already different than he had been, but the producers just couldn’t force big changes on him without making him seem fake.
And I think the same applies to HIMYM. Little things could eventually add up to a more well-adjusted Barney who’s ready for a relationship. But I don’t think the writers could just decide that he’ll fall in love and have a relationship and this will make him a more realistic character. It may feel phony when a character resets to what he was before as if last week had never happened, but to me it’s phonier when a character learns a lesson in one or two episodes and changes his behaviour in a major way. People don’t normally change based on revelations. They change in little increments.
To put it in terms familiar from last night’s episode: Barney might read Of Course You’re Single, Take a Look At Yourself, You Dumb Slut. But he will never take a look at himself that lasts for more than one episode.