I still watch How I Met Your Mother, though like many people who discovered the show in its early years, I’m watching more out of inertia and a desire to find out who the mother is (though I suppose I could just wait for next year’s series finale). This season has not been very good, and I don’t think there’s much of a mystery as to why: it’s a sitcom that has run many years with the exact same regular cast. After 180+ episodes, anything a sitcom can say about the characters is either a repeat of what they’ve said before, or an exaggeration of previously established character traits – which is why sitcom characters tend to become more and more unlikable as the show goes on.
In addition to that problem, How I Met Your Mother has an additional issue that has made it very susceptible to weak episodes: more than any other sitcom I’ve ever seen, even more than Seinfeld, it relies mostly on concepts. Almost every episode revolves around two or three arresting, memorable concepts, either arch spins on everyday things (the “Chain of Screaming,” the guy who acts like a dog), or new things that seem like we ought to have heard of them all our lives (like the Slap Bet). The concepts might be referred to later on if they’re popular enough, but they’re really unique to the episodes they first appear in. If the concepts are funny and relatable, then the episode will work, because most of the subsequent jokes are related back to it.
If the concept is stupid or unbelievable, then it just seems like a desperate attempt to create internet memes, or maybe worse, an attempt to disguise a banal idea under a layer of wanna-be hip conceptual references. (Like the recent story about the woman who hid her figure under a big coat. It’s an old story idea, really, but by piling on the layers of fantasy and memes to this rather simple idea, the writers somehow managed to make it seem like a much creepier story idea than it actually is.) Having mostly run out of good new concepts and memes, the show doesn’t have a lot left to fall back on, because the characters don’t have the kind of depth that could open up new story possibilities, and the “friends hanging out” setup makes it very difficult to introduce new characters of any consequence. The bedrock idea of the show is an older man looking back on his youth and finding fanciful, even literary concepts to describe the common things people see and do when they’re young. When they have a good concept, they can still do a good episode, but it was always going to make the show even more difficult to sustain than the usual sitcom. At least Seinfeld could rely on increasingly zany story ideas, but How I Met Your Mother needs its concepts to be funny and relatable and something the characters can learn a lesson from, and there are only so many of those in existence.
This has been going on for a while. What’s different in this portion of the season is watching the show try to pull off something that is, essentially, impossible: trying to make Barney a plausible husband without taking away the qualities that made him popular. They’ve had this problem ever since they decided to pair him with Robin (which was a long, long time ago; I always forget that this pairing started in the third season). Barney is a familiar sitcom type, the relentless ladies’ man who makes the hero look more gallant by comparison, and also tries to talk the hero into making bad choices – like Larry from Three’s Company. He’s also there, of course, to represent one of the paths that Ted has not followed: Ted is not a lifelong one-woman man like his friend Marshall, whose romantic life has been planned out ever since he was in college, but he’s also not a hedonistic, anti-monogamy type like his other friend Barney. So once Barney was finally engaged to Robin, the writers had to deal directly with the question: given that Barney was defined by his opposition to monogamy and fidelity, how do they make him monogamous and faithful without ruining him?
They can’t, really. The solution they’ve come up with for the moment (they’ve been hinting that something else is probably going to happen) is to suggest that he and Robin are well matched because they’re both crazy, and she matches his zany schemes with zany schemes of her own. But they can’t make that seem like a healthy romantic relationship. Even though Robin, like most of the characters, has not been acting very likable for a while now, the Barney/Robin engagement plots still suggest that Barney is pulling this formerly-likable person down to his level. Even if the writers eventually give him some kind of epiphany and have him recognize that he can’t get married and still act like an immature jerk, the characters won’t fit together. Barney’s personality is an amalgamation of all the things that would make a person unable to succeed in a committed relationship. The writers seem to know that his comments and character tics sound horrible coming from an engaged man, but they want to keep this engagement storyline going without depriving the audience of the Barney jokes and memes they’ve come to expect.
It’s a problem that usually comes up with this type of character, and different shows deal with it in different ways. Cheers almost went in the opposite direction with Sam Malone, turning him from someone who could plausibly have made a commitment to a pathetic sex addict whose only plausible long-term companion was his bar. This was necessary to keep the show going as it placed less emphasis on romance arcs and got wackier, and it worked. Happy Days, late in the game, did a season where the Fonz was settling down with a pretty single mother; the storyline wasn’t popular, but it wasn’t entirely implausible because the character had already evolved into a watered-down, responsible pillar of the community. What How I Met Your Mother is trying to do with Barney is make him the early and late Fonzie at the same time, a man who has never grown up but is still grown-up enough to be in a relationship. I suspect that by the end of the series, they’ll try to finally give him some kind of emotional maturity (alternatively, they could just not have Robin marry him, but I get the feeling a large portion of the fanbase is invested in this relationship, and the writers know it). But it’s probably too late to make that happen; they’ve spent too long trying to have their cake and eat it too, continuing to portray him as a jerk while putting him in a relationship where jerky behaviour is supposed to have consequences.