Tonight, at 8 PM EST, the 9-season run of the beloved CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother will come to a close. To prep for it, Lindy West and I — two individuals who had, prior to last week, only watched a handful of episodes of the show — tried to watch every single episode in the run up to the finale. Our results were mixed.
In my defense, I had stuff to do this weekend. A wedding reception on Saturday, a brunch showing of Labyrinth on Sunday (like I was going to miss David Bowie's penis in stretchy goblin sweatpants on the big screen). So by the time I actually started watching episodes in earnest, I knew I was in trouble. Did either of us get through all of our assigned episodes? Nope. But that didn't prevent us from being armchair critics.
Erin Ryan: FYI there are still HIMYM episodes playing in the background.
Lindy West: Me tooooooooo.
Erin Ryan: Which one are you watching? In mine, Ted is yelling about nachos and I can see Robin's cleavage.
Lindy West: Barney wants to look at a girl's body but she won't take off her big coat. I think the gag is going to be that she is a thief, so her coat is full of treasure.
Erin Ryan: What if she was an actual skeleton underneath? Like no muscles, no skin, only bones. Just an IRL skeleton? Anyway: I actually kind of like the show! And I don't like laugh tracks.
Lindy West: Oh man, I do not like it. I find traditional sitcoms very comforting, because there were so many when i was growing up, but: it's just SO MEDIOCRE.
Erin Ryan: It's weird, because as things are happening, I know that those things might be irritating but I HAVE CHOSEN TO LOVE IT. Loving How I Met Your Mother is a choice, like loving a person.
Lindy West: How much have you gotten through? Because I REALLY HAVE NOT WATCHED VERY MUCH
Erin Ryan: There are SO MANY EPISODES. I got halfway through the first season and was like, holy fuck.
Lindy West: I got halfway through season 2, and then I just watched the premieres and finales of 4, 6, and 8, which is a really funny way to do it because all of those are THE SAME. The premieres always have weddings and the finales always have breakups. Or vice versa. I forget.
Erin Ryan: Uh oh! A difference in opinion! Let's talk a little about what both of us believe this show is about.
Lindy West: I believe that this show is about white people who believe they're entitled to happiness. The idea that "everyone finds their special magic person" is narcissistic bullshit!!!! Thinking of your relationship as destiny is why everyone gets fucking divorced.
Erin Ryan: OK: counterpoint: I think it introduces an optimistic way to look at life's failings, or perceived failings. I think that it's a show about how everything we might think is floundering around, twentysomething fuckery is actually not aimless, that someday we'll probably be in a place where we're happy in one way or another, and we'll have "mistakes" to thank for it.
Lindy West: But it assumes that that model of happiness is the same for everyone. At the beginning, Robin is like "I don't want marriage or kids, I want a career." But by the end, she's found happiness in marriage, just like she's "supposed" to. And it presumes a certain amount of class privilege—like, oh, even if you make mistakes you'll inevitably end up in a middle-class nuclear family with kids and a fence. A lot of people's lives don't lead in that VERY narrow direction. For most of the world, this show represents NO PART of reality. AND WHY ARE THEY SO OBSESSED WITH MARRIAGE?
Erin Ryan: Well it's definitely not perfect, but I really appreciate the cleverness of some of the jokes, and I like how the show treats its audience as participants. It rewards you for watching more; you start picking up on callbacks.
Lindy West: I understand why people are attached to it, and, I don't HATE it. I just don't find it particularly compelling personally, although I think all the actors are wonderful. Everyone's great, some of the jokes are great, but at least half of the jokes are SO lazy.
How do you feel about the structure?
Erin Ryan: I dig it. I think that I'm easily roped in by mysteries, and this is a comedy-mystery, except no one dies (MAYBE!).
Lindy West: I get that, but, how compelling is this mystery? If you asked me in episode one who is the mother, I'd be like, "…some conventionally attractive white lady with big eyes that he meets somewhere?" It's not a SUPER exciting mystery to me. You finally "meet" the mother and it's like, oh yeah, there she is: some lady. She looks a lot like all the other ladies he's dated for 9 years.
Erin Ryan: I'm into the fan theory that she's actually dead.
Lindy West: Does being dead make her more interesting? I would be interested if she was a ghost and at the end of the series the kids find out they're half-ghost.
Erin Ryan: It makes the story's telling less inscrutable, because otherwise WHY WONT THIS MEAN DAD LET HIS KIDS OFF THE COUCH?
Lindy West: It is a good joke at the beginning of season 2 when the kid says, "Dad, it feels like this story's been going on FOR A YEAR."
Erin Ryan: I like that the show does this a lot — it jokes around with the audience. I think part of its appeal is that it feels like you're in this group of witty people and they're your friends. It doesn't treat you like you're stupid.
Lindy West: It's a lot like Friends. Do people compare it to Friends all the time?
Erin Ryan: I never really watched friends because my parents told me it was an inaccurate representation of the sort of friends someone in their twenties should have. Because they're pinko culture snobs.
Lindy West: Your parents sound like me. "INACCURATE REPRESENTATION!"
Erin Ryan: Maybe you're my mom, Lindy.
Lindy West: I'm the mother. Nice to meet you.
Erin Ryan: WHAT?! SPOILER ALERT! Anyway, tell me what you think of Ted
Lindy West: I actually find Josh Radnor fairly charismatic as a human, but I just feel like Ted is so gross and clingy and entitled and pouty. He NEVER SMILES.
Erin Ryan: He has a nonsmile mouth.
Lindy West: He looks like a hot turtle.
Erin Ryan: Do you think he still has the same hair in 2030?
Lindy West: Is that even his real hair on the show? It looks like a Koosh ball.
Erin Ryan: How I Met Your Mother brought to you by 1990's Nickelodeon.
Lindy West: Also, he's 39
Erin Ryan: He's 39?? He looks young!
Lindy West: He also looks exactly the same for the entire series.
Erin Ryan: He's got Costas Syndrome.
Lindy West: I don't hate Ted as much as i'm supposed to, but he's just kind of a drip.
Erin Ryan: You're such a HIMYM contrarian.
Lindy West: It's really hard for me to let go of the couples that a show presents to me in the early seasons, because your'e trained so hard to be like "that's the true love that everything's leading back to!" so i just kept waiting for him to get back together with Robin.
Erin Ryan: So that's kind of novel, right?
Lindy West: Yeah, I guess so! GOOD POINT, ERIN.
Erin Ryan: So you don't hate Ted but you hate that he feels entitled to happiness. How do you feel about Barney?
Lindy West: NPH saves it. Can't be mad at NPH. But Barney is obviously disgusting.
Erin Ryan: True; he is the Oprah of gay guys. Did you get the impression that the Barney in Future Ted's story was kind of more date rapey than irl? Because Barney is SUPER DATE RAPEY.
Lindy West: Barney is a horror show. If you're going to have a character who treats women like that, but act like it's OKAY, because he's RIDICULOUS, you can't then just humanize that character without atonement.
Erin Ryan: I found Barney funny because I convinced myself that maybe Future Ted is trying to make Barney look worse to justify Ted's being in love with Robin. Because Ted is kind of not a good person, even in the story that he's telling. He cheats on people, he lusts after and pursues attached people.
Lindy West: That is such a convenient loophole for any criticism of the show. You could just be like "unreliable narrator."
Erin Ryan: The unreliable thing also explains away all the weird coincidences. All these people just HAPPEN TO RUN INTO THE ROOM at the exact moment that one character is confessing things to another character. Then the interloper hears and is like Whoa! good thing I heard that because I was just about to be like "ooh I'm in love with you!" Game changer!
Lindy West: That happens nonstop.
Erin Ryan: I've been cluelessly watching new episodes for the last few weeks and it happened, no joke, 4 times in the most recent episode.
Lindy West: I was going to say, i feel like the flashback within a flashback thing is kind of a crutch for people who are too lazy to actually plot a story, but that actually is how people tell stories. "Oh yeah, and then this thing happened" with one million asides.
Erin Ryan: Yes! exactly! that's another distinction between HIMYM and other sitcoms. It's a lot more true to life for the meandering storyteller.
Lindy West: I still don't think it's good. Dude: what the fuck is with the wedding thing?
Erin Ryan: So many dramatic weddings! In real life nothing interesting happens during wedding ceremonies. Everything interesting happens during the reception. But How I Met Your Mother can't get through a wedding without it changing everyone's character trajectories.
Lindy West: The show is obsessed with marriage, which I think is super moralistic.
Erin Ryan: I concede: relying that much on weddings as points of drama is a little lazy, and treating marriage as the end all be all is a little unrealistic.
Lindy West: Right! You can dabble in "not wanting to get married" when you're a silly twentysomething, but WE ALL KNOW that that's what WE ALL WANT. And if you don't "learn" to want it then your'e sad and broken. The focus is so narrow and old-fashioned.
Erin Ryan: The older I get the less I want to get married.
Lindy West: I feel like that's the kind of thing you learn as you get older, but shows like HIMYM aggressively reinforce the opposite, and the public at large finds that comforting because it reinforces their (maybe bad) choices.
Erin Ryan: Isn't it kind of fun, mentally, to retreat to simplicity? Sometimes? Because most people do get married.
Lindy West: It can be fun for us, but not so fun for girls who are trapped into shitty marriages at 19. People with less education and less money and less choice who you don't usually see on TV.
Erin Ryan: This show isn't about 22 year olds. These are people who are in their thirties who are established and successful. It is normalizing for later marriages.
Lindy West: Do well-to-do white people in their 30s living in NYC really need reassurance? In the scheme of things? Don't they get enough? I just cannot get over ENSEMBLE shows that don't have any people of color in the main cast in 2014. I know I'm a broken record about this, but it's really discouraging. It's not that this show shouldn't be allowed to exist, but it shouldn't be allowed to exist without criticism in a SEA of other shows like this. I just feel like...what's the net gain? It seems to just nail that clueless-white-liberal thing.
Erin Ryan: What do you think about Robin and Lily? I found Robin's arc kind of heartbreaking.
Lindy West: I don't really get what Robin's personality is.
Erin Ryan: There's a storyline in season 5 where she's seeing this guy (maybe season 7? i don't know Lindy i've been watching this FOR LIKE DAYS STRAIGHT) and she turns down a job in Chicago partially because of him. Then he gets offered the same job, takes it, and leaves her.
Lindy West: Her career gets douched over and over and over.
Erin Ryan: She still ascends, but she could have been like (to steal words from Barney/ punch self in face) legen-DARY.
Lindy West: Do you feel like the show manipulates you into feeling okay about that? Because "love is the most important thing," so we're tricked into being glad about her not leaving?
Erin Ryan: Yeah it's like a consolation prize.
Lindy West: That's kind of shitty
Erin Ryan: But also in my life if that happened I'd probably try to soothe myself with that too. Didn't get that job I want but at least I've got someone to come home to every night.
Lindy West: I don't think it's treated exactly like a consolation prize, though; it's like The Right Thing Happened. Getting a dream job would have been worse, because everyone just has their one special person. Even people who say they don't want to get married or have kids.
Look, here's how I feel: the show itself is innocuous and comforting, because I find the rhythms of traditional sitcoms comforting. I totally don't blame people for liking it. But personally, I have just seen well-to-do attractive straight white people fall in and out of love SO MANY TIMES. That has to be the #1 most common story in media. I just don't have a ton of interest in those stories anymore, especially when they're reinforcing the same traditional family structures/expectations that TV always has. I would just love to see someone do something NEW with a sitcom like that.
Erin Ryan: Not disagreeing with you, but do you think it's realistic to expect that from a network sitcom?
Lindy West: There's a difference between "wanting" and "expecting." I don't "expect" anything from network sitcoms, but my low expectations don't inoculate them from criticism. I don't see how anything will ever change without those criticism being voiced. What do you think about the female characters?
Erin Ryan: I think Robin's story is kind of a hundred little heartbreaks, and Lily is adorable. Actually i think Lily and Marshall are my favorite part of the show.
Lindy West: I love them.
Erin Ryan: I don't really care about Barney's penis or Robin's love or Ted's wife dreams, compared with how much I care about Marshall and Lily. When they break up at the end of season one I got legit sad. They're so real seeming. Like, how a stable couple who loves each other and has fun with each other interacts. Also, Jason Segal 4 Life. Ever since Freaks & Geeks.
Lindy West: Totally. Also, can I just say: Freaks & Geeks: one season. HIMYM: NINE SEASONS.
Erin Ryan: Listen: nothing will ever be Freaks & Geeks. That episode when Sam shows up at school with the feathered hair and the jumpsuit and he just CANNOT pull it off. That plucked my heartstrings.
BUT ULTIMATELY, even though it is not and will never be Freaks & Geeks, here's why I like HIMYM and am able to forgive it for its shortcomings:
1. novel framing device. my expectations for TV sitcoms are so low that when anything novel comes along it's like WEEEEE.
2. realistic comfortable long term couple in a loving relationship that isn't boring (Marshall/Lily)
3. a comforting wide view that "mistakes" and things that feel like failure can actually be teeing us up for something better in the future that we don't even know yet. That's such a hopeful, sweet theme when it's applied to something wider than marriage.
Lindy West: I get that; I do. It doesn't resonate with me in that way, but I totally understand why people like it, and I do think it's important for people to understand that sometimes "mistakes" are for the best.
Man, Ted dates hella people. He has so many girlfriends. How many people does he propose to?
Erin Ryan: I don't know.
Lindy West: Stella, Robin, coat girl. The mother. WHO PROPOSES THAT MANY TIMES?!
So what else should we talk about? Who's your favorite character? Mine's Marshall.
Erin Ryan: I think Lily is so smart and unique. She's a woman but she's mostly just gets to be a person on that show. There are so few TV characters that are female and just A PERSON.
Lindy West: Is that because she's not constantly chasing men?
Erin Ryan: Yeah and she talks about things that aren't her quest for men. She genuinely cares about her friends. She's honest and has a moral compass but isn't screechy or jerky. And when she is screechy/jerky she rectifies it. Or tries to.
Lindy West: There's something really powerful about that sitcom format with the laugh track and the constant joke-joke-joke-joke rhythm. I wouldn't seek this show out, but I would watch it on a sick day. And also, the traditional TV romance—people splitting up and getting back together and "finding" each other—is so seductive, especially when you were raised on it. It's just hard for me to get past the fact that (sorry to use the p word) you and I are privileged to find comfort in that, because these characters were designed for us. So many people get no representation at all, and I think it's presumptuous to brand this show "comforting" across the board for everyone, because for a lot of people it most likely isn't. It's just another reminder of how little mainstream culture gives a shit about them.
Erin Ryan: It's definitely not perfect, just that weighing all factors i like it and will probably end up watching a bunch of episodes I skipped on Netflix the next time i'm sick or it's crappy outside.
Lindy West: I'm not saying you said it was perfect! I'm just thinking through my feelings about it. I'm really not saying that the show is EVIL!
[ED NOTE: at this point, I got up and walked away for a second to tend to some vintage magazine graffiti everyone at Jezebel HQ was giggling about. Lindy continued typing.]
I think it's fine! I just can't ignore representation problems.
I feel like you're mad at me. Just like when Ted was mad at Barney for dating Robin.
Erin Ryan: I'm not mad at you! I was [description of what I was doing. At this point, our conversation veers off into Jessica McClintock prom dresses for a few minutes.]
ANWYAY I think the representation thing is interesting and I often feel pulled in multiple directions about it. On one hand everything can't be everything to everyone always but on the other hand, on a macro level, it sucks that everything seems to be so narrowly focused. It would be nice for underrepresented groups to be thrown a bone.
Lindy West: Or a steak.
Erin Ryan: Right. Or like a nice burger.
Lindy West: The same amount of burger as everyone else.
Erin Ryan: A burger that's representative of the proportion of the population isn't white guys.
Lindy West: Representation conversations are always macro, really, but I think it's important to keep having them. And I think it's a legit reason for people to personally dislike certain shows. That doesn't make individual shows evil, or people who like them stupid.
Erin Ryan: Also, it's okay when people don't like something you like. You can enjoy something while being critical of it.
Lindy West: Exactly!
Erin Ryan: So I take it you're not watching the finale tonight.
Lindy West: I can't! I've got a thing.