Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On DVD: "How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Fifth Season"

Here’s the most important single fact about How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Fifth Season: there is a big, full-cast, singing-and-dancing musical number. Not to perpetrate a knee-jerk reaction, but anyone with an even passing knowledge of the divisions of “jumping the shark” knows what a bad sign that is. You can justify the scene all you’d like—it’s their 100th episode, it’s exploiting co-star Neil Patrick Harris’s well-known affinity for musical theatre, etc.—but the fact of the matter is, it’s a terrible moment, corny and contrived and cringe-inducing in the way that just about every big musical number that wasn’t on a TV show whose name began with Buffy and ended in Slayer has been. This is one of my favorite sitcoms, and by the time the gang was kicking across the screen in their fancy suits, I wanted to crawl under the couch.

This is not to say the HIMYM (as the fans know it) suddenly went into the toilet in its fifth season—it’s still a funny show, clever and well-written, populated by engaging and likable actors. But as it passes that millennial episode, it’s beginning to strain a bit. When it premiered in 2005, it was a charming combination of the high and low concept: an occasionally complicated time-jumping storyline married with a traditional, multi-camera laugh-track sitcom. The series (and many episodes) begin with middle-aged Ted (never seen, but voiced by Bob Saget) telling his teenage daughter and son the story of how he met their mother. We then flash back to the mid-2000s (though, throughout its run, the series has dipped as far back as the mid 90s and well into the future), where young Ted (Josh Radnor) lives in New York with his best friend Marshall (Jason Segal), Marshall's girlfriend (and later wife) Lily (Alyson Hannigan), and smarmy ladies' man Barney (Neil Patrick Harris).

The first three seasons spent a great deal of screen time on Ted’s on-again, off-again relationship with Robyn (Cobie Smulders)—a bit of a red herring, since the audience was told from episode one that Robyn was not the titular future mother (she floats past the periphery of the events, her actual identity still undisclosed). In the fourth season, Ted and Robyn appeared to finally be a thing of the past, as playboy Barney developed (gasp) real feelings for Robyn; they circled each other throughout the year and begin season five finally getting together as a real couple (though that ends up being pretty short-lived—they’re broken up by episode eight, a bit of a cop-out considering the season-long run-up to their pairing). Meanwhile, Ted is enjoying his new career path as a college professor, Lily and Marshall remain the solid married couple, and Robyn continues slaving away as the anchor of a barely-watched morning TV news show, though her co-anchor Don (Benjamin Koldyke).

Individual season five episodes are uneven, quality-wise; the season-long investigation of the group’s doppelgangers yields some funny moments, and the writing staff’s gift for Seinfeld-style phraseology (“hooked,” “playing the bagpipes,” “the sexless innkeeper”) is still yielding mostly on-target results (even if the whole “rabbit or duck” thing is a stretch). The series is also clearly capable of delivering relatable situational comedy—the “Say Cheese” episode, for example, features Lily finally losing patience with Ted for bringing throwaway girls to big events, leaving a trail of snapshots littered with forgotten women.

But several episodes don’t quite play—“The Wedding Bride” is far too contrived, “The Window” takes a promising premise and squanders it, and it might be time to let the whole “slap bet” business go—and the guest stars are more distracting than effective (I’m looking at you, Jennifer Lopez). Worse, when the scripts weaken, that braying laugh track is even more depressing, and the actors tend to rely more heavily on over-the-top mugging; Hannigan’s is particularly egregious. How I Met Your Mother isn’t a bad show—it still hits more often than it misses. But it is certainly proving more fallible than I’d originally suspected.

In a 2003 essay, Chuck Klosterman had this to say about Friends: “After about 1998, the show had completely transgressed into a vehicle for the on-screen personalities of its six stars. By its conclusion, some of the characters on friends seemed even semi-real and all the dialogue sounded like skit comedy. But when the program was conceived in 1994, most of the action was built around relatively plausible problems.” I enjoyed Friends right up through its final episode, but I see what Klosterman is getting at there, and the same thing goes for How I Met Your Mother. In its fifth season, it is slowly becoming a joke machine, less interested in its characters as vehicles for storytelling and more as easy constructs for lazy punch lines. It still has the capacity for quality, and it occasionally reaches the peaks of its best moments from previous years. But as that musical number reached its crescendo, you could all but see the shark fins on the horizon.

"How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Fifth Season" is available now on DVD.

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