Thursday, August 30, 2012

How I Met Your Mother Season 1: An Old Idea Told A New Way, Mostly.

The Good: Moments of humor, Interesting concept, Generally decent performances
The Bad: Characters are pretty much sitcom standards, Loss of aspect ratio, Mediocre DVD bonuses
The Basics: A strikingly average comedy is made into an equally average DVD presentation that robs the viewer of part of the visual experience of the show while adding little else.

Every now and then, I find myself watching something that is truly unspectacular and I know it from the beginning. In the case of How I Met Your Mother, I found myself surprised that I picked up the DVD boxed set when being thoroughly underwhelmed while watching it on television. The show is not bad, but it's not as new and clever as it tries to sell itself as and it has some significant structural flaws that begin to come out even in the first season.

Billed as a love story in reverse, the first season of How I Met Your Mother on DVD comes with one immediate and inexplicable drawback; the show on the discs is not in widescreen format. Originally shot and aired with a more theatrical aspect ratio, the DVD makes the change to standard television proportions and this causes some loss of the scale of the show. Shots where characters are at extreme ends of the screen thus suffer from pan and scan cuts and it does have an effect on the show, which is surprising because as a comedy one might not think it made that much of a difference.

Beginning in 2030, Ted Mosby sits his young son and daughter down to tell them the story of how he met the woman who would become their mother. Recounting, then, life in 2005, with Ted living with his two friends from college, Marshall and Lily, Ted sees their engagement as an impetus to find his own true love and he does searching for her. He meets Robin, falls in love with her, though they do not quite get together, and the two couples, accompanied by their perpetually single, womanizing friend Barney, begin to hang out as a group and plan for the future.

Ted and Robin have much more of an on-again/off-again relationship in the first season, despite Ted being hung up on her. But the difficult aspect of watching the first season on DVD is that by the end of the first episode, the rest of the season is pointless. The title of the series, How I Met Your Mother, is a misnomer. This is not a show about how Ted met the mother of his two future children, this is the story of how he killed time before meeting their mother. By the end of the "Pilot," Ted admits to his children that Robin is not their mother. So the whole "love story in reverse" isn't so much that as a building up to something that could take years.

The problem here is that it's hard to care. In many ways, How I Met Your Mother is just a typical sitcom featuring a young couple (Marshall and Lily) and three single friends. Ted is obsessing for a whole season on the woman who becomes "Aunt Robin" and this becomes problematic for those who want the story to go ahead and get on with it. I'm all for building things up, I have a love for long movies where not much happens until the final moment when three hours of characters being miserable is washed away by one woman's smile, but How I Met Your Mother soon becomes an experiment in pointlessness. Indeed, virtually every character on the show is more interesting than either Ted or Robin.

But the first season definitely suffers from a lack of focus; Ted's on-again, off-again relationship with Robin puts him in the path of multiple women, none of whom seem to be the titled mother. The result is a sense of, "Why is this guy telling this story?!" For a sitcom, it makes sense to have all of these random relationships that might eventually yield the woman of Ted's dreams, but from the storytelling aspect of "This is how I met your mother . . ." telling the story of all the women he was with before that just doesn't cut it. Half the episodes, I find myself saying "Get on with it!"

Or I simply surrender and allow myself to be amused by the upscale neanderthal, Barney. Barney is very much a "type," the single, smarmy, womanizing friend who acts as a foil to the Lily/Marshall relationship. He is largely self-centered, highly successful in a financial sense and brutally honest about his desire not to commit or be in a long-term relationship. He's a cruiser and his advice to Ted is often counter of that of Lily and Marshall, despite Ted's desire to have what they have.

And in many ways, this situation comedy becomes the average sitcom with episodic bits that do not follow chronologically and do not quite add up to anything bigger. There's the episode where Ted and Marshall fight over who gets the apartment (the difference from the standard sitcom is there's an actual swordfight for it!), there's Ted's attempts to get to know Robin better through convoluted means like throwing parties that she can come to, and Lily meeting Marshall's family . . . with hilarious results. Yes, the plots become remarkably straightforward and common, despite the narrative technique.

But it's worthwhile to understand who the characters in the first season are. The principles include:

Ted Mosby - Single guy, this is his story. He is mostly fixated on Robin and he lives with his two friends from college, who are now engaged, Lily and Marshall. While he has affection for Robin, he finds himself attracted to other women and desperate to discover who his true soulmate might be. He is an architect who puts a lot of thought into every decision he makes, until he allows his friends to supersede his judgment time and again,

Robin - Interested Ted as a friend, his immediate pursuit of her freaks her out and she withdraws some. She works at a local television news station and is just getting to know Ted and his weird friends, though she seems to bond quickly enough with Lily,

Barney Stinson - An undefined businessman who is incredibly successful at what he does. Almost always wearing a suit, he exudes an aura of professionalism and class, until he opens his mouth. He is a womanizer and a bit of a jerk,

Lily - A kindergarten teacher who is engaged and later married to Marshall. She is concerned about having freakishly large children and works at being an artist. When opportunities arise, she is not one to not take them,

and Marshall - Lily's husband and best friend of Ted, he's a moody law student who is very tall. Marshall clearly loves Lily and is trying to figure out how to balance time between Lily and his best friend.

How I Met Your Mother drew me in with its cast. Neil Patrick Harris plays Barney and he's the highlight of the show. His performance is downright smarmy and unlike anything else I had seen Harris in. He's come a long way since Doogie Howser, M.D. and that is refreshing. He is funny and his performance truly is a different performance for him.

But it was Jason Segal and Alyson Hannigan who drew me in. Segal was amazingly awkward and sometimes creepy in his role on the short-lived but wonderful Freaks And Geeks (reviewed here!). I've been waiting for him to get another role that was decent and while his portrayal of Marshall is sometimes derivative of how he played Nick, it's usually different enough to justify my faith in him as an actor and he continues to develop a pretty wonderful comedic sense.

But it was Hannigan who sealed the deal and got me to pick this boxed set up. After coming into her own in the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!), Hannigan returns to her comedic sensibilities in a way that is more worthy of her than some of her endeavors. Yes, her performance in this is better than her stint in Date Movie (panned here!), but it seems she is often typecast or used in the same way to evoke humor. Once you've seen Hannigan bug out her eyes to get a laugh, as she does when she sees the giant turkey in the Thanksgiving episode, you've seen it. What else?

The problem is, this series does not seem to have the answer to that question. Outside Harris, the show suffers because all of the performers who are playing types fall within the safe niche of the casting. They are not stretched as actors, they simply fill the slot that was originally carved out for each of them.

On DVD, the series adds very little to what was originally presented on television and with the aspect ratio change, it does take something away. The boxed set has commentary tracks on several episodes and the third disc includes a very standard gag reel. As well, there is a yearbook featurette, but it's not terribly exciting. The truth is, the DVD bonus features do not add enough value to this boxed set to make it a worthwhile investment for those who have simply been watching the series as it airs. This is not the indispensable comedy of our time and it's not even terribly shocking.

And the first season suffers because it does not build to anything real. Unless the series finally ends with the punchline, "That wasn't the story of how you met mom, that's how Uncle Barney and Aunt Robin got together!" these twenty-two episodes do not take the viewer anywhere particularly new in terms of humor. And even if that does become the eventual series finale's joke, I'm fairly sure it won't be worth it. Either way, this boxed set isn't.

For other works with Cobie Smulders, check out my reviews of:
The Avengers
Captain America: The First Avenger
The L Word - Season Two


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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