Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mildly Better Mother Quest With The Second Season Of How I Met Your Mother!

The Good: Funny, Decent performances, Better plots, Sense of going somewhere, Fine DVD bonus features
The Bad: Still largely predictable and formulaic, Most of the characters still don't pop
The Basics: The mediocre series returns in a second boxed set that has more a sense of going somewhere, despite treading where virtually every sitcom has gone before.

I've been watching a lot of mediocre stuff lately. After suffering through the first season DVD set for 'Til Death, I tried to clean my palate with something I thought would be a dramatic improvement, namely the first season of How I Met Your Mother (reviewed here!). Alas, I was a bit wrong. When I say "a bit," I mean, "wow, that show was nowhere near as good as I expected it." Don't try to stick that back in where "a bit" was used, it doesn't work grammatically. I’m still not sure why I suffered through the second season boxed set of How I Met Your Mother. But I did.

Hopefully, this may keep you from making a similar mistake.

Despite being the story of Ted, who is telling his children in the future the story of how he met the woman who would become their mother, the season opens with the thrust being that Marshall and Lily being broken up. Lily has run off to San Francisco, abandoning Marshall and it's up to his friends Ted, Barney and Robin to cheer him up. Lily soon returns, fences are slowly mended and Ted begins to focus once again on Robin, who seems to have warmed up some to Ted.

As the season progresses, though, the show soon slips into its familiar patterns. In other words, despite the narrative technique of supposedly being a love story in reverse, How I Met Your Mother becomes a fairly standard and often bland sitcom. This season, the plotlines that have been done to death include: a bachelor party, the reminiscing about a car that is now gone, missing a flight and causing a fight, woman getting jealous when ex-boyfriend goes out on a real date, and trying to teach the mean boss a lesson. I write these plots in the most generic terms because that is often the way they feel in this show, like the writer's room is simply checking off a list of previously done concepts in the history of sitcoms and trying to get bingo.

The only episode that follows these pretty hackneyed plots that nevertheless works is the Barney episode "Single Stamina." In this admittedly fun episode, Barney's brother - who is virtually identical to Barney save that he is black and gay - shows up and accompanies the gang on a night of heavy partying until he reveals to Barney that he and his partner are planning on getting married. This leads Barney to rail against, not only gay marriage but all marriage. This rift becomes a real and traumatic problem for the brothers and makes for an entertaining episode.

For those keeping score, that's one out of twenty-two, not good odds for buying a boxed set of DVDs! How I Met Your Mother seems to hinge on the idea that the audience will be so impressed by either the narrative technique - all of the episodes are flashback stories being told by a much older Ted in the future - or the cast. But in truth, the narrative technique of setting the episodes as flashbacks barely amuses and does not cover the fact that even with the weird chronological jumps within each story, the show is basically a very simple and typical sitcom.

This is made somewhat more insulting by the fact that in the second season (until the final episode's last shots) the series is not truly about the story of how Ted met the mother of his children as Robin is repeatedly declared not the kid's mother - she is referred to as "Aunt Robin" in the future. So while this season has a slightly better sense that the show might be going somewhere, it's still not there yet.

As a result of the plots being largely standard, it's up to the characters to impress and they don't often do that here. The main characters in the second season are:

Ted Mosby - This is supposedly his story, though much of the action in this season revolves around Lily and Marshall, his two friends who are (at various points) married, broken up and engaged. He is fixated on Robin, a news anchor, who he is dating and working through all sorts of dating problems with, including their first fights and figuring out what to do with things left over from previous relationships,

Robin - Now dating Ted, she balances her life between the news station and time with him and their mutual friends. In many ways, she is simply an accessory to Ted and the series,

Barry 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. However, he proves himself to not be the traditional television jerk by openly embracing his brother and having a heart for his friends,

Lily - A kindergarten teacher who has gone rogue as an artist. Returning somewhat defeated from San Francisco to try to put her life and relationship with Marshall back together, she finds herself frustrated to discover that she may have damaged things beyond repair. While broken up from Marshall, she exhibits quite a bit of jealousy and she pours her heart into acting, painting and other art. She works to win Marshall back,

and Marshall - Lily's husband (eventually) and best friend of Ted, he's a moody law student who is very tall. Marshall clearly loves Lily and is damaged by her leaving and is not too quick to take her back.

This leads to the question of why does Marshall take Lily back, why do they reconcile? The problem with How I Met Your Mother - Season 2 is it does not satisfactorily address that. Instead, they come back together through a sense of inertia; we know they end up with one another, so they do. It's, sadly, pretty much that simply.

How I Met Your Mother initially drew me in with its cast and it was all that sold me on picking up the second season and sitting down and watching it. I had been a fan of Jason Segal from prior roles I had seen him in and Alysson Hannigan had truly impressed me with her portrayal of Willow on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!). But this series does not so stretch either of those actors, instead using them in very safe ways that fit what we know of their abilities already.

It is Neil Patrick Harris as Barney who makes the show anything above simply bearable. Unlike his wholesome characters from Doogie Howser, M.D. and Stark Raving Mad, here he plays a character who is smarmy and unlike anything else I had seen Harris in. He is able to convincingly and consistently play callous and sell it perfectly. Moreover, when he has to, he makes it completely believable that his character can be motivated by compassion, yet he keep's within Barney's character at those moments. It's a diverse performance for him and it works perfectly.

On DVD, the series adds very little to what was originally presented on television. The boxed set has commentary tracks on several episodes and they are good. They are both informative and some are very funny. Some are even better than the standard episode because they are not typical. There is a pretty typical gag reel and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes. They add enough that an obsessed fan will find enjoyment from them but the typical (and yes, bored) viewer will not likely find it enough to shell out money for this set.

While there's the sense that the series is getting better, it's still too safe, too typical and just not funny or original enough. There are enough shows like that. It would be nice to see some of the talent in this show freed from it in order to pursue something better.

For other works with Jason Segel, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Friends With Benefits
Bad Teacher
Despicable Me
I Love You, Man
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Freaks And Geeks


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

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

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