“How I Met Your Mother” and The Death of the Sitcom

“How I Met Your Mother” and The Death of the Sitcom

How I Met Your Mother is a strange show. It’s kind of like an Apple tape player, or a McSweeney’s phonebook. Something that young, hip people find obsolete, designed for young, hip people. In other words, it’s a sitcom blindly aimed at a demographic that doesn’t like sitcoms anymore.

I observed How I Met Your Mother from afar for a long time, confused but intrigued. On the one hand, it seemed awesome. Jason Segel, of Freaks and Geeks and The Muppets and Judd Apatow stuff. My hands-down favorite huggable funny guy that’s not Seth Rogen. And Willow from Buffy who put a flute up her vag at band camp! And Doogie Howser, a cherished child actor and gay guy, playing a real poonhound. What’s not to love? But something stopped me. Something in the mix was laming everything up.

Despite this, I watched it anyway, thanks to a Netflix dry spell that left me with either that or Secret Life of The American Teenager. (Quite possibly the stupidest show that has ever existed.) I treaded in carefully, watchful for signs of overbearing candid laughter, and then settled into the show like it was a lukewarm hot tub.

After watching about 20 episodes, I’ve realized it’s not the content of the show that is lame, but the vessel. The form. No matter how funny How I Met Your Mother should be, it will always be saddled down by the lameness inherent in sitcoms. Every episode will start with the canned premise of Ted, VO-ed by Bob Saget for some reason, talking to his bored children. It’ll still have a laugh track that Wikipedia says is “created by recording an audience being shown the final edited episode,” because it’s not shot in front of a live audience. Narrative arcs will run as a series of circles, every episode wrapped up as a lesson for the kiddos.

How I Met Your Mother is the closest any show has come to being the next Friends, giving young people a sexy, funny sitcom that reflects their own lives. But part of the reason that so many other shows that try to be the next Friends fail is because we don’t want Friends anymore.

We’ve grown up preferring the self-aware awkwardness and authenticity of single camera shows, watching Community while our parents watch Big Bang Theory. Sitcoms are designed to be part entertainment, part background noise, something you can dip in and out of depending on when you happen to be bored and in front of a TV. Now that we watch TV online, or on On Demand, we watch it more intentionally, appreciating subtleties in narrative arcs over time and enjoying more challenging material. As we all learned by trying to watch Whitney, the worst thing a TV show can do right now is tell us when to laugh. How I Met Your Mother may just be the last hurrah of a dying medium.

Becky Lang