'How I Met Your Mother' can't stick the landing

Watching last night’s How I Met Your Mother, I was not pleased – though I wasn’t inspired to the heights of invective that Alan Sepinwall reaches in this post, where he devastatingly lists everything that has been wrong with the Zoey arc and the Zoey character this season.

Here’s the thing: this has been one-half of a fine comeback season for HIMYM after what was generally agreed to be a disappointing fifth season. Several episodes have been very good, there have been some good guest characters (John Lithgow) and the stuff revolving around fathers – Marshall losing his dad, Barney finding his – has made for some funny and touching material. Even the Zoey arc produced some good material thanks to the character of the Captain, played by Kyle MacLachlan.

But the character of Zoey wasn’t appealing, and her relationship with Ted became a sort of collection of all the show’s weak points, rolled up into one cute and quirky ball. It’s not news that Ted has been the show’s most problematic character literally from the beginning. It’s the Achilles heel: the whole thing is built around his search for the right woman, and he’s the narrator of the story, yet he’s the hardest character to like. And for some reason, when the writers put him together with a woman he’s serious about, he gets worse – his “cute banter” with Zoey was even more appalling than his “cute banter” with Sarah Chalke’s Stella. (I don’t think this was intentional. As I recall, his banter with Stella was supposed to show how delightful they were together even if they ultimately weren’t right for each other. Instead it accidentally made a lot of us not want to see them together.) Because Ted is so unappealing matched up with almost any woman on a regular basis, this kind of makes it hard to care who the Mother is, let alone look forward to them teasing it out for two more seasons. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best relationship he had on the series was with Robin, in the best season of the series, the second. Not only because Robin was someone we could actually like, but because the relationship was already announced as doomed before it began – no teasing or fake-outs – and the writers could concentrate on the problems, not trying to make it look cute.

The other issues the show faces are just typical season-six issues. Some of their devices (relationship metaphors, characters making up crazy quasi-scientific rules to explain typical relationship issues) can still be fun but have been done over 100 times, so for every episode where they work, there may be another one where they feel tired. But that’s normal for any show that has gone over 100 episodes, particularly when they have a very tight-knit group of characters and can’t add new regulars or shift focus. It reminds me of Frasier, which also had a failed arc that it never fully recovered from (as I’ve said in the past, Frasier getting fired is like Barney and Robin getting together) and stayed focused on the same five characters. Maybe sometimes adding a Scrappy Doo makes sense, just to freshen things up. They should see if Kyle MacLachlan’s available.

On a positive note with a hint of negativity: I can’t believe Pamela Fryman has never been nominated for a Best Director Emmy for this show (or any show, for that matter). The work she does as director of How I Met Your Mother has been one of its most important assets through good scripts and bad, and she has one of the toughest jobs of any TV director, essentially shooting two different types of show in one. Plus the unconventional shooting format of the series is largely her creation. Her failure to land a nomination is a sign of the bias against four-camera sitcoms in the Emmy voting – no director of a multi-camera show has been nominated since 2005.

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