Ted Mosby Really Is a Jerk?

Back when Television Without Pity was called something else, first Dawson’s Wrap and then Mighty Big TV, and was a lot better than it is now (not everything is ruined by popularity, but Mighty Big TV was a lot nastier and funnier than what it’s become over the years), they specialized in vicious recaps of Dawson’s Creek, and, in particular, pointing out that the supposed hero was actually a colossal douche. The idea was that the stuff that the writers thought made him heroic, or interesting, or superior, actually made him seem like a self-righteous jerk. Another character like that was Brandon on 90210. If a character is acting in ways that would make you want to smack him in real life, the site asked, why is he the hero?

I think the TWoP folks have kind of a crush on How I Met Your Mother, as do I. But I have to say, if they were as vicious as they were in the Golden Age, they’d be all over the recent assishness of Ted, the supposed hero of this excellent show. Look at the things we saw Ted do only in this week’s episode, that is, in only twenty minutes, almost half of which were about Barney and his wacky Will Forte adventures. (Granted, some of these are carry-overs from the events of last week’s episode.) We saw Ted, the ostensible hero of How I Met Your Mother, do the following:

– He told Robin, whom he broke up with over a year ago, that he’s “forgiven” her for exercising her prerogative to have sex with whoever the hell she wants.
– He casually, instantly, told an intimate and embarrassing secret about his girlfriend to his friends.
– When his girlfriend quite understandably decided that maybe she should think twice about sleeping with a man who betrays her trust like that, he lectured her on commitment issues so that she’ll come back to him and admit she was wrong. Which she wasn’t.
– Continued the dumping of his friend, Barney, a character we like, for the shocking crime of sleeping with somebody he broke up with over a year ago. Because we all know that Ted owns her. For life. (Where was Ted when Barney was stealing the women Marshall was interested in? Isn’t that actually a lot worse?)

Add this to the fact that every episode has him torturing his kids by telling them another story that has nothing to do with how he met their mother, and the fact that his idea of a “cute,” funny relationship with his girlfriend is to make sarcastic gotcha jokes, and this man is seriously approaching Dawson Leery territory in Unsympathetic Hero Land.

Now, before you start: I know that most of this stuff actually makes sense in the context of the episode and its theme. And taking the character’s behaviour out of context and judging it by real-life standards is so unfair, so… well, so TWoP. But still, I think it’s sometimes useful to step back and ask: if someone behaved this way in real life, would I think he was the Good Guy? And my answer is, probably not. Barney can get away with being a jerk because Barney is a cartoon character. Ted is supposed to be the guy we identify with, so it’s a bit of a problem for me that I haven’t found him very sympathetic lately.

HIMYM is, as you’ve probably noticed, one of my favourite current shows. It has many exceptional strengths. And every show has its weaknesses. The odd thing about HIMYM is that its main weakness is not peripheral to the show, not something it can play down or de-emphasize: its weakness is, and to a degree always has been, right at the centre of the show, the character of Ted. I didn’t have a big problem with Josh Radnor when the show began (except for the hair), but it’s hard to deny that he’s the weakest member of the cast, especially since Cobie Smulders became so unexpectedly funny. (If anyone was supposed to be the comedic weak link on the show, it would be a Canadian model in her twenties who’d never done a sitcom before, but she’s damned funny.) But Radnor isn’t a bad actor — though he really needs to cut it out with the bad hair — he’s got an ill-defined character. The other four characters are funny and likable because we know what they are and what they want. Ted started out as the Incurable Romantic, and when it became clear that that characterization made him seem like a complete wuss, the writers started flailing around to figure out what he should be. The reason he’s acting like a jerk lately, if you look at it that way, is simply that this is the latest stage the writers have put him through in their quest to define him.

It is, as I said, odd; most shows this good don’t have a weakness that central, because a good show has a solid foundation, and the solid foundation is usually the main character, or, if there’s no one main character, the main group What happened with HIMYM was that even though Ted is clearly the lead character, the foundation of the show turned out not to be Ted and his quest for eternal schmoopy love, but the concept of the show, the idea that the show is not fixed in time, that not everything Older Ted tells us is reliable, and that there’s an underlying mystery about who The Mother is. These conceptual building blocks are so strong that they’ve become the star of the show. (Everybody wants to know who The Mother is; I don’t think many of those people are really rooting for Ted to find true love.)

I don’t really know what the writers can do about the Ted problem if the show is picked up for another season, and I certainly hope it will be. The show would probably be more popular as a Friends-style ensemble comedy, given that the best episodes often focus either on the other four characters or on the group as a whole. But it can’t go there because the format of the show requires Ted to be the lead in most of the episodes, and the format is popular even if Ted isn’t. Of course, there’s still a chance that they could make Ted a stronger character, but it hasn’t really happened yet. Maybe if they fixed his hair….

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