When historian's look back at the early 21st century, I think they will agree that we have been living through a Great Sitcom Depression. There was a time in my life, back when kids were wearing Airwalk sneakers, Jenny McCarthy jockeyed for position on my wall with Jennifer Love Hewitt, and back when I thought that with enough hard work I could be a professional baseball player, that I remember being pretty happy with the choice of TV comedy. Like everyone else of my specific demographic I was reared on Growing Pains and Saved By The Bell, but it was the all-time-greats like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and even Friends that made the half-hour comedy as tremendous an art-form as anything else of the written word.
But lately we've only been given fleeting glimpses of a successful situational comedy. Arrested Development, sure, and current shows like 30 Rock and The Office, plus a few laughs from HBO (whose commercial-free shows somehow seem even shorter than network TV, which if you think about it is really appalling. It's like when you first realized MTV's commercial breaks were twice as long as any other channel. Although HBO's offense is tempered by shows like The Wire that run almost a full sixty minutes).
Generally, however, scripted laughs are few and far between. Reality TV and half-hour dramas dominate television ratings right now (there is only one comedy in the Nielsen Top 20, Two and a Half Men), but are mostly justified for doing so, since there isn't much high-quality comedic product out there right now. It's a depressing outlook, at least for those who get depressed about this sort of thing.
Which is why my most recent comic discovery has felt so much like a beacon of hope. Ladies and gentlemen, I am excited to give my full endorsement to CBS' How I Met Your Mother, now back from the strike and completing it's third season (though you can catch up on iTunes like I did). I've been shouting from my soapbox on this one for a few months now, and I take some pride in successfully converting both of my roommates and my tolerant girlfriend (who put up with insistence from yours truly to watch hundreds of youtube clips of the show before she got on board), turning them into fans of the show and restoring their faith in the sitcom.
The show, for those unfamiliar, revolves around Ted Mosby, who in the year 2030 is telling his kids the story of how he met their mother (older Ted, never seen, is voiced by Bob Saget); his narratives focus on younger Ted (Josh Radnor) -- in the present -- and his friends, as he goes about finding the woman of his dreams through the course of mostly booze-soaked New York evenings and group adventures.
Obviously the most important quality the show possesses is that the creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, have made it damn funny. But more specifically, there are several reasons why the show works, reasons that represent a harmony of characteristics from the two titans of '90's sitcoms: Friends (at least the earlier seasons) and Seinfeld, two shows that became hits for completely different reasons. How I Met Your Mother is one of the first shows to prosper in the wake of these two sitcoms, and to prosper for directly incorporating aspects of both.
I've always thought of Friends vs. Seinfeld like Guns N' Roses vs. Nirvana, two seminal early '90's bands that both rocked completely, but in completely different ways. You had the more established, mainstream rock band fronted by Axl & co., known for continuing the tradition of outrageous attitude and hard living that was/is rock and roll's trademark. Trashing hotel rooms, dating models, doing really outrageous amounts of drugs; this, as odd as it may sound, is Friends, which succeeded and failed entirely within the traditional mold of sitcoms: a will-they-or-won't-they love story, emotional engagement with all characters, and continuing stories told within easily resolved half-hour segments.
Then there's Nirvana, who spurned the conventions of Pop Music and chaffed at the ego and arrogance of their rock peers and were always uncomfortable playing the game expected of them. In similar fashion, Seinfeld gave the audience no loveable characters (in a traditional sense), no romantic saga, no emotional engagement with the characters (who in turn had no emotional attachments themselves), and no larger story arcs. Though there's no band that comes to mind for How I Met Your Mother's amalgamation (Velvet Revolver doesn't seem to fit, though it does blend Stone Temple Pilots and G n' R; STP was always a "wannabe" grunge act anyway, right?), it does successfully marry elements of both.
First, Mother gives the audience characters to sincerely care about. Aside from Ted, there's his college roommate Marshall (played by Apatow troupe member Jason Segal, star of this weekend's Forgetting Sarah Marshall), who, with his fiancé (now wife) Lily (Alyson Hannigan) provide a second romantic spine; Robin (Cobie Smulders) is Ted's girlfriend and later a full member of the group, and lastly, there is Neil Patrick Harris' second career-defining role as Barney Stinson, sworn bachelor for life and progenitor of most of the series' funniest lines (perhaps third career defining performance, after his brilliant cameo as himself in Harold and Kumar).
The characters expertly fill the genre demands in that their emotional well-being is linked directly to the humor and in turn audience satisfaction. This is unlike Seinfeld, which had a smaller heart than the Tin Man, but of course echoes Friends' winning formula (and also it's biggest shortcoming, in later seasons). There are some great, smaller moments in the show where this stands out, such as the end of season one, which ends with Marshall and Lily's relationship seemingly in tatters (set to Bloc Party's "This Modern Love"), or when it's revealed that the apparently amoral and unsentimental Barney is to thank for their reunion.
Perhaps the influence is less obvious when it comes to Seinfeld. It would be ridiculous and socially irresponsible to expect a second Seinfeld, a show as popular in Texas as it was in New York, that kept it's sharp edge even while appealing to the masses, that permeates our cultural lexicon even to this day. But there are hints of its authority spread throughout Mother. First, the show is, to paraphrase my roommate Will, "a bit randy." Especially for an 8pm show, its time slot until a few weeks ago (now 8:30), Mother surprises in its more casual references to weed, alcohol, and promiscuous sex, especially compared to other sitcoms. And if you see the above topics and think, big deal, that's part of life for young adults, that's exactly the problem with most television shows. While authenticity isn't necessarily the desired goal for a genre known as much for its poor sets and laugh track as much as anything else, the more relatable a show is the better, as Seinfeld proved.
Bays and Thomas, the show's creators, have said that the premise came from, "our friends and the stupid stuff we did in New York," and it shows, in a good way. From episodes titled, "Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.," to a right-on portrayal of the obscenely irritating club scene of New York, to Barney's consistent demands for the gang to "suit up!", only for the plea to fall on deaf ears, the writer's seem to get it right. It's not that everything in the show has happened to me or my friends, but it could. Ted gets blackout drunk and wakes up with a tattoo (of a butterfly, no less), Barney creates an NCAA-style bracket of all the girls he's tricked into sleeping with him, and Marshall prefers to play Wii Tennis in his boxers, to achieve the flexibility needed to compete at Wimbledon.
How I Met Your Mother also mirrors Seinfeld in its quest to spawn societal "catchphrases." Though nothing from How I Met Your Mother has matched the societal impact of "master of my own domain," "man hands", "close talker", or "not that there's anything wrong with that," this is at least partially because the show is simply not popular enough. Yet. An integral part of what makes Barney such a successful character is that he is practically a walking catchphrase factory. A great example is the, "hot/crazy scale" for women, or the "lemon law", which says that after five minutes, you can walk out on a date because it's a lemon. The most culturally relevant bit so far has been the Slap Bet; a bet Barney and Marshall make in Season 2 in which the victor gets to slap the loser at any five times in the future. The bit reoccurs in later episodes as Marshall (the victor) exacts his reward.
I can keep coming up with examples from the show of it's success, but I think it's already clear that I am vouching for it, and take full responsibility if you watch and disagree. Out of the smoldering ashes of the sitcom genre, which has been on life support for much of the 21st century, How I Met Your Mother combines the comic sensibility of Seinfeld with the genre conventions of Friends. While it may be a leap of faith to try and believe in a sitcom these days, with reality TV and fifteen different CSI's being reasonable alternatives to most "comedy", this show deserves your time. The groundswell begins here.