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The Brilliance of "How I Met Your Mother"

By admin Published: May 2, 2007

Overstatement? See after the jump ...

I think that CBS has been wise enough in its promotion of "How I Met Your Mother," a lot of which has emphasized the hilarious Neil Patrick Harris.

But I think the show deserves to be thought of as more than a reasonably funny comedy. Especially this year, it has taken the whole idea of sitcom narrative and made it as malleable as silly putty. While I won't be so bold as to argue that it's revolutionary, it is certainly radical in the current sitcom climate, and it's a reason to admire the show for more than the jokes it makes.

The overall structure of "HIMYM" is extended flashback: Future Ted (Bob Saget) is telling his children about, well, how he met their mother -- except, of course, the show digresses into other tales of Ted and friends to fill the required 22 episodes per season.

But where the show gets interesting is in the way it tells the stories within the flashbacks. We go back and forth in time, so we have flashbacks within flashbacks. We get parallel flashbacks: the same incident as seen from different points of view. We get faux flashbacks, like the one on Monday where the characters act out the sort of wedding-toast anecdote Marshall wants Ted to relate.

But that whole wedding-toast storyline shows how comfortable "HIMYM" is in playing with narrative. The episode had two major stories -- the wedding toast and Barney's going on "The Price Is Right" with the hope of meeting his father, Bob Barker. (At least, that's what Barney thinks, based on what he was told by his indifferent mother -- in the first of a sequence of Barney's childhood flashbacks).

Another show might feel the need to wrap up the two stories at the end of the episode, or to wrap up Barney but save the toast issue as a to-be-continued for next week's wedding episode, or make less of the toast. But "HIMYM" did none of those things. Instead, it jumped ahead in time, to show Ted delivering the toast at the wedding, then went back to deal with Barney's story.

The wedding scene is especially bold because it seems to undercut any suspense that might be generated by the chaos we can figure will precede the wedding itself. But "HIMYM" is acknowledging that the audience is smart enough to accept comic chaos even when it knows the outcome, just the way it repeatedly says that the audience can follow a distinctly nonlinear form of storytelling.

To be sure, other shows have played with narrative line, notably "Arrested Development." But "Arrested Development" endlessly declared "We are not your usual sitcom." "HIMYM" tries to make the audience comfortable with a familiar framework (a bunch of friends deal with live and love while spending a great deal of time sitting around their homes and a favorite hangout) -- then spins around in time and point of view.

Of course, I wouldn't even have noticed this if I didn't watch the show a lot -- and I began doing that not only because it has a local connection but because it has good characters and actors, and it makes me laugh. Still, underneath the laughs, it approaches structure in a clever, even brilliant way.

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