I haven’t been watching How I Met Your Mother this season, but the show is wrapping up its epic meet-cute and I wanted to see how that’s been going, so I watched the last couple of episodes the other night and realized I hadn’t really missed anything. This would have been surprising to 2008 Brandon, who binge-watched the first couple of seasons and loved every minute of it.
Since high school, I’ve had a soft spot for shows about dating in New York. It started with Seinfeld, though at the time the show didn’t seem as though it was really about dating in particular. Even so, it made an impression: On Seinfeld, dating was sure to produce reams of anecdotes to recount to your confidants after the fact. In that universe, reporting on your most recent romantic misadventures was a key component in your conversational portfolio, as you boiled your last date down to a glib summary or catchphrase, and your would-be amours were fodder for an unforgiving scoring system that honed in on every detail. A date might be going perfectly, but a bad case of “man hands” would be enough to sink it.
The show made dating seem like a blood sport, yes, but more importantly, there was the comforting ritual of recounting of the idiosyncrasies of last night’s date to your friends, who doubled as your cheering section and peanut gallery.
(I can’t claim that this analysis of Seinfeld is completely original. I remember at least hearing something along these lines from my friend Tony years ago, and it seems, at the very least, like common sense.)
While I was in high school, Friends launched, on much the same formula, but with younger characters. I watched at first, but by the time I went to college, I was ignoring TV in general. By 2005, I was 24 and living with two women roommates, also in their twenties, one of whom liked to compare herself to Seinfeld‘s Elaine; turning our own dating mishaps and successes into colorful stories for one another became our primary method of bonding. Even though I had long since stopped watching, I remember at the time thinking of Friends in particular as an ideal, maybe because it had the same attitude toward dating (kiss-and-tell-and-criticize-mercilessly) but featured characters that were closer to us in age than Seinfeld‘s.
By the time I discovered How I Met Your Mother a few years later, I was dating a charming girl and living a life that, on paper, ought to be the envy of any of these shows. But on Saturday mornings, waking up at my girlfriend’s apartment, I would sneak out of bed, trying hard not to disturb her slumber, so that I could watch an episode or two of HIMYM by myself. I secretly hoped she wouldn’t wake up and watch with me, which would have broken the reverie of becoming fully immersed in the show and the fantasy it represented, a fantasy of living a life that was anecdote-worthy at every turn. It turned out that, for a half-hour at a time, at least, I preferred make-believe to reality, even when the reality was better.
Years passed, and at some point it occurred to me one day that Friends and How I Met Your Mother didn’t seem like anything to aspire to anymore. Now they just seemed like shallower versions of my life. In fact, my life hadn’t become more substantially more or less interesting; it was just that reality, coming close to the fantasy, had shown how dissatisfying the revolving door of dating could be. A wealth of funny stories to tell didn’t make you content — it just gave you something to talk about.
It didn’t help that How I Met Your Mother, the most recent show to celebrate singledom, is the worst of the three. It takes some of the worst elements of Friends — the narcissism, the sentimentality — and distills them, attempting via voice-over to add a layer of nostalgia to events even as they unfold before us. The worst part may be what HIMYM shares with Seinfeld but which, in HIMYM, has been perverted. As in Seinfeld, dates in HIMYM are reduced to funny incidents and oddly specific details, but they are fixtures in a larger story that purports to be much more profound.
In Seinfeld, there was no conviction that the protagonist’s journey to True Love was worth mythologizing. How I Met Your Mother‘s loving attention to details and Ted Mosby’s every emotional up or down is a bit painful in itself, but its overall effect is even more pernicious: By taking itself (relatively) more seriously, HIMYM encourages the idea that all of those strange, odd, marginal characters really were just bumps on the road to true love. It encourages the idea, implicitly, that they are marginal for a good reason.
Seinfeld, on the other hand, was hard to think of as a show that condemned its menagerie of weirdos, in part because the major characters were never made out to be completely likable themselves. It was ultimately was a show about … well, you know. It’s very philosophy — “no hugging, no learning” — had the comic’s jaundiced, cynical view of humanity that discouraged the self-regard that HIMYM bathes in. Seinfeld didn’t play as a drama, and it knew that it really didn’t need to.
These days, when I need my single-searching-for-love comedy fix, I watch The New Girl. If I can’t get what I need in New York, Los Angeles will have to do.