VERSUS – FESTIVAL DE CANNES EDITION: Blue Is The Warmest Colour

So the winner of the Palme d’Or of the 67th Cannes Film Festival was announced this weekend, with the prestigious award going to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for the film Winter Sleep. I don’t know anything about Winter Sleep, but I’m sure we’ll start hearing folks buzz about it in art house circles soon enough. But let’s take a look at last year for a moment. Last year, at the 66th Festival, the film that took home the Palme was Blue Is The Warmest Colour. The bestowal of the Palme to Blue brought about many firsts: not only was it the first film ever that was based upon a graphic novel (Blue Angel by Julie Maroh) to win the award, but it was also the first time that the prestigious Palme was awarded jointly not only to the director (Abdellatif Kechiche), but to the two lead actresses as well (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux). This was a big deal; apart from director Jane Campion (who won the Palme in 1993 for The Piano), Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are the only other women to ever have won the award.

Unfortunately, if Blue’s victory was something you processed only partially via soundbites (if you did at all), it probably didn’t leave much of an impression. Comparisons to Rochelle, Rochelle from Seinfeld came swiftly (“a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk…”), and the film’s three hour runtime and NC-17 rating kept its theatrical run limited to a smattering of art house theaters in big cities.

But let’s pause for a moment, shall we? You probably see up there at the title that this is a Versus post. And it’s gonna be, but it’s also gonna be a little different. See, I recently watched the film – and before I watched the film, I read the graphic novel on which it was based. Considering Blue broke so much new ground as a film when it won the Palme, I wanted to start on the page, and see how it transferred to the screen. How is the film as an adaptation? Does it translate well from page to scren? Is it better than the graphic novel? Worse? Are those last questions even fair? I think they are.

So, as always, there’s…

THE CONTENDERS:

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR – dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

Blue Is The Warmest Colour

BLUE ANGEL – auth. Julie Maroh

Blue Angel

THE STATS:

DISTRIBUTOR:

Blue Is The Warmest Colour: Ummm, indie? I think? (Sundance Selects, which is part of IFC Films, which is owned by AMC)

Blue Angel: Indie (Arsenal Pulp Press)

DURATION:

Blue Is The Warmest Colour: 180 minutes

Blue Angel: 160 pages

FRAMING DEVICE?:

Blue Is The Warmest Colour: Nope. This is pure, in-the-moment realism.

Blue Angel: Yup. The story’s presented in the present through a series of flashbacks derived from a journal.

STORY TIMESPAN:

Blue Is The Warmest Colour: It’s uncertain. Years pass, but time is mostly ambiguous.

Blue Angel: The first journal entries were from 1994, and the final ones from 2008. So fourteen years, at least.

SEX SCENES?

Blue Is The Warmest Colour:

Blue Angel: A few, but they’re brief, and not very significant plot-wise.

WAIT, WHY THE SILENCE?

Blue Is The Warmest Colour:

Blue Angel:

FINE. MOVING ON.

SO, BEAT FOR BEAT, WHICH DID IT BETTER – COLOUR OR ANGEL?

HOW ABOUT FOR CLEM AND EMMA PASSING ONE ANOTHER IN THE STREET?

Angel. It’s very poetic and understated. Colour drags it out to the point where it’s almost comical.

Also, in Colour, there is no Clementine. Her name’s been changed to Adèle, just like the actress playing her.

K. HOW ABOUT THE BAR SCENE?

Angel again. The scene in Colour feels more natural in comparison, but it meanders a bit and loses momentum. The whole film kind of does that. It has a tendency to get lost in itself. Sometimes, we go with it, and sometimes we get left behind.

THE CONFRONTATION AT SCHOOL?

This one goes to Colour – the scene is maddening, and it doesn’t shy away from how cruel kids can be to another when someone’s perceived as “different.” It slowly boils over, and is incredibly tense.

THE FIRST SEX SCENE?

Angel. The first sex scene – nay, all the sex scenes – in Colour feel like they’ve been cut in from an entirely differently movie. They don’t feel as though they exist as an extension of the characters and their passion, but rather, for us, the audience. That’s a tough feeling to shake.

THE BREAKUP SCENE?

Colour all the way. It’s devastating. Curious, though, that Emma berates Adèle for being a “dirty whore”, “slut”, etc. during this confrontation. Those aren’t words used in the book. And while Adèle/Clem does cheat on Emma in the book, the breakup scene isn’t sex-centric in nature. But in the film the scene is. I think, generally speaking, the entire film is sex-centric. And it’s to its detriment.

FEELS LIKE:

Blue Is The Warmest Colour: The film made me think more than once of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, though I don’t really know why. Thematically, there’s only a tenuous link between the two films, but it is there.

Blue Angel: I really don’t have a solid frame of reference for a story like this one in the comics realm. Maybe Stranded, from the second volume of Demo? Actually, now that I think of it, no. That’s a terrible example. So yeah, I don’t really have anything.

THE WINNER:

BLUE ANGEL

If I had just seen Blue Is The Warmest Colour as a film only, and had not had this experience linked to the comic at some point, I would have enjoyed it more. Its flaws come through more as adaptation missteps. Stylistically, the film’s here-and-now realism works quite well, and it’s particularly well-suited towards delivering conflict and tension. We watch small moments build slowly into eruptions, and it’s a gripping experience. The human moments, where people are co-existing and not battling one another, sometimes drift away from us. Blue Angel doesn’t suffer from this; while it’s more structured by comparison, it works better as a result, because we feel more attuned to Clem’s growth.

I think that’s why the film isn’t as satisfying. Adèle is introduced to us as kind of a lost child, and she more or less stays that way. Her arc is slight. But in the comic, we experience her struggle more, and we get to see the adult in her gradually emerge. The arc is more definitive. Hell, she dies in the book – she’s been dead since page one – but when past catches up to present, and we see her die, she dies fulfilled. We know this. The final lines of the book are:

Love catches fire, it trespasses, it breaks, we break, it comes back to life…we come back to life. Love may not be eternal, but it can make us eternal…beyond death, the love that we shared continues to live.

And at the end of the film? We see Adèle pensively exit an art gallery, and wander on down the street, away from the camera, her future and identity uncertain. That’s another thing that Maroh’s comic does better: it’s definitively about something (in this case, it’s a lesbian love story). The film, though, is far more ambiguous. You could certainly walk away from the film thinking that Adèle was just “going through a phase” with her relationship with Emma. In the book, her relationship with Emma was the defining, most powerful component of her existence. That’s quite a big difference, and it’s far more emotionally satisfying to have that be the conclusion.

I should point out here that Julie Maroh both wrote and illustrated Blue Angel, and visually, I prefer the comic. It’s more muted and suggestive, with less color and more rough edges than the film. It feels right. The film doesn’t feel wrong, but it doesn’t really feel right, either. Let’s go back the beginning of the story with Adèle/Clem and Emma passing one another in the street for a moment: in the comic, we see Emma’s swirl of blue hair emerge from a sea of people, and the connection between the two is startling, because the passing is just that: passing. But in the film, the passing is a much more prolonged event, and Adèle’s reaction is simply too much; she’s left standing flummoxed in the street afterwards, and a car even has to beep so she moves. It’s koi no yokan to the extreme. And it doesn’t really work.

So that’s it. The film is good but flawed, and the comic is neither – it’s simply terrific. I’d highly recommend it (you can buy it on amazon). And if you’re going to watch the movie (which is currently streaming on Netflix), I won’t discourage you, but I would recommend reading the comic first.

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The Cataracts In Your Eyes

The last time we were graced with a script penned by but not directed by Joss Whedon was in 2012. That film was Cabin In The Woods, and it arrived mere weeks before The Avengers, meaning that it mostly got lost in the film conversation that year. A shame, considering that Cabin was the better film. It was clever (but not too clever), occasionally frightening, more insightful than it could ever be given credit for, and funny in the cute, warmhearted way that Whedon stuff is funny.

Also: merman.

Also: merman.

Technically, the script for Cabin In The Woods was only co-written by Joss; he shares the writing credit with Drew Goddard, the film’s director. Drew is no stranger to the Whedonverse. He’s written several episodes of Buffy and Angel, and he also wrote the “Wolves At The Gate” arc of the Buffy comic series published by Dark Horse. And Drew’s not the only one with Whedon lineage in Cabin. Fran Kranz of Dollhouse plays one of the film’s main characters, and Amy Acker of Angel plays a small but crucial role as a technician for the unnamed Facility in the film that sets all of kinds of horrific things into motion.

I say this because, having recently watched In Your Eyes, this is what I’ve found myself focusing on: small, inconsequential minutae. What does it matter if In Your Eyes doesn’t have any Whedon favorites in it? Well, it doesn’t. But In Your Eyes is so curiously vacant, so flat, and so – I’m gonna say “studiously” – unWhedon, I’m having trouble reconciling it with its creator. So I’m getting hung up on little things, because the big things just bum me out.

In Your Eyes

In case you’re not aware: In Your Eyes is a film written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill that recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was made available immediately afterwards on Vimeo’s VOD platform for the low, low price of $5 (with Live At The Beacon Theater, Louis CK correctly figured that $5 is the magic “eh, why not?” figure for impulse videotainment – a positive trend that I hope continues so long as it’s sustainable for content creators). Whedon had apparently been tinkering with this story since the early 90’s, and on paper, In Your Eyes does seem to merit a continued investment in for that amount of time. The idea is that there’s these two people who live completely different lives on the opposite ends of the country who have a kind of psychic connnection with one another. They can physically see through each other’s eyes, should they choose to (hence the title), and they can occasionally experience sensations felt by the other person.

That’s kind of neat, I think. But a high concept can sink alarmingly fast if you don’t structure it in just the right way, and In Your Eyes botches every opportunity for forward momentum – and it does so right out of the gate.

At the beginning of the movie, we see our two main characters, Rebecca and Dylan, as kids; Rebecca is about to go sledding, and Dylan is goofing off with his buddies at school. Rebecca slides down a hill on her sled, smashes into a tree, and at the same time, Dylan faceplants right onto the classroom floor. The scene is comical, and for all the wrong reasons; as Rebecca picks up speed, Dylan’s face tightens, his eyes widen, and he begins to shake. He clutches his desk tightly, and the desk shakes, a big violent shake like there’s an earthquake going on. I mean, this approach *could* work, but the juxtaposition of these two events is far too on-the-nose. There’s no nuance, no mystery here. I took this personally, even though I know I shouldn’t, because it signals a lack of trust on the director’s part, that Brin Hill does not think that I am going to get what’s going on here if it’s not spelled out for me veeeeerry slooooooowly in ALLLLLLL CAPSSSSSSS.

So okay. The opening’s not great. It’s a little stilted, and a bit of a misfire, tone-wise. But hey, some films don’t have a great opening, but they recover. Eventually. In Your Eyes, though, is not one of these films, and depressingly, the opening scene plants the seeds for *all* of the film’s problems – and for the next 100 minutes, we get to watch them sprout into weeds.

Let’s start with how it all looks: at the film’s onset, Rebecca’s scenes all have a cold blue hue to them, while Dylan’s scenes are all warm and orange. Cinematically speaking, this is just about the most basic thing you can do to establish visual contrast (with the possible exception of using color in the present and black and white in the past) – and while this visually may have worked okay for an opening scene, In Your Eyes does not deviate from this palette at all. This is how the film will look. Rebecca scenes = blue. Dylan scenes = orange. And that’s it. And my god, it gets dull *fast*. Sometimes, this can work – Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic has a similar visual approach – but it’s the kind of thing that sticks out if you’re not engrossed in what’s happening. And in the interest of making sure that we’re *not* all that engrossed in what’s happening, the film perplexing flashforwards like ten years into the future right after the opening scene is done.

That might not sound like a big deal, but the hurdle of those ten years or so (I think – truthfully, it’s probably more) is something I wrestled with when watching the film for at least 30 minutes. It kept my focus outside, and I spent a lot of that first half hour trying to burrow back in. So, these two can feel what the other is feeling, sometimes to the point of physical injury – does that mean they can feel *everything* that other person is feeling, or only certain things? Is there like a threshold, where if something is intense enough, they can feel it, but it’s not, then they can’t? Or is it something they need to focus on? Or are their connections just random, and there is no rhyme or reason to what happens to them? Regardless of whether or not they’re random, how in the hell didn’t this get to be a serious problem for the two of them years ago? It’s kind of a miracle that they’re both still alive, and that they haven’t been seriously injured as a result of their connection. Wait, if one of them dies, would the *other* one die? If not, would they know what happens after death, then? Would they able to experience an afterlife? Would they experience dying? Would they remember it? Would it traumatize them? I mean, this has been happening since they were kids – you’d think that they would’ve figured out what was going on much sooner then their obligatory meet cute in their late twenties. Kids are younger and more impressionable, after all.

Much like the Who’s Who of the Whedonverse, this is the kind of stuff that’s ultimately meaningless, and that should remain in the periphery. Any time you start digging too deeply into the machinations of a film, it means the film’s not working quite right (there are exceptions – see: Primer). Personally, I don’t even know why we had that opening scene with them as kids. It causes too many problems, and it doesn’t really add anything to the story. If we kicked things off with them as adults, and suddenly, they start seeing through someone else’s eyes, that could be kind of magical; it’d be easier to go along with, certainly. This film don’t need no kids.

Pictured: Movie Ruiner

Pictured: Movie Ruiner

I said earlier that Rebecca and Dylan meet cute, and they do – and the film could’ve righted itself if it made clear that yes, these people had a sensory connection for years, but they weren’t able to talk to one another until just now. Like, whoa. That works. But the film goes out of its way to make it seem as though these two people just never thought to *try* and talk to one another until just now. Which is preposterous. Again, they don’t know that what’s happening to them is that they’re actually seeing and experiencing things that are presently happening to another person in the flesh who’s two thousand miles away. But as kids, it stands to reason that they might want to try and talk to this second vision thing that they’ve got. Kids, even older kids, aren’t shy about trying to squash realism with fantasy. But no…Dylan hears Rebecca basically be accident, and in his twenties/maybe thirties. Hard to believe that didn’t happen earlier.

From here, the movie gradually settles into its existence as a by-the-numbers romance – with a twist! While the script is definitely not Whedon’s finest hour, most of the blame for the film’s general vacuity lies squarely on the shoulders of director Brin Hill. The acting is all very wooden, the design and the look of the film is bland and safe, the pacing is weak, and the music is WAY too big and emotional. While watching In Your Eyes, I found myself drifting back, more than once, to Spike Jonze’s Her, a film that could’ve been every bit as ludicrous as this if Jonze hadn’t hit all of the right notes. There’s a sex scene in Her wherein Theodore (a human) and Samantha (an operating system) get it on – and it works; In Your Eyes has a sex scene where Rebecca and Dylan writhe on their beds, sensually rubbing themselves so that they can feel the sensation of each other’s bodies, and it’s absurd. I laughed during it. More than once. It’s on par with the sex scenes from The Room.

In Your Eyes works best when it’s at its simplest. Coincidentally, that’s also when it most feels like something penned by Whedon. There’s a big patch of the movie where we just see these two characters connect and talk to each other, as though they were sitting in the same room. It’s playful and fun, and it feels real. When the real world encroaches on this, the results can be funny (Rebecca pretending to be talking on the phone when here husband interrupts her conversation with Dylan), or tiresome (Dylan smacking himself in the face repeatedly to get Rebecca to leave him be on his doomed date).

A plot slowly starts to rise out of all of this. Dylan, who was previously imprisoned for burglary (he’s an expert lockpicker) gets unwittingly pulled back to the crime life for One Last Job. Well, not so much “pulled in” as “expected to take part in” since it was his idea. But that was before. He doesn’t want to do it now, since he’s a Changed Man – and his two buddies are just about the least menacing people ever to force him into it. But Changed Man or no, when Rebecca is institutionalized by her villainous husband, Dylan’s all game to steal two cars and get into a chase to come to her aid.

And yes, I know. I know. They’re in love. You can do some crazy things when you’re in love. And you don’t always think things through. And yes, Rebecca hasn’t talked to Dylan in a long time, and he’s scared of losing her, and so off he goes. As a climax, that works well. Problem is, it isn’t earned. What gets these two to that point is that they:

A) Are constantly talking to one another in earshot and/or plain sight of others, so it looks like they’re talking to themselves, and

B) They don’t give each other any space

That last point sounds a bite trite, but think about it: if they’re going to be together, forever and always (which they basically are already, just not physically), they’re going to need to be careful about where and when to mindlink with one another. If Rebecca wants to drive 300 miles to visit her Great Aunt Mildred in Delaware, that’s probably not the best time for Dylan to go golfing; one slip into the other person’s consciousness, and you could have a car wreck or several broken bones. Restraint is needed. To be together, they’ll need to know – and know intuitively – when to be Out There and when to be In Here. To have them spend a movie not learning that, only to wind up in the throes of a very hot blooded and syrupy waltz to a finish line wherein they’ll need to know that if they want to have any chance of building a life together (and also not being arrested), is extraordinarily disingenuous. We don’t ever see these people grow into the right person for one another, although the film tries to convince us mightily that we have. We only really see them learn about one another. And considering this bond has existed between them since kids, that’s just not enough.

In Your Eyes has sloshed around my mind with little rest since I saw it, and I keep hoping in its tumbling motion it’ll show me some key to itself that had slipped me, but that hasn’t happened yet. Everything is as it was.

I thought about the film on the train ride into work this morning, and the weather was grey and rainy, like what you’d get if you’d mash the visuals of Dylan and Rebecca’s environs together, and this song came on my iPod – and it gave me what I wanted from the film, but didn’t get. And I can’t help but wonder…

Someday You Will Find Me

There’s an excellent episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete where Little Pete takes a shortcut to school and ends up passing by a house where a band is jamming in the garage. He stays for a moment, nodding his head along to the music while the band rocks out, and then he takes off. He continues along for a while, and then suddenly, in the middle of the street, he stops. It hits him. He has a favorite song.

Hard Day's Pete

This is, in a broad sense, a good thing – although earlier in the episode Little Pete would disagree (he dismisses those who call into his radio show with song requests as “jerkweeds”). But the awful side of this discovery soon sets in: yeah, he’s got a favorite song, but he has no idea what it’s called – and no idea if he’ll ever find it again. That one moment where it fused with him is gone, and the band that rocked the song out seems to have vanished.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen much anymore. In 2014, if you hear a song that you dig but don’t know, you can just hum it into this thing, and it’ll tell you. Case closed. But in 1994? This type of thing could haunt you.

A year or so after this episode of Pete & Pete aired, I was in Florida with my family for the summer, and while they were all outside on the beach having a blast, I was confined indoors, recovering from an awful sunburn I had gotten the day before. The skin on my shoulders was peeling off, collecting into fleshy knots on the bed I was lying on, and every part of me felt like the surface of the sun. I had all the blinds in the room closed to keep the light out, and my only companion was the radio.

We stayed in a small town not too far away from Daytona Beach, and I have no idea where the FM stations available to me were originating from, or even what they were called. But there was one station in particular I listened to that played a nice mix of the rock stuff I was into at the time: Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam. Good stuff. And after a patch of advertisement white noise had dissolved, this quiet song started up. And then I heard these words:

How many special people change?
How many lives are living strange?
Where were you while we were getting high?

The song continued. I can’t quite put the feeling into words, but it made me feel as though the outside I was currently cut off from was actually all around me, in every corner of my darkened room. The burning on my skin eased up, and I felt better. Not *good*, but better.

And then the song was over.

The radio didn’t have any kind of bumper that identified the song, and I didn’t know what I had just listened to or who wrote it, and it remained that way for the rest of the summer. Eventually, when school picked up again, I learned that the song in question was Champagne Supernova by Oasis, and it was on the same album as Wonderwall (which I promptly purchased). If that sounds anticlimactic, well, it was. Intentionally so. I didn’t set off on a madcap quest like Little Pete did to recapture that song as mine, as each piece of it gradually drifted away from me. As much as I would’ve loved to hear the song again, I think part of me was hesitant to chase after it because deep down, I kind of liked that for one moment, that song made me feel better when I was feeling crummy. What would happen the next time I heard it? That was something I decided to leave to fate for a time, and it was a good decision; when vacation was over, every time I tuned into Q101 in Chicago, I’d be brimming with anticipation that maybe I’d hear this song again.

Oasis - Champagne Supernova

Of course, when the mystery song identified itself, I quickly abandoned this idea – why deprive yourself of a good thing? Once I got my copy of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, I skipped to the end of the disc and listened to this song again, and again, and again. Champagne Supernova is arguably the best song Oasis has ever written, and it also holds the distinction of being their only song in the 6-8 minute range that doesn’t totally run out of steam midway through. It’s got one of those magical choruses that burrows into your head and stays there for all time, despite it not making a whole lot of sense. But it doesn’t *have* to make sense. That’s the beauty of this whole music thing. It just has to grab you. Noel Gallagher – a man perhaps too famous for speaking first and thinking later – offered an unusually astute rebuttal to an interviewer chiding the lyric “slowly walking down the hall/faster than a cannonball” by saying the following:

I don’t fucking know what it means. But are you telling me, when you’ve got 60,000 people singing it, they don’t know what it means? It means something different to every one of them.

I know what that line means to me: things don’t always stay how you remember them.

//

I was at a music festival with some friends in the summer of 2006, waiting for Jens Lekman to take the stage. It was still early on in the day, and the sun was just starting to peak out from behind the clouds, and I was feeling great. I’d stumbled across Oh You’re So Silent Jens right at the start of spring, and I couldn’t get enough of it. It was simple, melodic, funny, lovely – the whole package. Jens soon took the stage, and I blissed out. But then about midway through the set, Jens introduced a song that he had written about a friend of his, and it was a song that I hadn’t heard before. And it leveled me. As soon as it was over, I wanted to listen to it again, but I had no way of doing adrift in a sea of people. So once I got in front of a computer, I tried to find out what the song was called by futily trying to force my euphoria into something resembling a Google search, and after about a half-hour or so, I wound up at a Jens Lekman fan site (I think?) which informed me of something awful: this song (A Postcard To Nina), while occasionally played live, wasn’t on any Jens Lekman album. In fact, it wasn’t on any album or recording anywhere. It was a song that had yet to be recorded and released. The only version of this song that I could go back to was the one in my mind.

I tried searching for a bootleg recording of it, now that I knew the name, but was unsuccessful. I played the song in my head as often as I could, hoping not to lose it in the caverns of my memory. Sometimes, I’d catch myself humming certain parts of it while I was idling, or doing something mundane. It just kind of came out of me when there wasn’t a whole lot happening, perhaps to remind me that hey, you might not be up to much now, but you remember this, right?

Time went on, and my relationship to this song had settled in. This was just How It Was. The edges of A Postcard To Nina started to grow dull, the melody becoming warped in the fog of my ever-cluttering mind, and I began to feel a bit like Little Pete, losing piece after piece of this one song that was his and his alone, until all he could remember was one single note. It wasn’t quite that dramatic, but it sure felt like it. Then, in September of 2007 – a year and change after I had first heard it – Jens Lekman released his second album, Night Falls Over Kortedala. And guess what the fourth track was?

I was elated – but my first time listening to A Postcard To Nina in recorded form was an odd one, because it sounded so different from what I had looping around in my brain for fourteen months. The song I heard in 2006 was breezy, and light. The studio version on Kortedala is thick and lush, full of horns and xylophone and tambourine, a flirty bassline, and a wall of soulful, cooing backing vocals. Now I love this song, and I’m glad I can listen to it whenever I’d like, be it with the click of a button, or through a needle on vinyl – but I didn’t realize for a long time that the second I pressed play on track four of Kortedala, the version of A Postcard To Nina I had been carrying along in my head all this time was lost. And I do mean “lost.” I don’t remember how that song sounded anymore when I had first heard it. Not even one note. The only way I was able to get some of it back to contrast with it up above was via a shoddy, 51 second cell phone video on Youtube. The sound of the song is there (kind of), but that’s someone else’s memory, someone else’s experience – not mine. It’s not what I had. And it’s not what I remembered. That, it seems, is gone.

But maybe not. Little Pete did go back to that garage where he first heard that Polaris song, and he was able to pull it out from the void in his mind; his band became the band that played that song. Maybe I just need to head back to Union Park on a partly-cloudy day in July and wait for a while for that old version of A Postcard To Nina to surface again. Set and setting, so to speak.

And if doesn’t come back, that’s okay. It was around.

I Was Around

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER – My Top 10

It’s been one week since the series finale of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother aired, and it’s still been on my mind a lot since then. So now seems as good a time as any to talk about my ten favorite episodes of the show. Making this list wasn’t really that difficult, and rewatching all of these episodes brought a smile to face. Mostly (I was disappointed in Slap Bet to see that Ted’s “oh” moment with Robin is revealed to be Robin confessing that she “used to be a dude”).

The show didn’t become lessened by the finale in any way, which was I big concern that I had; I didn’t really see any of these episodes in a new, negative light. And I think I’m now finally ready to put How I Met Your Mother to bed for awhile. But not until this list is done.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER – My Top 10

10) “BLITZGIVING” (S06E10)

Blitzgiving I know, I know – it’s a Zoey episode. How could I put a Zoey episode in my top ten, you may ask? *Why* would I put a Zoey episode in my top ten?

Umm, because it’s fucking great – that’s why.

Blitzgiving has not one, but two “let’s-fill-in-the-blanks” stories going on at once – and these are the best kinds of stories that How I Met Your Mother can tell. But what’s great about this episode in particular is that the first one is happening right out in the open, but the second one…the second one you don’t see coming until it’s all but resolved – and when it does resolve, it’s got that kind of perfect, sincere sweetness to it that How I Met Your Mother is capable of pulling off without being saccharine or precious.

TO BEGIN: Ted leaves the bar early on in what looks like a fairly nondescript evening, only to discover he’s missed out on an absolutely epic night the next morning. And one by one, the gang fills him on what he missed, but it’s a moot point. There’s just the aftermath now. Robin’s facepaint, the stolen hotdog cart, skateboarding dogs, “The Gentleman” – you had to be there. And Ted wasn’t. Also, there’s the little fact that now everyone is friends with Zoey (Ted’s proclaimed mortal enemy) after this one insane, inconceivable night. He can’t even avoid her. She passed out in his bathtub. Speaking purely as someone who’s missed out on his fair share of late night adventures, there’s a strange realism to all of this, and Ted’s frustration with being stuck with a secondhand vantage point rings true. You can’t go back and relive moments that are gone. They’re just gone.

And then there’s Steve Henry, a.k.a., The Blitz (played, in one of the series’ absolute best cameos, by Jorge Garcia of Lost). It’s little grace notes like this that elevate the series’ mythology, its canon, into something truly special. Steve Henry is , at first glance, a completely inconsequential part of the story about how Ted met Tracy – and yet the beauty of the show is that nothing is really inconsequential, and Steve’s history with the curse of The Blitz (that one guy who always leaves just before everything really cool starts to happen), gives powerful credence to the show’s beating heart: that Ted would happily skip a thousand “Gentlemans” if it meant it’d get him to Tracy.

All of this would make the episode great – but to see the antagonism between Ted and Zoey evaporate as Ted realizes what Zoey had been saying between the lines the whole time (“I’d be by myself anyway”, “you’re not exactly who I thought I’d be spending Thanksgiving with either”, etc.) is what puts it over the top. Ted and Zoey may be “enemies”, but Ted’s not a monster. His empathy for Zoey is genuine.

Let me say that again: his empathy is genuine. How often can you say that about a sitcom?

Oh, and Ted’s quest to cook a “turturkeykey” (a turkey stuffed inside a bigger turkey) makes me laugh every time, as does Future Ted’s ominous dismissal of it after the fact (“kids…it tasted wrong). Maybe stick to just one turkey next time, Ted.

9) “ARRIVEDERCI, FIERO” (S02E17)

Arrivederci, Fiero In 2007, we finally got rid of my father’s 1991 Buick LeSabre. My brother and I are four years apart, and it got each of us through high school. By the time it was the car’s last ride, all of the motorized windows were broken, the windshield was cracked, the upholstery was permastained and sagging, the rear view mirrors were held on with duct tape, none of the tires matched, and the body of the car was riddled with dense patches of rust.

But the engine started. Even up to that last ride, the engine started without so much as a sputter. That Buick had, to paraphrase Jack McCarthy, an engine that wouldn’t quit short of a nuclear detonation.

I don’t remember how many miles the Buick had on it when we did get rid of it, but I know all too well what Marshall’s going through with his beloved, dying Fiero in this episode. Cars that get *that* old, that remain such an integral part of your life for so long, become less a machine and more a person. By donating them for scrap, you kind of feel like you’re turning your back on them in a way they would never have turned your back on you.

Seeing Ted and Marshall’s friendship coalesce in that car as college roomates, forever to the soundtrack of The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) (sidenote: has a song ever melded with such thematic perfection to another piece of media as it has here?) is both poignant and entertaining as hell. And while not as poignant, Robin and Lily’s bonding over a Pulp Fiction-esque Thai food clean up, and Barney’s not-so-close call with a dog whilst learning to drive in a parking lot put a nice spin on to two very well-worn TV tropes (Fix A Messy Situation Before Main Character Finds Out and Main Character’s Embarrassing Secret Revealed).

This episode is from season two, and at this point, the show was still figuring out how much it could trust its audience, so while I can’t deny that it does hammer its main point home a little too far (everyone has that one thing that they hold onto to preserve their identity), this doesn’t make it any less true. Take it from a man who still wears a pair of Converses that are currently more hole than shoe.

8) “THE BEST BURGER IN NY” (S04E02)

The Best Burger In NY My my. What a difference a few years make. This is another Marshall-centric episode, and much like Arrivederci, Fiero, it’s about Marshall trying to hold onto who he is while what he’s about to become looms just off in the distance. There’s a lighter touch going on here, and the episode is better because of it. But it’s not just Marshall’s time in the spotlight. The Best Burger In New York is, as the title suggests, primarily about New York.

I should preface this by saying that I’ve never been to New York. I have no idea what it’s like there – but the way the show puts its spin on “progress” (as it’s defined by gentrification and corporate homogenization) is something that’s as true of the little suburb I grew up in as it presumably is of New York (it’s worth mentioning that the locations mentioned during the opening were all real).

20 years ago, the main road by my old house used to be just a road. There was a gas station, a carpet store, and not much else. Now, it’s a swath of chains in monochromatic strip malls: Chili’s, Dunkin Donuts, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hair Cuttery, Target, Kohl’s, Pizza Hut, Jimmy John’s, and Staples are now all basically within walking distance of one another. But the eerie part is, you travel north up this road, and every 5 miles or so, all the same stores crop up again, and again, like weeds. And while (to my knowledge) no old guard establishments got forced out during this consumerist emergence, that road just isn’t the same anymore; despite having more around it now than it ever has, it’s become empty. Another road just like any other.

So when Marshall finally finds the location of his long-forgotten restaurant, and it’s been replaced by a Goliath National Bank ATM (which he and Barney knows he’ll soon be working for, but which no one else does), that defeat is twofold: he’s not only lost a crucial tether to his past, but he’s lost it in part to the future he’ll soon be walking into. His confession to Lily is earnest and touching, and the crux of hangs on the notion that okay, yes: he might be settling for now. But he’s got a reason to put pants on in the morning. That’s progress. You can never really abandon yourself if you know exactly who you are and where you want to be.

Setting all of that aside, the episode’s assuredly funny. Marshall’s poetic ode to the burger in question (ending with “This is no mere sandwich of grilled meat and toasted bread, Robin – this is God”) is countered by Lily with perhaps one of the shows best-landed jabs, and Robin’s adorable yet pathetic “But…food!” is succinct and perfect. And Marshall’s sarcastic anger when dismissing his fellow bar patron for suggesting the burger in question just *had* to be from the Corner Bistro (“I never thought to check the number one rated burger in the Zagat guide!!!”) is wonderful because we never really see Marshall *get* angry like that. He’s a gentle giant. Just don’t get in the way of his burger.

7) “THE PINEAPPLE INCIDENT” (S01E10)

The Pineapple Incident If you were to compare people’s lists of top 10 How I Met Your Mother episodes, I don’t think you’d find too many with the above three episodes on them. Those episodes speak to me, and I don’t know how much they will speak to others. But a lot of those lists will probably have this episode on it. Of the 208 episodes that aired of How I Met Your Mother, The Pineapple Incident was only the tenth, but it was the first episode to really display what the show was capable of when it was firing on all cylinders.

Again, the plot is tried-and-true: what on Earth did I *do* last night? Hell, Blitzgiving had dabbled in this, but that wasn’t ultimately its destination. Here, it is – but what it reveals by the time it arrives is far more relevatory than you’d first expect.

The guts: Ted wakes up hungover, with a woman in his bed and a pineapple on his nightstand; he has no idea how either got there (real quick, can I just say that drunk Ted is the best – “How easy do you think it is to sneak into the zoo? I need to see some penguins like, right now”). His memory is gone from the night before. There’s only some fragments, and they’re not very helpful. The rest of the gang helps Ted fill in the blanks, but they provide more questions than answers (who’s number is written on my arm? how did my coat catch fire? why does my ankle hurt?). This is all fairly standard stuff, and it’s all funny – but in the episodes final minutes, it circles back on itself and taps into something greater. Everyone initially thinks that it’s Robin in bed with Ted, but it isn’t; it’s a woman named Trudy (played by Danica McKellar from The Wonder Years). And when Robin announce she’s coming over, Ted makes Trudy hide. Again, this is fairly standard TV stuff here, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But when Robin arrives, and Ted tries to shrug off his incessant drunk calls to her as innocent palling around, and he goes to offer up Trudy as proof of their platonic state, Trudy’s gone – and Robin astutely calls Ted out, saying that if Ted sleeping with Trudy wasn’t a big deal, why on Earth did he feel the need to hide her?

This was when I first realized how special this show was going to be, that it was capable of traversing tropes and time while still being humorous, while at the same time not shortchanging the characters doing all of this back and forth. When Ted goes to hide Trudy, we don’t question it, because we’ve seen variants of that a million times over. But instead of whacky antics ensuing, the show, having just disarmed us, cuts down to the nerve in a way that shows don’t typically do once they’re in that deep into such a universal template.

Ted never did find out about the pineapple, and a lot of fans were clamoring for its origin to be included in the series finale, but such a thing never came to pass, and rightfully so – some mysteries are best left unsolved.

One final thing before moving on, this episode has a nice tie to Seinfeld: in season five, episode nine of Seinfeld (The Masseuse), Jerry mentions that he hasn’t vomited since 1980, and this episode aired in November of 1993. And in The Pineapple Incident, Ted proudly proclaims that he’s been vomit free since ’93.

Well, I thought it was neat.

6) “THREE DAYS OF SNOW” (S04E13)

Three Days of Snow Oh man, so many great things happen in this episode. Let’s run through the list:

-The multi-story snowstorm
-“Those sound like agreeable terms, although I may need to adjust my briefs…I love you.”
-“We should buy a bar!”
-missed connections
-PUZZLES (“that’s the puzzle!”)
-reconnections (and another sappy yet well-earned nod to Love Actually with the expanding marching band playing Auld Lang Syne at the airport)
-No last call!
-BINGO!

Balancing two stories of differing tones like this, as fully as this, would be a tall order for any show; vaulting back and forth between Ted and Barney’s bar ownership folly and Marshall and Lily’s rekindling of their relationship quirks is a lot to process, and I don’t know if the show could’ve managed something like this in season two. But midway through season 4, when the show was at its peak? Most definitely. I think there’s a loneliness over both of these stories that allow them to fuse together so well, with Marshall and Lily rationalizing their maturity separately before reuniting, and Ted and Barney not being able to handle being alone in MacLaren’s, or otherwise. Both of these stories travel to very different places, but the show being what it is, an element from one arc ultimately surfaces to close out the other.

Three Days of Snow is at once sweet and goofy, a story of love and bros and snow. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s absolutely delightful. GO HENS!

5) “RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME” (S04E22)

Right Place Right Time I had previously written about how this episode, more clearly than any other one, taps into the central idea of the show. After rewatching it, it’s still true, but the episode slyly closes out with a misdirect – but you don’t *know* it’s a misdirect until the next episode. You’re not quite sure what to make of it. The ending of Right Place, Right Time is small, wordless, but packs a whallop.

You see, this whole time, Ted is telling his kids about why he took the particular route to the bagel place that he did that day, and we’re meant to take from this that this mundane sustenance errand is anything but, just like every other mundane or noteworthy thing that Ted is done. It’s all putting him where he needs to be. And at the episode’s conclusion, we see Stella. WHAT COULD THIS MEAN.

And that’s just it. The show’s counting on us drawing some pretty heavy conclusions from this, but if you step back, it’s pretty abstract. It isn’t until the end of the season that we see the this encounter start to bear fruit, and the significance of it isn’t completely realized until the beginning of season 5. See, Ted going on the path that he did led him to Stella, which leads to Tony offering Ted a teaching position at Columbia, which eventually leads Ted to start lecturing Econ 305 accidentally when he shows up in the wrong classroom…a classroom in which Tracy was present. So not only does the episode itself play a spirited and beautiful long game, it sets into motion an integral component of the series’ long game. In essence, it’s the show in microcosm. That’s marvelous.

A final thought: How I Met Your Mother has had its fair share of great montages, but I don’t think any could ever top Ted running through the streets and hugging everyone he sees out of sheer joy, all to the tune of Glad Girls by Guided By Voices.

4) “THE TIME TRAVELERS” (S08E20)

The Time Travelers There’s not another episode of How I Met Your Mother quite like The Time Travelers – playful, melancholy, elusive. And while it’d be easy to say it’s tragic, especially now that the finale has aired, it really isn’t. It’s despairing, but it’s buoyed by hope, which is something the show’s always excelled at executing in its darkest moments.

For a while, you’re not quite sure what the show’s getting at, what’s real, what’s imagined, what’s perhaps in between. Ted wants to opt out of going to Robots Versus Wrestlers: Legends, but Barney wants him to come. To give weight to his argument, Barney conjures up 20 Years From Now Barney to help prove his point. This of course means that 20 Years From Now Ted must also make an appearance, as does 20 Hours From Now Ted (a hungover wreck who does *not* want Present Ted to go), and finally, 20 Minutes From Now Barney, who’s got a bad case of heartburn from bar spaghetti. The show treats all of this as though it’s really happening, though we know it’s impossible – and it’s to the show’s credit that this convergence of future lives is lively enough in its own right to keep us engaged so that our minds don’t easily wander off to the implications of this scenario. That plus a solid B-plot involving Marshall and Robin butting heads over the bar’s name of a cocktail they both lay claim to inventing keeps everything moving forward until…

…until Barney hits Ted with the truth. Marshall and Robin’s cocktail feud was months ago, and no one is going to Robots Versus Wrestlers with Ted. There’s just Ted with one ticket. He’s alone.

It’s telling that Ted’s reverie is comprised solely of things how they were, with intergroup escapades, and Barney trying to convince Ted to commit to something legendary (which, in this case, even happens to have the word “legend” in its title). But things aren’t this way any longer. Barney and Robin are checking out wedding caterers, and Lily and Marshall are upstairs with their child. Ted’s feeling boxed out of his own life. Everyone’s moving on, and he isn’t. It must have been in this mindset when he initially decided to move to Chicago after Barney and Robin’s wedding – there’s nothing in New York for him anymore, so why fight it?

And then, something happens: Future Ted tells us that if he could live that night over again, he’d know exactly what he’d do. And we see him run to where Tracy is currently living, and he confesses to her that he knows there’s still 45 days before they meet, but he’ll take anything, any amount of extra time with her that he can. It’s a fanciful, powerful scene, the kind that How I Met Your Mother didn’t dabble too much in, and it leaves you feeling overwhelmed. But because the show’s as great and surefooted as it is, that’s not the feeling it leaves you with. Because *this* is how the episode closes out:

A masterstroke if ever there was one.

3) “LAST WORDS” (S06E14)

Last Words There comes a time when every great comedy must inevitably touch upon loss, a decidedly unfunny topic. Whether it’s JD’s Dad in Scrubs or Susan Ross in Seinfeld, it’s a base that just has to be touched. You could argue that this is the result of creative bankruptcy, and that killing off a character is an easy way to stir up the pot of remaining characters to see what happens to them – but you know what that is by now. The C Word. And not the boat from Arrested Development. Cynicism.

Marshall’s father dies at the end of the previous episode, Bad News. It’s a sucker punch that despite an elaborate countdown you don’t see coming. Marvin Eriksen wasn’t a main character on the show, but his passing hits hard, not in the least because the timing is so awful. It’s cruel to lose someone so close on the cusp of something so joyous as deciding to bring a child into the world, but How I Met Your Mother, for all its flights of fancy and endless parades of positivism, has never shied away from addressing the curveballs that life can throw at you when you’re least ready for them (indeed, Marshall’s final words in Bad News are “I’m not ready for this”).

In Last Words, everyone is holed up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, preparing for the funeral. And despite the funeral hanging over everyone’s head, the initial part of the episode gets a surprising amount of comedic mileage out of a great truth: there’s really not anything you can do for someone at this stage of grief, but if you love them, you gotta try something. So Robin becomes “Vice Girl”, her magic handbag a seemingly unending well of iniquity (when an older gentlemen tells Robin that he needs vodka and dirty playing cards, she sizes him up, and stonefaced, tells him: “follow me”). Likewise, Lily provokes Judy, and takes her abuse so that Judy will eat and rest. The two of them have had a pretty acrimonious relationship, but curiously, they bond through this process. Love comes through in the end.

Ted and Barney’s quest to make Marshall laugh at a series of videos of people being punched in the groin, though, doesn’t end up working, and the reason is because Ted and Barney are trying to “cheer up” Marshall – and the show is wise enough to know that cheering up doesn’t really work in these situations. The well-being concerns of a grieving person are more immediate, more base. Sleep. Nourishment. Vodka. A nudie deck.

As the episode progresses, Marshall becomes more and more distraught that each set of “last words” between him and his father that he remembers aren’t really that meaningful. And as the gang thinks back to their most recent conversations with their fathers (sans Barney), they realize the same thing. So when Marshall discovers the voicemail that his father had left him, the implications of it eat him up. He can live with “Rent Crocodile Dundee 3” as being his father’s last words to him. What if the voicemail’s more poignant? Or less? He ultimately listens to it at the eleventh hour, and discovers it’s worse: there’s silence on the other end. Denim white noise. A pocket dial. And just Marshall begins to give into anger and despair, he suddenly hears this:

Marshall? Looks like I’ve been calling you for over five minutes. How’s my pocket sound? Sorry about that buddy. Anyway, your Mom and I had such a great time seeing you. I love you.

Not everybody gets to say goodbye. But everybody should. And just to ensure we don’t start tearing up too much, we then hear this:

Oh and remember my foot cream – that rash has come back.

Marshall pauses, and the reiterates that his father’s last words to him were “I love you.” There’s the truth, and the “truth”, and sometimes, the latter is better.

2) “SLAP BET” (S02E09)

Slap Bet Of course Slap Bet is on here. Did you really think it wouldn’t be? It’s the show’s most iconic episode, a classic TV trust parable wrapped up in mall weddings, Canadian pop music, faceslaps, and “lawyering.” This is the first episode of How I Met Your Mother I ever saw, and even though I didn’t know the characters or the story of the show at all, it hooked me. It’s that good.

I honestly am at a loss as to what to write about this episode. Deconstructing it just doesn’t feel right, and touching on the diminishing returns of the ideas introduced here as the show went on (see: PS I Love You and Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra) is, frankly, depressing. So I’m just going to leave you with two things: if you’re thinking about giving the show a chance, there really is no better place to start than here. Chronology be damned.

That’s one.

This is two:

1) “THE WINDOW” (S05E10)

The Window Future Ted tells us that the story of Maggie Wilks and Adam is the second-greatest love story ever told. The Boy Next Door, and The Girl Next Door, together at long last, and for always. If it’s the second-greatest, you can take a guess which story is the first. And here’s the thing: even after the dust has settled from the finale of How I Met Your Mother, Future Ted’s still right: in the universe of the show, Ted and Tracy’s love story is still the greatest, regardless of what happened at the finish line.

The Window is my favorite episode of How I Met Your Mother because, like Right Place, Right Time, it speaks to the spirit of the show, to the idea of one day finding yourself exactly where you need to be, and being exactly who you need to be when you’re there. But it doesn’t do this via the marvels of our interconnectedness. It does this by holding up a mirror to Ted’s future in the form of Maggie and Adam, and showing us that Ted can’t will his future into being, and he can’t make someone who’s not “The One” suddenly become “The One”; he’s adamant when he says to Lily and Marshall that Maggie is the person he’s going to grow old with, but it’s just not meant to be. For someone who believes so much in destiny and fate and soulmates, Ted is really at his lowest point here, because he thinks he can control this idea that’s governed so much of his life, but he can’t. He struggles, and Maggie slips away, right to the person she’s meant to be with. Ted’s not proud of having knocked barstools down when dashing out the bar to chase after Maggie along with Barney and Jim, but doing so did two things: it ensured Maggie would be where she needed to be for Adam, and it kept him on the path to Tracy.

We like to think that he have control over things, over our lives, over even each other, to a certain degree. We like to thing that there’s an order to everything, a plan, a Meaning To It All. The Window, emphatically and without question, commits to this. It tells us this true. It’s a triumph of optimism over cynicism, and says that yes, there is a Plan – even if it sometimes approaches chaos. But it’s there. Ted’s ready to meet “The One”, or so he claims. But he’s not quite the right person for her yet. He’s got some growing to do still. But we know he gets there.

And so now, there’s really only one thing left to say:

Make Adjustments, Go Get It Energized

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER

I’ve never been a fan of TV sitcoms, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. My favorite sitcom, up until I became acquainted with How I Met Your Mother, was Seinfeld. It was the perfect show for me when I was seventeen or so – funny, but dominated by nihilism – and I devoured it. I was not alone. But as for me and sitcoms, that was the extent of it. I’ve never really watched Cheers or Frasier. Same goes for Will & Grace and The King of Queens. I’ve never seen a single episode of Friends. I’m not really qualified to speak about How I Met Your Mother in terms of comedic lineage. But there’s something this show did, and did continuously, which made it magical – and that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Or at least until they stumbled at the finish line.

So fittingly, we gotta start with end.

Ted and Robin. Ted and Robin, Ted and Robin, Ted and Robin. This was the one thing the show couldn’t do, and it’s exactly what it did. Not because it promised us from the onset that this wouldn’t happen, but because it’s wrong. From a character and a thematic standpoint, it’s just wrong. You can’t have your cake and eat it too; likewise, you can’t tell us a story about meeting the love of your life, “The One”, and then box her out hastily in the final moments, reducing her to little more than a footnote in her own story in favor of a main character who just 20 minutes ago got divorced because her career was too much a strain on her marriage. When Ted held up that blue french horn at the end, he effectively bent the narrative arc of the show back on itself, and now instead of a linear journey, it’s a cyclical one. Which means that everything must inevitably repeat itself, especially since we only have a few moments to go on in the present, and nine seasons worth of the past for reference. But there’s larger implications, too: that french horn means that no one ever really grows in the show. For a show that’s all about growing into the person you have to be before you find the love of your life, that’s quite a backpedal. Say what you will about season nine, at least it suggested that new things were on the horizon for these people. With its conclusion, we’re oddly left back at the start. For lack of a better term, the show’s now a Mosbius strip. I recall Battlestar Galactica:

All of this has happened before, and will happen again.

I didn’t feel joy at the end of the show; I didn’t really feel anything. But I wanted to feel joy. It just wasn’t there.

I said above that the ending was wrong. It is. It’s wrong because, more than anything else, it’s cynical. And How I Met Your Mother was beautiful because it was so steadfastly not cynical.

//

I started watching How I Met Your Mother when I was 27 – if you’ll recall, Ted turns 28 in season one. The show had been on for ages at that point, and while I knew the name, I knew little else. The show’s central conceit I thought was just that – a conceit. A gimmick. One which could be mined endlessly for comedy, or drama, or whatever else you can think of. Everything that I just said about the show is (basically) true, and if you’re a cynic, it’d be easy to just write the show off at that, and walk away. But like I said, How I Met Your Mother isn’t a show for cynics. It’s a show for optimists. And just as the nihilism of Seinfeld appealed to the teenage sulker that I once was, so too did How I Met Your Mother appeal to the optimist that I had become.

I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s 1997. I’m in middle school, doing whatever it is that middle-schoolers do (I don’t really remember, although I’m fairly certain it was carefree). Seinfeld has about a year left before it expires. I didn’t really watch it when it is on, because my father didn’t like it. And as with all things comedy, I copied him. None of that network comedy stuff. PBS is where the good stuff’s at; reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, The Red Green Show. I loved those shows. I still do. I can hear my father’s laugh rise out of him during a good part, the first syllable shorter in length, and higher in pitch, the second syllable lower and longer, accented, as though the zinger got funnier mid-laugh (ha-HA!).

I come home one day after school, and my Mom is sitting at the kitchen table, looking worried. Something was wrong. Dad was in a car accident. The car’s horribly damaged, but he’s miraculously okay. He’s at the hospital getting some tests done, just in case (Mom insisted; there’s no point resisting if Mom insists).

Dad was driving, when all of a sudden, the driver in front of him who was exiting the freeway swerved back onto the interstate, right into my father’s lane, and came screeching to a dead stop. Dad didn’t have enough time to blink, let alone react. He smashed into their car with such force that he bent the steering wheel down at an angle, his knuckles making contact with the dashboard, knocking some chunks of it out. Fortunately, he had his seatbelt on. He was okay. But Mom was worried he might have pulled a muscle in his heart, so he was at the hospital. Just In Case.

His heart was fine. But they found something in his right lung.

Four years later, he was gone. Lung cancer. Never smoked a day in his life, but he got it just the same. I was fishing with some friends in Canada when it happened. Dad was going in for a second surgery, as the cancer had come back, but neither him nor my Mom wanted me or my brother to pause our lives, so they let me go. One night early on in the trip, I stirred restlessly at night; something was off, but I didn’t know what. The next morning, I saw a seaplane out in the distance. And I knew. I don’t know how, but I knew somehow that that plane meant that he was gone. The plane got closer, landed. I was right.

The next few days were a blur. As were the next few months. And one of the things that helped take the edge off was Seinfeld. I couldn’t go back to those PBS shows at that time. I just couldn’t. The wounds were too fresh. But Seinfeld fulfilled a purpose in me. While it’s a very funny show, it’s got a dark undercurrent to it; it suggests, deep down, that were all just animals clawing at each other in the dark. Our struggle is meaningless. We’re piss in a void, and then we’re gone. That’s what I responded to. No wonder George was my favorite.

That’s the lens I had when I watched Seinfeld as a teen. But as an adult, ten years on, that’s not the lens I have anymore. We are here. We are here and we can make glorious, wonderful things happen while we’re here. We wake up every day and have the opportunity to be good and kind to everyone we see. We can make the lives of everyone around us better. We can make ourselves better. And that’s the greatest thing of all. To quote Shunryu Suzuki:

Each one of you is perfect as you are. And you could all use a little bit of improvement

This doesn’t mean that we have to conform to anyone’s ideas about who we’re supposed to be, or how we’re supposed to be it. It just means that we can grow, every day, and through that growth, we become more ourselves. I am not the same man I was ten years ago. I am not the same man I was yesterday. Tomorrow, I will be another man altogether. This is why I gravitated to strongly to How I Met Your Mother. That outlook is the essence of the show. And it’s rooted in optimism.

But here’s the key: How I Met Your Mother wasn’t just *about* optimism. It’s a show that *rewards* optimism. There’s not a constant foil to quash optimism in every episode, like there is in Parks and Recreation. There’s no formula in which optimism is merely a component to tragedy as in The Walking Dead. Nothing of the sort. Until the last episode.

See, nothing less than Ted’s complete and utterly perfect “happily ever after” would have sufficed as an ending to this show. Nothing. No depressing reveal about Alzheimer’s. Nothing like that would work. I already wrote about why having the Mother being dead wasn’t in the cards for the ending; I was wrong. But I was wrong about why I was wrong. There can be no sadness, I reasoned. We didn’t stick it out with this Ted guy for nine years just to be smacked in the face with a sadhammer at the show’s conclusion. After all, what makes How I Met Your Mother a great show above all else isn’t its format or the characters, but the idea that every thing you do, no matter how little or seemingly inconsequential it may be, will ultimately put you right where you belong at just the right time. Ted frets and worries a great deal about meeting “The One”, but that’s only because he doesn’t know he’s on the road to meeting her – and he also doesn’t know that this worrying and fretting is (in part) guiding him on that road. It’s all part of the plan.

The show itself recognizes this in one of its best episodes, Right Place, Right Time. It’s an episode that comes near the end of season four, and in it, Future Ted tell his kids (and us) the following:

Kids, I’ve been telling you the story of how I met your mother, and while there’s many things to learn from this story, this may be the biggest: the great moments of your life won’t necessarily be the things you do, they’ll also be the things that happen to you. Now, I’m not saying you can’t take action to affect the outcome of your life, you have to take action, and you will. But never forget that on any day, you can step out the front door and your whole life can change forever. You see, the universe has a plan kids, and that plan is always in motion. A butterfly flaps its wings, and it starts to rain. It’s a scary thought but it’s also kind of wonderful. All these little parts of the machine constantly working, making sure that you end up exactly where you’re supposed to be, exactly when you’re supposed to be there. The right place at the right time.

That sentiment right there is the beauty of the show. It’s also incredibly unrealistic and naive, but that only makes it more beautiful. Cynicism and negativity conquer so many aspects of our lives, and this idea – that everything will work out just the way it’s supposed to in the end – is a lovely, even noble pursuit for something like a TV sitcom to dedicate itself to. We root for Ted because the show makes a promise to us at the beginning that it’s all going to work out fine for him; that we stay in his corner, and remain invested in both him and his circle of friends, in spite of this, is the show’s crowning achievement. Our prescience about Ted’s future isn’t diminished by watching that future unfold, but strengthened by it. Through each relationship (and the occasional fling) Ted embarks on, we see him grow more into the person that will eventually meet “The One.” Sometimes, this growth is poignant, sometimes humorous, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking, as in The Time Travelers, a season eight episode wherein Ted’s loneliness is repeatedly prodded during an elaborate reverie, and he winds up at The Mother’s doorstep to confess the following:

Retrospectively, a lot of people took this as a portent of doom, that Ted’s days with The Mother will have run out by the time 2030 arrives. Those people should have been wrong, because that’s the cynical way of looking at things. Yes, while Future Ted never did come out and say that he and The Mother are both alive and healthy today, the nature of his part of the story doesn’t suggest anything but. For lack of a better metaphor, why derail that train as it’s pulling into the station? It would be cruelty. It would be cynical. And no amount of silver lining bright-sidery could make it better.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and compare that scene to a similar scene in the 2003 film Love Actually. You know, this one:

imperfect

Now I love Love Actually. I always have. And I’ve honestly lost track of whether it’s trendy or not to love it now. But here’s the thing: I love Love Actually in the same way that I love Shoot ‘Em Up. Or, for that matter, Running Scared. This isn’t to say that I love the film ironically, because that would imply that the film is blind to its own sincerity (or lack thereof), and nothing could be further from the truth. This is a film that invokes 9/11 (and did so a mere two years after it happened) in the name of love less than 60 seconds in. Seriously, you can time it out yourself here if you’re interested; the line in question happens around the 50 second mark. The message is that this is not a film that’s going to pluck your heartstrings soothingly; it’s going to delicately snap them, one by one. And to the film’s credit, it does. It does so with expert precision. What comes of this is messy, but ultimately moving.

But those cue cards, while borne out of the same yearning that Ted succumbs to in his fantasy confessional, don’t carry the same weight because the Love Actually scene’s function is to snip another heartstring with a well-placed accent. Ventricular staccato. But Ted’s not doing that; he’s performing defibrillation on himself. He doesn’t feel like he can make it those 45 days, and he doesn’t want to. But he must, and he will, though it won’t be easy. And in doing so, he’s reinforcing the show’s promise to us: you will be where you need to be when you need to be there, but you can’t rush it. It just doesn’t work like that. But it will be worth it. Deep down, at the core of his being, Ted knows this. And so do we. But the show failed to see it through.

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You’ll notice I keep calling The Mother, “The Mother”, and not Tracy McConnell, her revealed name in the series finale. That’s because the show robbed her of her identity at the end. She was a tough character to being with; she was in constant danger of being little more than an elaborate MPDG since the show’s inception, and the things that are fed to us about her did little to waylay this. In the show’s 100th episode, Girls Versus Suits, we’re told the following about the titular Mother:

-she owns a copy of the lone album by The Unicorns, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, as well as a copy of T.C. Boyle’s novel, World’s End
-she makes paintings of robots playing sports
-she routinely has performs showtunes with breakfast foods

and of course

-she plays (or at least owns), a bass guitar; specifically, a Fender Mustang Bass.

If that sounds to you like it’s wading a little to closely into the “Natalie Portman in Garden State” waters, you’re not along in thinking so. The Mother is completely defined by Ted, and I mean that literally, since he’s the one telling this story. It’s easy to get cynical about her, about who she is. But to the show’s credit, while the ninth season didn’t ease up on her quirkiness, it did well in making her come alive as an actual person, and not just as the female version of Ted. Season nine was definitely the weakest the show’s been, and the scenes with The Mother were consistently the season’s high points. The series’ 200th episode, How Your Mother Met Me, is arguably the season’s best episode – and as the name implies, it centers almost completely on The Mother.

But it turns out, it was never her story. Or rather, the story was never about her, even though you can draw no other conclusion from the title of How I Met Your Mother. It was about Ted and Robin. This wouldn’t have been so bad if there was just a little more *time* spent on this. If you’re going to call an audible at the end of things, and love is now not just around the corner, but in front of you the whole time, well, you gotta finesse that a bit. Ted can’t just suddenly flick a switch and become again the man with the blue french horn, because he *told* us that man was gone. And we *watched* that man fade away. Ted will always be a hopeless romantic, a sad sap in love, but he can’t be that for Robin anymore. It just doesn’t make any sense. In The End of the Aisle, Ted tells Robin:

I don’t love you like that anymore. And you don’t love me. You love Barney. And if you think I’d ever be part of ever screwing that up like that then maybe you don’t know me at all.

Tolstoy said there are as many loves as there are hearts, and that’s true. But there are some loves that, when you find them, just make other loves..reconfigure somehow. They change. No matter how much dominion they once held. This was supposed to be what happened with Ted and Robin. Tracy comes in, and that “platon-ish” between Ted and Robin becomes “platonic.”

I’ve had the end of this series on my mind now for a great long while. It’s kept me up at night more than once. And as it’s drawn closer, there’s been a song, one song, that I haven’t been able to shake from associating with the show’s inevitable conclusion – and in its final moments, this song summarizes everything perfectly, even now:

We end up together