The landscape between the early 20s and whenever it is “real adulthood” is supposed to begin nowaday is often littered with frustration and disappointment. Young urbanites move into their first post-college apartments full of aspiration and idealism, but many slowly find themselves making compromises and concessions that they never expected.
For four years, How I Met Your Mother's commitment to faithfully exploring that messy emotional landscape helped minimize the impact of the “reality erosion” that has plagued so many other great comedies. At its heart, this has--quite ironically--been a show about 20-somethings learning the difficult lesson that life isn't like the movies and TV shows they grew up on. This emotional honesty is what kept an episode like season two's “Swarley,” in which a character stalks their ex's new flame and hides out to spy on their date, from being dismissibly cartoonish. In fact, I would consider it a classic half-hour of television.
When even that commitment wasn't enough to suspend the audience's disbelief, the liberties were reliably redeemed by sheer narrative inventiveness. A prime example? Season four's “Three Days of Snow”: Ted and Barney—both well into their 30s—spend the entire episode chasing two college undergraduates. Marshall hires an entire marching band to greet Lily at the airport. Robin gets plowed into a snow bank and digs her car out by hand. And none of it ever rings false, thanks to some amazing structural trickery.
In its excellent fourth-season finale, the show seemed to pay off most of its dangling plot threads and resolve its running themes: We finally saw the goat incident, the gang had a frank discussion about the disappointments their lives had become, and Robin and Barney threatened to challenge one another's emotional illiteracy. The closing moments even seemed to imply—if not directly state—the answer to the series' central question: Ted met The Mother when he gave up his architecture career and took a position teaching Architecture 101. The episode was two slaps and a third-act meetcute away from being the perfect end to a daring sitcom.
For the most part, the fifth season had a hard time carrying the torch. Despite some fairly giddy high points (the “Super Date” and “Nothing Suits Me Like A Suit” musical numbers, the “Rabbit or Duck” argument and the montage of the “second-greatest love story” Ted has ever heard), the season seemed to abandon its themes in favor of turning the show into something broader and less interesting. By the finale, it felt like a caricature of the honesty and experimentation that had made the show great.
Skipping out on the sixth season crossed my mind more than once over the summer, but after suiting up and tuning in for the season premiere (and last week's strong follow-up), I'm pretty sure giving up would have been a mistake.
Marshall and Lily are trying to start a family, the end of Ted's quest to meet The Mother is coming into view, and the Robin/Barney story may pick back up after last year's abrupt end—“Big Days” introduced a host of exciting new long-term plot threads. It offered a more grounded tone than anything we saw last season, feeling more like a really solid second- or third-season episode. It even opened on a particularly vulnerable note, with Ted and Marshall outside a church sharing a humble camaraderie more reminiscent of aged veterans than preppy upstarts.
But the most exciting aspect of the new season is that it seems to be setting up a new over-arching theme for the show. After five years of disappointment and compromise, our characters seem ready to dig into what it takes to come back from that disappointment wiser, stronger and happier than they would have been without it.
I'm glad for that, because these guys have had a rough few years. They deserve a break.