Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Abandoned Concepts

This week's episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a very clever gag in which Barney proclaimed himself leader of gang, and re-imagined the opening credits to be all about him. It then happened a second time later in the episode. Normally, I'm a big fan of these kinds of self-referential gags on television every once in awhile. It rewards viewers who watch every week, especially when it involves opening credits. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that the joke in this instance was funny for a moment, but betrayed the underlying conceit of the series. It bothers me when series abandon their conceits in this way, and that's what this post is about.

Before I go further, I do want to say there are times that I love gags like this. X-Files fans thrilled to any time the "The Truth is Out There" tagline was changed at the end of the opening. There was an arc on The Office a couple years ago where Michael started his own paper company. For one of those episodes, the opening credits were redone with images of this new office. I thought it was very clever. Or Community, which derives it's very existence from being "meta" and referential, changed the artwork in the "cootie catcher" paper folded thing in its opening for the Dungeons and Dragons episode. But what happened on How I Met Your Mother ultimately doesn't work in the same light. The conceit of the show is that Ted in the future is telling his children the long, convoluted story of how he met their mother. The series then should always be in Ted's point of view. The opening credits are done as a kind of photo collage of moments of him and his friends. They work, out of the kind of nostalgia of telling your kids "this is how we used to be, back when I met your mother." But the series has recently been drifting a little too far off that road with some outside stories that really have nothing to do with this main thread, and episodes being told by other characters' voice-overs. That means we have to think Ted is telling the kids what his friends are telling other people; a flashback in a flashback. This used to be handled better in the earlier seasons, but now for the sake of the show's longevity it is stretching beyond its concept. Which is why I ultimately don't like the Barney joke this week. For it to work, it means that Barney is aware of this as a TV show, or aware of there being opening credits like this. While it's funny for a moment to call the show "How I Met Your Barney" and all that, it flies in the face of the show's concept. Had this been Ted proclaiming leadership and changing the credits, that would have worked because the series is Ted's point-of-view. It sadly spoiled the joke for me on reflection, in a way that other similar gags had not.

Other current sitcoms are running into similar issues related to their concepts. Parks and Recreation is brilliant, but since the third season has lost some of its early drive. The impetus behind the pilot, the entire first season, and much of the second, was that Leslie promised Anne that she would build a park on the vacant lot by Anne's house that was a pit. Somewhere in season 2 they filled in the pit, so that was good. And for awhile the series had an excuse; they wrote in that the parks department was bankrupt, so season three was more about acts of good faith to get their funding back. But it's at a point now where it seems they've forgotten why they started. Is Anne ever going to get that park? Leslie made a promise, and every new week that goes by without any progress on that front makes me wonder why Anne is still friends with Leslie. At some point, shouldn't Anne say, "Hey, whatever happened to that park you promised me?" I wish they would at least address the issue in an episode here or there.

Fringe is another series that changed gears in its second season. This was mostly for the better. The first season was all about unrelated strange events being part of "the pattern", and tying into some complicated business about multiverses. This was streamlined down and the show got better, but for so much of the past couple seasons this has seemed like everything in season one that was supposed to be somehow related was completely ignored. From what I've seen, season 4 may finally tie these ends up a little more. But I haven't liked the way some of it was handled.

And the list goes on. The Office was set up to be shot in documentary-style, which spawned a number of imitators. The British version uses this conceit to its advantage, since UK televison series are generally shorter. But the longer the US version goes on, the more the logic behind this actually being a documentary is thrown away. It's easy to tell a joke using a talking head, but that cannot be all the form is for. Modern Family uses this structure, but it's never really pretended to be documentary; it's more a way to talk to the audience, the way that Malcolm (Malcolm in the Middle) or Clarissa (Clarissa Explains It All) used to do. But The Office was and is a documentary. They used to make reference to the cameras every now and then. Parks and Rec has done a little better job maintaining that same veneer, but it gets harder and harder to buy the logic of The Office. I'm constantly stopping and thinking, "Where is this being shot from?" every time characters drive places. The episode where they attended Andy's play was otherwise fine, but I was supposed to believe a camera crew was there in the aisles and backstage shooting all of this? Also, how long is this crew going to keep shooting these people? The logic reached its breaking point several years ago when they did a clip show. I forget what the set-up was, but Toby was in an interview with somebody and as they discussed certain things it would cut to old episode footage. Sorry, that's stretching the concept beyond its means.

What I'm getting at here as that no matter how good a series is, it cannot betray its own rules. Even if its funny, an audience has to expect certain parameters. I could go on about various other ways many different series throughout the years have broken their rules in some way, but I don't want to belabor the point. Suffice to say that as much as television pilot season thrives on these high concept ideas, the writers need to remember that these concepts must sustain a long-running series. M*A*S*H shouldn't have run as long as it did, nor should That '70s Show (especially since the latter begin around 1977). No series should get to the place where an audience asks, "But how does this relate to meeting their mother?" or "Shouldn't these characters have graduated by now?" To abandon these conceits may bring momentary joy, but ultimately betrays the origins of the work. No one part is worth sacrificing the whole. A television series is a house of cards; it can build as wide or tall as you like, but attention must be paid that it doesn't topple unnecessarily.

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