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Pilot Episodes: How I Met Your Mother (And Why The Show Was Better than Friends)

About a month ago, I published a column that looked at the pilot episode of “Friends,” a hugely popular show about a group of friends living in New York City. Today, we’re looking at the pilot for “How I Met Your Mother” (hereinafter “HIMYM” to save my fingers from typing strain), a hugely popular show about a group of friends living in NYC.

From HIMYM’ s debut to the present, HIMYM often has been compared to “Friends.” In fact, almost four years ago, Buzzfeed published a piece on why “Friends” and HIMYM are the exact same show. A few of the comparisons are persuasive while others are debatable. For instance, Marshall is not HIMYM’s “Funny Guy.” He’s funny, but he’s not any funnier than the rest of the HIMYM cast and is certainly not the walking fountain of one-liners that Chandler was on “Friends.”

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Where were we? Oh yeah.

It’s fair to say that the two shows have their similarities. Yet, upon further examination, it’s clear that HIMYM is the superior show. It’s smarter, funnier, more imaginative, and had better music (see, for instance, my article on the song “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine, which was used perfectly in the season 7 episode “No Pressure.”)

Many of the elements that make HIMYM the better show are present in its pilot episode. The episode starts by showing the concept set out in the show’s title. In 2030,  the narrator, “Future Ted,” sits his daughter and son down to tell them the story of how he met their mother. His story starts in 2005, when Ted lived in NYC with his best friend from college, Marshall.

Ted is single, but Marshall has a long-term girlfriend, Lily. He tells Ted about his plan to propose to Lily, which we see a few scenes later. Lily accepts and they celebrate by schtupping on the kitchen floor of Marshal and Ted’s apartment.

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Upon hearing about the proposal, Ted ponders his bachelor status and consults with his other friend, Barney (who is HIMYM’s “Funny Guy” as well as its “Playboy”) at the gang’s hangout, MacLaren’s Bar. Barney loves being single and says that Ted doesn’t need to get married. He just needs to meet a girl. Ted does just that, when he meets Robin, the woman who becomes the target of Ted’s affections for much of the show’s run. Ted charms Robin into a date where he discovers that Robin is his perfect woman:  she loves dogs and scotch, and she can quote obscure “Ghostbusters” quotes.

Robin invites Ted to her apartment, where he’s about to get lucky until he commits two first date blunders. First, he tells Robin that he loves her. Then, after an awkward exchange and a goodbye handshake, he misses Robin’s signal to kiss her.

For the record, this is the signal.

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Come on, Ted!

The gang bust Ted’s balls for missing the obvious look. Future Ted then tells his kids that this is how he met their Aunt Robin and, when they complain, that his story will be a long one.

The pilot provides a great starting block for the show. First, it provides a great introduction to the main characters. Ted is an architect and has a propensity for both romantic gestures and obliviousness. Marshall, a law school student, and Lilly, a kindergarten teacher, love each other and are proud to show it. Robin, a TV reporter, is a cool chick who, almost every time, will place her career before her romantic life. Barney, well, we don’t know what Barney does (similar to “Friends” Chandler), but we see that he’s a funny lover boy who adores suits.

The pilot also introduces other elements present throughout the show’s run. It shows supporting characters like Ranjit, the taxi/limo driver, and Carl, the bartender. The pilot also presents HIMYM’s two main settings:  Marshall and Ted’s apartment and MacLaren’s bar. It also has a few of the show’s running jokes, such as Barney’s insertion of “Wait for it” in the middle of words ands his insistence that he is Ted’s best friend.

The pilot also shows how future episodes will use the flashback as a storytelling device. Like the pilot, all but two future episode features Future Ted narrating the episode to his kids (the exceptions being “Symphony of Illumination” where Robin talked to her future kids and, in the final season, “How Your Mother Met Me”, which portrayed the Mother’s history). The use of flashbacks goes beyond this framework, however. For instance, the pilot has a flashback where Barney meets Ted and teaches him how to live. The pilot also uses flashbacks to show Ted’s first date with Robin and his blunders with her.

Flashbacks would appear frequently throughout the series’ run, if not in every episode. The show also would use flash-forwards, sometimes in conjunction with the flash-backs, as in the controversial series finale. There’s even an episode (“Time Travelers”) where Ted envisions two different future versions of Barney and himself visiting the present where they converse and sing Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” in a capella.

 

Sure, it’s silly, but as I’ve discussed before, it’s a silliness that I love.

This use of these storytelling devices is one of the elements that makes HIMYM a smarter and better show than “Friends.” I could point out all of other things that make HIMYM better. I could demonstrate how the episode “Slap Bet” is funnier than any “Friends” episode, both for giving us the slap bet running gag and for Robin Sparkles. We could look at wildly imaginative eps like “Murtaugh” and “Blitzgiving.” We could see why HIMYM’s original songs, such as  “Let’s Go To The Mall,” are better than “Smelly Cat” from “Friends.” I also could ramble on about how no “Friends” episode matches the heartbreak in the episodes surrounding the death of Marshall’s dad or the bittersweet moments in “The Final Page, Part 2” where Ted gives up on Robin and Barney proposes to her.

In the end, though, there is one huge reason why, for me, HIMYM is the better show: although both shows take place in NYC, only HIMYM captures the feeling of being in your ’20’s and early ’30’s in NYC.

Full disclosure:  I may relate better to HIMYM because the HIMYM writers based the character of Marshall Ericson on me.

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Okay, that statement’s not true, but if you look at the similarities between the character and my life, you won’t blame me for suspecting that it could be true.

Marshall & I both:

  • Grew up in Central Minnesota;
  • Went to college in Connecticut;
  • Moved to NYC, where we went to law school;
  • Had one concentration in law school, but due to the currents of life, took an entirely different channel in our careers;
  • Married Long Island girls, who have huge passions for shopping and had successful careers that arrived later in life, seemingly out of the blue;
  • Left jobs where we were unhappy and became stay-at-home dads;
  • Moved our families to Long Island; and
  • Are Star Wars fans.

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Beyond these similarities, there are other ways that HIMYM captured the feeling of being single in NYC. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the HIMYM gang hangs out in a bar rather than a coffee shop. When I lived in NYC, my friends and I weren’t in a bar every day like the HIMYM gang, but we did frequent them. We went to bars to meet girls, eat and blow off steam. None of that was ever done in a coffee shop.

I acknowledge that there may be other people who hang out at coffee shop. I don’t know any, but I’m sure they are good and interesting people (although perhaps too jittery from all the coffee). I suspect, though, that the “Friends” gang only did it to capitalize on the rise of coffee shops like “Starbucks” in the 1990’s. It was a way for the show to be current rather than to be accurate. Regardless, as HIMYM showed, hanging out at a coffee shop is lame.

 

Further, aside from a handful of “Friends” references to NYC, the show could have taken place in any urban city. However, on HIMYM, NYC was a key part of the show. Scenes took place in taxi cabs, subways and the Empire State Building. The gang talked about bridge and tunnel girls and why New York is better than New Jersey.  The show even had an episode called “Subway Wars” where the gang debated the topics of which mode of public transportation was faster and what things make a real New Yorker.  My favorite was Lily’s thought: “You’re not a real New Yorker until you’ve cried on the subway and not given a damn what anyone thinks.”

Beyond the express references to New York, HIMYM also captures the hard-to-express feeling of being 25 or 28 or 30 and single in the City. At times, NYC can energize you, making you feel like an unstoppable force in the center of the universe, while, at other times, it can make you feel as if you’re both crowded and alone, staring at the office and apartment lights and wondering when things will get better.

The narration tool is probably the main reason that HIMYM is able to convey this feeling better than “Friends” ever could.  Through the narration, Future Ted describes feeling of living, dating, loving, and being heartbroken in NYC in words that people wouldn’t say in conversations with another person.

It’s this feeling that, for my money, makes HIMYM better than “Friends.”

I’m a huge fan of “Friends.” I laughed at the characters, cheered for them during happy moments, and felt sorry for them during their hard times. However, with HIMYM, I felt like I could have been one of the characters and not just Marshall. When I watch the episodes, I feel like I lived the life that they’re living and felt the emotions that they are feeling.  The ability to make an audience have that feeling is what makes a superior TV show, movie or book. It’s what makes HIMYM better than “Friends.”

***

Disagree? Want to debate it or do you have your own examples of why HIMYM was the better show?  Please comment below. Also, make sure to subscriber to this blog in the tool in the right sidebar.

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