Case of the Mondays

When the season began, I was dubious going into CBS’s Monday night comedy block.  After wrestling with the decision, I decided to stick with both How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls.  (I never tried Mike & Molly, and never enjoyed Two and a Half Men.)  A few weeks into the season, things were looking somewhat grim.  I was still watching HIMYM and 2 Broke Girls, as well as Partners sandwiched between them.  No one show seemed worth watching on its own, but in my mind, they were all or nothing.  Each week, one and only one show would be funny while the other two were a mildly amusing waste of time.  The shows began to find their rhythms: 2 Broke Girls relied more and more heavily on offensive stereotypes and obvious jokes, Partners was developing beyond its basic Louis-screws-up plot for every episode, and How I Met Your Mother was collapsing further in on itself and its own stalling tactics.  Then CBS cancelled Partners, and I was shocked to find myself thinking that somehow Partners had been the glue holding that stretch of programming together.  Suddenly, what had been a so-so 90-minute length of sitcom became two half-hour shows on their own, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch either of them.

Empty Promises

How I Met Your Mother began the season in a not-so-great place.  The show had been slip sliding in quality since reaching the height of its critical and popular success a couple of seasons before.  What once seemed like clever callbacks and inventive storytelling had been reduced to stalling tactics and teases about the mother we were eventually going to meet.  We’d spent the entire previous season waiting to learn who Barney’s bride was going to (eventually) be, and discovered in last season’s finale that it was Robin.  Lily and Marshall had just had a baby.  Ted was maybe getting back together with his ex Victoria, on her wedding day.

This fall’s episodes of HIMYM continued the trends of the previous two seasons — the laughless opening episode featured Ted sitting on the same train platform as, but not meeting, the ever-elusive Mother — with the show visibly struggling to produce plots for the gang that prolong their predetermined endgames.  The worst example of this was the spat of episodes focusing on three relationships we already knew were doomed: Barney and stripper fiancee Quinn; Robin and himbo Nick; and Ted and Victoria.  As if already knowing these relationships would fail wasn’t enough, one episode actually announced that all three couples would break up by the end of the month, and then spent the next four episodes making it happen.  It is incredibly hard for the audience to care about what’s happening on the show when we know it isn’t going to matter in a couple of months.  This points to the larger problem with HIMYM relationships.  There is no way to invest in any of Ted’s relationships going forward because with everything we’ve been told about the Mother, we can always be pretty sure it isn’t her.  (Though, to Victoria’s credit, she is at least likeable, unlike Jennifer Morrison’s Zoey a couple of seasons ago.)

But the bigger problem with HIMYM is the show’s inability to give its characters any progress or growth, or to actually be funny.  After all, if the show was still funny and clever, it wouldn’t matter whether we thought Ted’s relationships would last or not.  No one ever thought any of Jerry’s relationships would last on Seinfeld, but that didn’t make them any less fun to watch.  On paper, the characters are maturing and growing, having children, buying houses, Barney’s gotten engaged twice in half a season.  Despite these supposed changes, though, the characters are still all written as if they’re in their mid-20s.  Ted will spend an episode moaning about how at 30-something he’s no closer to finding his one true love than he was seven years ago, but then he goes back to doing the same uncouth schtick he’s always done.  Barney has found the joy of the serious and loving relationship three times now (Robin, Nora and Quinn), but jumps back into womanizing and dirty jokes each time he’s single.  Robin was weighed down last season with the news that she couldn’t have kids and fear of how that would affect her future, but spent much of this season acting like a girl in high school.  Both Ted and Lily and Marshall have come to own suburban houses but still live in the city.  Lily and Marshall have been through the motions of being new parents and all the typical sitcom hijinks that can entail, but all of it is done in a way that’s so obvious and expected that it’s barely worth a laugh.

Saddled with all these flaws, in addition the escalating expectations for what the Mother will be when she is finally introduced and how her presence in so many previous episodes will be explained, HIMYM is failing to stay afloat.  There are some bright spots on the show, though, and even signs of possibly moving in a better direction going forward.  Barney and Robin are engaged, which hopefully means that any and all hints of the Ted/Robin relationship (which hasn’t held water since Barney and Robin were paired and especially hasn’t since we learned Barney and Robin eventually have a wedding) will fade from existence.  Barney has now burned his playbook, so here’s hoping that’s a sign of actual character growth.  With the other four characters having become so much staler than they once were, Robin and Cobie Smulders have begun to shine much more.  I once thought of her as easily the least important or enjoyable part of the group, but now she’s the best and funniest part of every episode.  Robin screaming at Patrice is, at least for me, the show’s one reliable joke.

Now that HIMYM has been renewed for a ninth season, it seems more imperative than ever that the show work on conquering its deathly fear of change and let us see these characters start to move into their lives beyond this phase we’ve been seeing for the last seven and a half seasons.  Maybe Ted won’t meet the fabled Mother until the very last episode of the series.  That’s not the worst thing, as long as Ted and the gang are doing more than just running in place waiting for that day to come.

Cupcake Dreams

The start of the 2 Broke Girls season may have been the most disappointing of any I saw this fall.  I’m not sure that any show’s problems were more obvious or more fixable.  The odd couple/buddy cop setup of terminally poor Max becoming BFFs (my term, certainly not hers) with recently-impoverished Caroline works because leads Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs play well off each other and the writers don’t skimp on making the girls really poor and really desperate.  While watching Max teach Caroline how to be poor in hipster Brooklyn constituted the funny part of the show, the diner where both girls work, the setting for a seemingly endless stream of obvious dirty jokes and potentially offensive race-based humor, nearly all of which fell flat, accounted for the definitively unfunny.  The addition of Jennifer Coolidge as building neighbor and frequent diner customer Sophie helped — how could Jennifer Coolidge not be an improvement? — the fact that most of her dialogue revolved around saying “come” or “sausage” did not.

The first season ended with a promising encounter, where Max and Caroline attended a fancy party, stalked Martha Stewart, and convinced her to try one of their cupcakes in the ladies’ room.  The off season seemed the perfect time to assess what was working and what wasn’t and return with a stronger focus.  Surely Michael Patrick King had gotten over the defensive meltdown he’d had months earlier when press tour attendees criticized the show’s diner scenes, right?  Perhaps not.  The second season premiered with what seemed like an even heavier focus on the diner and the same flat, predictable humor it carried.  The diner characters seemed to be getting even more screen time, not in order to become fuller, more three-dimensional characters, but just to execute more of the same unsuccessful jokes.  There were still funny parts to the show, but for every joke that was funny, there were three or four attempts at humor that weren’t.

A couple of months into the season, though, the show took a turn for the better, as if someone had suddenly realized the autopilot on the plane wasn’t working properly.  Max and Caroline began to focus more intently on the cupcake business, even securing (at sitcom-fast pace) the funds to open a storefront.  The show was still telling the same kinds of jokes, but the setting was more pleasant, the material felt fresher, and the punchlines weren’t as predictable.  (The joke, for example, about the girl who booked a cupcake party for her joint quincinera/baby shower may have been offensive, but I laughed out loud.)  Caroline started dating the likeable and normalish Andy, adding an aspect to the girls’ lives that hadn’t really existed before.  Sophie began to be used as more than just a delivery system for dirty innuendo.  Besides Andy, the show brought through a parade of man-candy guest stars (my favorite of which were the hot Amish boys who came to Brooklyn for Rumspringa).  The diner and its characters are still a part of the show, but a degree of balance seems to have been instituted.  By not focusing too heavily on the “broke,” the downtrodden, dirty, and dejected, and incorporating more of the “girls,” making Max, Caroline and even Sophie more human, with hopes and fears, foibles and vulnerabilities, 2 Broke Girls has gotten onto a promising path.  I look forward to seeing what the show does when it returns after the holiday break.

Top Ten Shows

  • 30 Rock
  • American Horror Story: Asylum
  • Fringe
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • The Mindy Project
  • Nashville
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Pretty Little Liars
  • Revenge

Current (or Nearly Current)

Revenge, 666 Park Avenue, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, Revolution, Go On, The New Normal, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23, Ben and Kate, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Hart of Dixie, Nashville, American Horror Story, Survivor, Suburgatory, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Fringe, Saturday Night Live, The Soup

On The Backburner

Last Resort

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