David Simon Cowell wrote a couple months ago that the breakup of R.E.M. was ” like hearing that a beloved grandparent passed away after a prolonged stay in a nursing home. You’re inclined not to feel the weight of it, because the person that you’d care to remember disappeared long ago. At the same time, it’s the definitive end of someone that helped to shape your life, even if in your mind you’d already said goodbye to them.”
If that’s true, then watching the slow demise of How I Met Your Mother has been like watching a particularly cool aunt wither away. She was someone you always liked a lot but didn’t necessarily have a huge impact on your life. And watching her die slowly is much more painful than if she had been comfortably euthanized.
How I Met Your Mother has been in decline for several years now. The show is in its seventh season, and probably should have ended with the conclusion of the fifth.
Since then, though, there have been just enough strong episodes, and just enough laughs in the weaker episodes, to keep me watching. The show entered the phase of “even if you know it’s not very good, you can still enjoy hanging out these characters for 22 minutes each week.”
Well, that phase ended with this week’s episode, “The Slutty Pumpkin Returns.”
Now since Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute rooted around a garbage dump looking for something they had thrown out has one individual episode so clearly signified that the end had come and gone for a long-running show.
How I Met Your Mother actually shares much in common with the American version of The Office. Neither show broke any new ground — HIMYM is a fairly standard, multi-camera laugh-track sitcom, albeit one that plays around with timelines; while The Office was a carbon copy of the British version of the show, at least at first. But both managed to overcome their limitations to create memorable characters, great episodes and impressive seasons. Both started to decline in or around season 4. Both should have been put out of their misery long ago. And both continue to play out the string, petering along because their ratings say they should even though their respective creative teams are bereft of ideas.
The Office was still a stronger show overall than HIMYM, but I’d argue that the gap’s not that wide. HIMYM’s first seasons are basically the reason the grade “A-” was invented, while The Office more often veered into full “A” territory — but The Office also had more clunkers thrown in throughout.
“The Slutty Pumpkin Returns” was not only virtually unwatchable, it offered definitive proof that the HIMYM of our youth is gone and won’t ever return. The series has always been at its best when its characters are grounded in reality. Granted, Barney Stinson has always been a cartoon — but that means the rest of the ensemble needs to be more realistic to balance him out. Sadly, all five of the main characters have been veering closer to one-dimensional caricatures the last couple seasons, and that transformation completed with “Slutty Pumpkin.”
- Ted Moseby, the lead character, has become an unlikable douche. Early in the show, Ted’s douchier qualities were balanced by his earnestness and romanticism. But he’s become a moronic ass. I actively root against him. I don’t want him to find love and happiness. I don’t think that’s what the show is going for.
- Lily Eriksen’s pregnancy has exacerbated her most annoying qualities: her meddling and her selfishness.
- Marshall Eriksen, while still the show’s most likable and most grounded character, has also been damaged by the pregnancy situation. Plus, at a certain point we have to wonder: why is this guy married to this irritating shrew and best friends with such a twit?
- Robin Scherbatsky has also become untethered to reality. Her relationship with her psychiatrist has managed to be both creepy and boring. And with each passing episode, Robin is less a person and more a collection of three or four traits that can be mined for laughs. (She’s Canadian! She has masculine tendencies!)
- Barney Stinson has essentially remained the same, but the softening of his character so we could palatably believe his romance with dishwater-dull Nora has backfired.
“The Slutty Pumpkin Returns” shook up all those toxic ingredients and created a poisoned cocktail — and then fucking threw Katie Holmes in as hateful sidecar. (Stunt casting has always been a problem for this show. See also: Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, etc.)
Even worse, by referring directly to an event from season one (Ted and the Slutty Pumpkin), the show threw it in our faces just how far it has fallen.
Lily’s “pregnancy brain” subplot was insulting to viewers, to the character, and to women everywhere. Which would have been fine if it was funny. It wasn’t funny. Barney and Robin have gone back to the jokes-about-Canada well too many times, so that plot had no impact. Those jokes have been told with more humor and grace earlier in the series. Multiple times. (Though I will grant that Barney’s entrance as Apollo Creed from Rocky IV earned the episode its one lonesome laugh.)
It’s not just that “Pumpkin” was oppressively unfunny throughout its running time. It was also bracingly annoying in the same way that overly loud commercials are. And it betrayed the nature of characters we’re supposed to care about. Like the writers of Lost and untold others through the years, HIMYM’s writers have shown that they’re much better at introducing situations than resolving them. So there’s little hope that ongoing questions like the identity of the mother will be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. So all we can hope for now — the best we can hope for — is that this show dies as soon as possible, with as much dignity remaining that it can salvage.