Why Friends Ended Up Kicking HIMYM In the Pants

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t like sitcoms), last week saw the long-anticipated end of How I Met Your Mother’s nine-year run.

why god gif

And it sucked. It blew major chunks. It bit monkey butt. It died kind of like—

Oh, wait. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want spoilers, STOP NOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. HERE BE SPOILERS FOR BOTH HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER AND FRIENDS. Though if you don’t want to be spoiled on a show that ended a decade ago, um, well, just go somewhere else.

Okay.

So, HIMYM ended with the eponymous Mother dying (offscreen no less) and the show writers undoing nine years of character development for not one, not two, but THREE characters. What started out as a grand deconstruction of the sitcom ended up being a mockery of viewers’ expectations and a cliched perpetuation of the boy-meets-girl-and-traditional-moralities-win scenario.

The day after the finale, I promptly turned on Friends, which, as it turns out, is the last great sitcom. And here’s why:

friends hug

1. The overall plot and character arcs remained fluid over the course of the show. The ultimate problem with HIMYM’s was the show runners’ commitment to an ending they wrote and filmed five years before the show actually ended. At the end of season 2, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided that the best, most desirable ending was for future-Ted to say, “Psych! This is the story of how I met your mom, she died pitifully, and I told you I wanted to hook up with your Aunt Robin.” While viewers might have been happy to hear that at the end of season 2, when we knew and loved Robin but hadn’t even learned a single damn thing about Tracy, the mother we would come to know and adore. On the other hand, Friends developed story arcs year by year, and, with the possible exception of the Ross-Rachel ending, cultivated endings that worked both for the characters and the audience. Which leads us to…

2. The writers worked to please the audience without compromising the show’s integrity. When Rachel and Joey finally kissed, fans hated it. HATED IT. So what did the writers do? They walked it back. The characters realize that the obstacles complicating their relationship (friendship, history, and lack of chemistry) make them better friends than romantic partners. By contrast, when Monica and Chandler hooked up, fans LOVED it… because that relationship worked and made sense. Although that relationship was intended to be short-term, the show kept that plotline because of the fan response. Generally fans ship or don’t ship for a reason, and when we hate a relationship, it’s because it either doesn’t work or it just isn’t believable. If, in season 2, HIMYM fans wanted Ted and Robin to end up together, we had seven more years to advocate for Robin and Barney, and Ted and “the mother,” a character the show made us love. Things change, and so do fan opinions.

3. Character development was gradual, believable, and sustainable. It takes Chandler six years to become a man who was willing and able to date a woman like Monica. Through a succession of gradually improving relationships, he matures into a stable man who not only wants a relationship, but also works to make it as good as he can. Unlike Barney, he never undergoes a lightning-bolt moment of change—and, on the other hand, when he ends up committing to Monica, the show never undoes it. Barney wasn’t, in the end, capable of sustaining a monogamous relationship, but HIMYM didn’t prepare us for that U-turn. The end of Robin and Barney’s marriage was, perhaps, inevitable and realistic, but we had no reason to believe that in the build-up to the end. The divorce came like a slap in the face, and all to serve the writers’ desired ending.

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4. Rather than marginalizing “supporting” characters, the show built up and eventually equalized the treatment of the entire cast. While the network pushed for a “primary” plot line with two characters, and some viewers might argue that the Ross-Rachel story is the most important, most fans will argue (alongside the producers and the cast) that the show is a true ensemble. Late in the show’s run, the actors even entered collective negotiations on contracts to ensure that the “lesser” characters’ actors were receiving the same amount of pay and prestige as the “primary” actors. Joey and Phoebe ended up getting as much air time and as serious stories as the rest of the cast. HIMYM, however, had to rush to wrap up the secondary plots in the finale: Robin’s success in her career was marginalized by her sadness over losing Ted, and we never even see the mother of Barney’s child.

5. Characters were challenged but not undermined. Monica and Chandler can’t have children. Career-woman Rachel gets pregnant. Offbeat Phoebe realizes she wants to get married and breaks up with the man she loves who doesn’t want marriage. While, ultimately, this is a sitcom and everything ends happily, characters face realistic challenges along the road to reaching their individual happy ending. While HIMYM did a fantastic job with this at times (Robin’s infertility, Lily’s lack of fulfillment with motherhood and teaching, the death of Marshall’s father), in the end, the things the characters stood for ended up not mattering that much. Ted’s years-long battle to get over Robin? Apparently never happened. Robin’s desire to not be a mom? Doesn’t matter, if they’re not her kids. Barney’s gradual realization that monogamy is pretty okay? Goes away as soon as he and Robin get divorced. Why build up a character’s needs, wants, and desires if you’re just going to undo that growth in the season finale?

long hard day

6. Although the show does perpetuate a few more traditional stories (hetero-romances ending in marriage, babies, and a house in the suburbs), it also showed less stereotypical lifestyles: Ross’s lesbian ex-wife and her marriage, Joey’s continued single life, Rachel’s choice to be a single mom AND a career woman. Yes, all ends happily, with three of the six main characters married and two in a committed relationship. But the show never forces bachelor Joey into marriage or commitment, as HIMYM did for Barney (and then brutally undid in the finale). And while Robin is a successful journalist, we don’t even get to see her feeling happy or fulfilled by that life: all we see is her sadness over losing Ted. And while HIMYM showed Barney reverting back to his, erm, promiscuous ways after his divorce, his character immediately becomes prudish Super Dad Man after his daughter is born. It’s sweet, and NPH did a terrific job with that scene, it’s hard to swallow. HIMYM does get kudos for Ted and Tracy’s decision to have kids and live together without getting married until, well, they do. Ten points for realism there.

7. Friends had a satisfying ending. In spite of everything I’ve said above, the most important reason why Friends kicked HIMYM’s ass was the top-notch, heart-warming series finale. The show manages to refer back to earlier episodes without regressing, and it also includes new developments and characters (Paul Rudd as Mike, anyone?!). It tugs on the heartstrings, but not in a manipulative way (“And that’s how your mom died: OFFSCREEN!”). The finale gave us a chance to not only see our beloved characters reach happy endings, but also to say goodbye to them in a satisfying way. No one was jerked out of the world, no one suffered beyond the normal sadness of farewells, and no one was neglected for having already wrapped up their story.

friends ending

Ultimately, the producers and writers of Friends bent over backward to create and sustain character development that was believable, and they incorporated fan reactions to story lines without ever crumbling into fan service. So… if you want to watch a funny, satisfying sitcom? In the end, sometimes the classics stay popular for a reason.

Choose Friends.

Choosing Your Teammates

Historically, I am known for being TERRIBLE at asking for help. One of my journalism professors used to lecture me at least weekly on my need to ask my colleagues for tips, connections, or leads. And I never did. It’s not because I’m proud, exactly, or because I didn’t want to share. No, I tend to not ask for help because I think I should be able to do it all on my own. Asking for help feels like a failure, for some reason, like I wasn’t good enough to do whatever it is I need help with on my own.

Sometimes your team helps you climb mountains... literally.
Sometimes your team helps you climb mountains… literally.

That’s not really the point of this post, though, so we can leave that for Dr. Freud to deal with. Because over the years, I’ve come to realize that reporting, writing, and, hell, even life require us to have the support of a dozen other people, friends and family and mentors, business associates, competitors, acquaintances, all the people who help us turn our wishes and dreams into goals and reality.

Last week, I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the newest installment of his Stormlight Archives series (which, if you like epic fantasy and you aren’t reading, you need to pick up RIGHT NOW), and, naturally, I started with the acknowledgements. I like to see who writers rely on, who helps them and supports them and loves them… and for a book like Words of Radiance, a veritable army of teammates supports the writer himself.

It got me thinking about how my own team has expanded in the past few years. When I first started writing more, and taking myself seriously as a writer, I tended to write in the wee hours of the morning, after my husband had gone to sleep. I was still working as a reporter, and often those dark hours were the only times I had to really let go of my reservations about fiction. I hoarded my words, both proud of them and oddly embarrassed by them, and I neither asked for support nor let anyone support me.

I finished that book, but it took years… and I’ve never reread that work.

Lately, though, my team has expanded. My husband, of course, is my partner and my “alpha” reader, the only person to see rough drafts and the primary person who holds my hand and tells me I don’t suck. Then there’s my bosom friend Emmie Mears, my critique partner, who also tells me I don’t suck and gives me valuable feedback on my books. These two are also indispensable for moral support. I also rely on Team Awesome and the ladies of Spellbound Scribes, who keep me going, encourage me, and generally help me to be better than I would be on my lazy lonesome.

It’s mostly public knowledge by now, too, that I’ve recently changed representation. I’ve learned in the last year just how important it is to have an agent who is as enthusiastic about your work as you are, who is willing to dig in and get her hands dirty helping you make your work as good as it possibly can be. And I’ve found that with the amazing and dedicated Jes Negròn.

I’m a pretty lucky writer, it turns out. And that’s just counting the folks whose friendship bleeds into my working life. I’m also blessed with amazing friends who occasionally drag me out into the sunlight and remind me that there are real people out in the world, as well as imaginary. I have friends who let me cry to them, but then take me out and get me drunk and make me laugh so hard I squeak. I have friends who know when to listen and when to turn on Doctor Who. I have family who believe in me no matter what.

Sometimes your team helps you see the funny when the caterer drops your wedding cake on the floor.

Opening yourself up to that kind of support can be tough, though, because you have to admit that you’re vulnerable before anyone can even attempt to help you. You have to loosen your grip on those precious words or dreams or wishes, and let someone else breathe a little life into them. While some writers (J.D. Salinger, anyone?) can live without teammates who don’t mind that you leave tea bags and saucers in the bedroom or that you occasionally don’t call for weeks, most of us need people who can put up with those little quirks and, more importantly, support the dreams those quirks represent.

So what makes a good teammate?

For me, a good teammate not only holds my hand and tells me it’ll all work out eventually, but he or she also challenges me to be BETTER. She encourages me to do another sprint or to write another new opening chapter. She never accepts that I’ve done my best until I can say, definitively, “YES, I have met my goals and lived up to my own potential!” And the greatest part of all? She trusts me when I say that. And she takes me out to celebrate when I do. And when I can’t quite get there, she pours me a glass of wine and tells me that I will, and that it’s okay if I can’t right now. Because she never stops believing that I’ll get there.

Sounds like a perfect person, yes? The nice thing about these folks is that they do these things for me because they expect no less. And I do the same for them. In these relationships, the love and support, the encouragement and uncompromising belief in me, are simply as natural as breathing. It’s what we do.

So who is on your team? How did they get there? How do they help you?