HIMYM-Friends Follow-up: Or Maybe It’s Lost?
My friend Misha just IM'd me with a different comparison for HIMYM: It's the new Lost, according to the excellent James Poniewozik of Time. In his essay about why sitcoms are the most ambitious things on TV, Poniewozik writes:
CBS's How I Met Your Mother is like a sitcom version of Lost: It's built around a central mystery — how the protagonist meets his eventual wife -- and likes to play with nonlinear narratives, story lines that jump around in time. It's a light show, but it expects its viewers to pay much closer attention than did the sitcoms of a generation ago (as does Emmy-winning 30 Rock, which is shot through with inside jokes and tightly woven callbacks to past episodes).
I think this is one of the reasons I wasn't so wild about this episode: Because the script didn't do so much rich chronological stuff (other than that flashback to Lily and Marshall's previous courtships of other couples), it felt sitcommier.
But actually — and this is a totally separate issue — I do agree that HIMYM's time-jumping is part of what makes it such a terrifically contemporary show. Like Lost, like Mad Men (and like One Tree Hill! and Desperate Housewives!), the characters leap forward and back by whole years, radically expanding the thematic game board and the potential for suspense and character growth, not to mention running jokes.
On some series, like HIMYM, these tricks are skillfully done, on others, cheesily, but I have this larger theory that the prevalence of time jumps over the past few years is in fact a Hollywood-wide psychological symptom. It's a nearly Jungian symbolic manifestation of TV writers' anxious excitement at television's own time-machine transformation via the Internet, Tivo, and DVDs. Historically, television writers were creating something meant to be shown once, a linear performance for a static audience. But now that their creations are pauseable on DVRs, binge-watchable on DVDs, etc., television is time-shifted by definition. And writers have come unstuck, à la Billy Pilgrim.