Sunday, June 2, 2013

In Defense of Ted

Hello all,

I have appreciated the comments I have received from my last post so I am going to do another long one on popular culture.

The subject of this post is the subject of a much-heated debate between my friends and contemporaries, namely that of Ted Mosby.

If you have not seen the TV show “How I Met Your Mother” then you need to stop whatever it is that you are doing, follow my blog, and then watch every episode of the show. Don’t do it for me, you will be a new and better person for watching the show.

For you see, every great TV show says more about the audience members than about the characters in the show. There is nothing quite as existential and self-defining then realizing that you ARE a character in a TV show. When you have the undeniable connection with a fictional character played by a professional actor who is just reading off a script, and he or she is staring into the camera, and you find yourself staring back at yourself-it is in those moments that you find the trueness and beauty in life.

But I digress. I, like millions of others, had that moment at least once when watching HIMYM. There is something about the characters, the adventures, the bar, and the lines given by the characters that tickles your soul and touches the brain waves processing the show.

Ironically, though, the show’s biggest criticism is its lack of originality (which is ironic because I was just describing its uniqueness.) Every other show has a Barney Stinson- the classic male chauvinist whom has internal issues, which he is hiding behind the illusion of the flirtatious and gregarious nature for which he expresses constantly. There is certainly an argument that Neil Patrick Harris plays the character differently and, some would say, better than others in similar roles. I think that is the case. But, almost no one would say that the character concept is unique.

Then, there is Robin Scherbatsky, the classic case of identity crisis portrayed geographically (from Canada) or by name (Robin Sparkles), Robin is not necessarily unique either. Her style is different, and certainly Cobie Smoulders interpretation is quite rare, but almost every tv show has at least one character who hides their past and refuses to accept their true identity while establishing a new one.

Marshall and Lily are unique, in their own rights. Most “big guys” on television are the bumbling idiots for which Marshall contradicts. Furthermore, Marshall’s gregarious yet caring nature are often dichotomized in television shows yet somehow are mellifluously together in HIMYM. Lily is the sweet, caring girl who suffers through an identity crisis of her own (nothing new) yet continuously maintains her role as a loving and dependable friend and wife. Maybe paradoxically, Lily is both sexual and motherly in her interpretation of said character.

Yet, together, Marshall and Lily are the classic cute couple who fight for the sake of the plot and are madly in perpetual love with each other. Seeing them together is expected and, at some points, dull. That’s, of course, the point of them as most of the humorous scenes occur when Marshall/Lily is told something or does something that the other is not supposed to know about and results in the inability for one to keep it a secret from the other. Lucy and Ricky me already!

(I know I have been speaking in rather broad generalizations but this really has nothing to do with the subject of the piece, so if you want specifics, hang on tight.)

In fact, the concept of the gang hanging out at a bar is eerily reminiscent of Friends, Community, and even the Cosby Show or Full House. There just isn’t that much originality when it comes to the show.

Yet, you ask, why do so many people like the show? Why is it consistently amongst the most watched on Netflix, and nominated in awards shows?

Most will reply that I have answered the question with the evidence that I just provided. The show isn’t original, and that is a good thing! People love the same old stuff in different contexts. Almost every show is a copy cat of another and that’s why people love TV. HIMYM is the next “Friends” in a different context with slightly different characters in a different time period. The fact is that HIMYM actors and writers are very good at imitations (which is, of course, the point of actors) and it yields good results.

To me, that response is unsatisfying, at best. Anyone who is an avid fan of HIMYM realizes that there is, at least, a difference between HIMYM and other shows. Whether that difference is better or not is subjective and irrelevant. The point is: something about HIMYM is unique.

I think what makes HIMYM unique is Ted Mosby.

(Before you react, keep an open mind. The fact that you have agreed with most of what I have said before should give you credence that I can support this thesis.)

Many believe that Ted Mosby is the most archetypal character in the book (or should I say on the screen?) He is the classic hopeless romantic who is smart but gets in his own way because he wants to find the one. He is the “plot” character whom, without, defeats the show and yet never gets the spotlight because of his mundane nature compared to the eccentric side cast. He is Michael Bluth, Jeff Winger, and maybe even Danny Tanner. (get it?)

I am here to dispel that myth and bring the truth to light. Ted Mosby is not only a unique character that separates the show from the other similarly situated shows but also is the truly best character based upon objective metrics.

Let’s start with the unique part:

A) Ted Mosby is not just a hopeless romantic, but is also a picky one. He doesn’t just want to find his sole mate, he wants one who: likes dogs, plays the bass guitar, does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, plays tennis, likes old movies, who’s favorite food is lasagna, wjo’s favorite book is Love in the Time of Cholera, and wants two kids. That’s not only a tall order but a nearly impossible one. Throughout his girlfriends, be that Victoria, Stella, Zoey, Victoria again, and the multiple “one episode” others, none come even close to matching this exact description.

But so what, right? We all know the real mother does match all of these characteristics and that, because of the match, is worth the wait for Ted. Besides, picky hopeless romantics aren’t that rare or inconceivable as to be the reason why HIMYM is separated from the rest of the others.

Here’s the bang: despite the fact that Ted is committed to all of these characteristics as the matchmaker for his wife, he still loves Robin. What’s more, Robin is almost none of these characteristics. She can’t have kids, hates lasagna, doesn’t do all the random stuff (base, Cholera, etc.) and, most importantly, does not want to settle down and be romantic. She is spontaneous and he is secure. She wants freedom and he wants to be forever bound with his lover. She is conservative and he is liberal (in the lifestyle way, not politically.) Ted and Robin have nearly nothing in common and yet, Ted still believes, through the ENTIRE SERIES, that he is meant to be with Robin. Call it stupid, or sweet, or funny, or sad but you have to call it something: unique.

B) Ted Mosby is a genius. He does the New York Crossword puzzle, reads philosophy and can engage with the brightest intellectuals about literature and the fine arts. On top of that, Ted is a rising star architect in the architecture capital of the world. He is featured on the cover of New York magazine because he built the headquarters of GNB and looks to have a bright future in the business. Yet, Ted also is noted for making some of the stupidest decisions in the show. He engages in stupid behavior constantly, is easily convinced by girls to be different people, and is unhappy most of the time because he cannot figure out basic social interactions and obvious signs.

You seem to be comparing apples and oranges. Ted is book smart but lacks common sense, which is actually quite common. Furthermore, most TV shows centered around a genius have the same problems, so it is certainly not a reason why the show is unique.

The key element here is Marshall. Marshall is the character who is often portrayed as the book smart character (Colombia grad lawyer at three big firms) who lacks common sense (fish jokes, Minnesota social norms, etc.) Ted is different. Ted is genius who, despite being a genius, cannot come to terms with reality but, at the same time, is so depressed about the reality of his situation that he makes dumb decisions in order to avoid it. He is an optimist who uses pessimism as a primary motivator. He is passionate about his work yet succumbs to the pressures of practical matters in his best accomplishments (becoming a professor, Mosbius designs failures, tearing down the Arcadian.) Most importantly, he thrives off of intelligence yet chooses friends who are often antithetical to the very notion. He is paradoxically intertwined with theoretical problems and real issues. That is a lot of things but it is certainly not copycat.

C) HIMYM is a comedy but, ironically, the main character is supposed to be portrayed as the least funny. Ted is meant to have a couple of good lines but is more of a plot mover to allow the other characters to plug and chug. Despite this role, Ted can also play the side character just as well as the others can since he is not the main character of every episode. As well, certain episodes when he is the main character, he does steal the show (Pineapple Incident being the best example.) He is a diverse character who can play many different roles but can also, and is almost always, the main character of the show.

This is by far the most debatable claim in the paper. First, Ted Mosby is not funny. His lines are often way too forced and obvious. Second, he cannot play a side character as well as the others. There is no comparison between him and Barney Stinson. Third, this certainly is no unique quality of a comedy. Main characters will play side kick to the side characters regularly and will do a great job with it too.

Let me start by saying that I agree with fake italics guy: this is my most debatable claim in the paper, which is why I will make sure to thoroughly cover the objections. Let’s start with the first, that Ted Mosby is not funny. Humor, as the saying goes, is based on shared experiences. Maybe it is because I have been in similar situations before, but the fact that Ted is supposed to be the more relatable character on the show means that, of course, we can empathize with him in certain contexts. Regardless of whether he is the funniest character, he does have some good lines. For instance, take the episode where he just keeps repeating the word “bowl.” That’s pretty funny. Or when he and Marshall are high at the concert with Lily. The point is that Ted Mosby is funny. But, he is probably at his best when he is a side kick. I think this is best shown in the episode when Robin learns she can’t have a kid and Ted makes her that big meal. I am laughing about it just writing it. Or when he is helping Marshall get over Lily in season 2 and he is trying to get Marshall off the couch. These are all classic moments.

(By the way, if you find yourself disagreeing with the examples I am giving you, you may want to consider re watching the episodes or remembering the first time you watched the episodes. I honestly feel like if you are not laughing, you are just disagreeing with your sense of humor just to disagree with me which is counterproductive to even reading this article.)

Now, here is the most important claim. The claim that Ted’s versatility (shown above) is unique. You are right that most main characters can play side kick roles and be good at them, but that was not my original claim. My claim was that Ted, in being the main character of the show, Ted can switch to the side kick instantaneously and then switch back to the main character too. What does this mean? Well, of course, we see episodes through the lens of Ted and via his narration so that automatically puts Ted in a unique role in the story. But, in the story, Ted can play with the characters and the roles of them. The fact that Ted is so normal makes every irregularity of each character pop. Yet, the fact that Ted has weird quirks about him too also adds value to him as a character besides just as a plot mover. Unlike other “normal” characters who can play side kick, Ted as the main character has all of the qualities of a side kick (interesting personality/backstory) and yet has all the normality to play the main character and make him seem relatable. That is why Ted is unique by being truly versatile.

So, just to recap, I was explaining why Ted makes the show unique, and I gave three reasons. First, because he is a hopeless romantic who is in love with someone incompatible. Second, Ted is book smart, has street smarts and yet rarely uses either when facing tough decisions. And third, Ted is versatile to play both main character and side kick and is good at either.

But those are just reasons why Ted makes the show unique. The second part of the statement was that Ted is also the best character on the show. It is understandable to agree with the first part and disagree with the second part since “best character” is very subjective. However, I would encourage those of you who disagree to then replace the word “best” with “most underappreciated.” My point here is to show how Ted has value beyond carrying the plot and a couple of funny lines.

A] Ted Mosby is telling the story of how he met his children’s mother and the entire story is told through the lens of Ted. This gives Ted a difficult job of tying every tangent back to a plot line which, unlike other main characters like Seinfeld, forces Ted to take the high road on certain skits and tricks. Often, Ted will be the one to turn humor into drama or turn a meaningless prank into something that helped him discover his children’s mother. And, somehow, Ted has to mask it all behind a humorous lens as to not lose the viewership.

This seems to be a reason why HIMYM is unique, and maybe the relationship between future Ted and present Ted is interesting, but that has no bearing on whether Ted is the best character. Being the best character is the one that makes you laugh the hardest or has the great memorable catch phrases like “suit up” or “lawyered.” What Ted does is commendable but certainly does not merit him the best character.

Here is the problem: that logic assumes that HIMYM is nothing more than a comedy sketch. The reason why HIMYM has lasted so long is not the one liners and schemes, it is the fact that the characters mean something to us. Sure, without the jokes there would be no show, but without Ted the jokes wouldn’t make much sense either. Ted makes everything in the show work (as I have said before) but he also makes everything in the show special. The fact that, as an audience, we are Ted’s eye means that we, in a way, are Ted. We feel bad for Barney when he talks about his dad, we feel bad for Marshall when Lily leaves him. Notice that we find ourselves more frustrated with Ted than we are feeling bad for him. That is because we are more likely to be angry at ourselves then we are to feel bad for ourselves. It’s psych 101! Yet, it also means that we, at a basic level, hold Ted to higher standards and judge him more than the other characters. Ted is the best character because we hold ourselves higher than we hold other people, naturally. Maybe there will never be a shirt of Ted Mosby, but would you ever make a shirt of yourself with your own catch phrase on it? Those who say yes aren’t being realistic.

B] Barney Stinson is probably the fan favorite of all the characters on the show. His womanizing and eccentric attitude garners things like “The Bro Code” and “The Playbook” which are full of rules and tricks for getting some. Let’s face it: NPH is probably the reason why people get hooked on the show and why the show has the viewership is what it is. Yet, Barney makes sense without Ted. Don’t believe me? Think about Barney without Ted. It’s a show about a married couple and a single guy who is gone every night on elaborate schemes getting girls. Why would they hang out? Plus, it definitely doesn’t make sense that Lily so abhors Barney’s schemes and yet they still hang out. And how does Robin work? Does she still hang out with Barney if there is no Ted and see that contrast? Plus, most of Barney’s best lines are making fun of Ted or using Ted in some way. Barney would be out a “lame single guy” jokes and all the other jokes would get over done. No, Ted is necessary as a means to Barney’s end.

Okay, but that kind of proves that Barney is the best character and not Ted. The fact that Ted is only necessary as the butt of Barney’s jokes means that Ted makes the show work and Barney makes it good, which is what I came in here thinking. This says more about Ted’s position rather than his character.

What italics guy is forgetting is that best character is not the funniest. I can agree that Barney is the funniest character (I still think Ted is, but that is probably just me). Here is an analogy. Imagine a comedian that kept using the same 5 or so jokes every time you saw her. That would get pretty boring after a while, but the truth is that is what Barney does. It is either a joke about Ted, some scheme to get a girl, calling Marshall and Ted girls, making fun of married life, making fun of Canada, making fun of Lily and being pregnant or making some sexual joke. That’s Barney’s whole gamut, and it has remained funny throughout the show, because of Ted. Ted’s ability to set up Barney, to throw him easy softballs, to carry the plot right to Barney’s silver platter, and to go along with Barney on his adventures is the necessary component to make Barney good. But it’s more than just making the show work, right? What Barney fans don’t realize is that Ted often responds to Barney’s skit with side commentary which is not only humorous but also emphasizes Barney’s flaws and/or qualities. Why does that matter? Because Barney’s “awesomeness” is really just a veil for the pain he hides about his father or other personal issues. Without Ted, we as an audience would never have access to that information and thus wouldn’t understand Barney. So, basically, if you fully appreciate Barney, then you must agree that Ted is the best character. Like I said, Barney may as well be the funniest but Ted is the most adept.

Congratulations, you have made it to the end! The fact that you read it all means two things. First, it means that you had a bunch of time (jokes) and second it means that you somewhat understand what I am saying even if you don’t necessarily agree. You get it: Ted is a unique character that lightens up the important factors in the show. You also understand the arguments for why that makes him the best character and also why, the fact that Ted brings character depth to the show and that he makes Barney funny are also reasons why Ted is the best character.

And yet, you may still have trouble admitting that Ted is the best character on HIMYM. I mean, Robin Sparkles? Classic. Marshall? Timeless. And how could anyone beat Barney Stinson, (the only emmy award nominated actor on the show for the show)? And how can anyone be the best character anyway?

The easiest response I can have for any one of those questions is simply by watching an episode. But, don’t watch it for pleasure but take the time to notice Ted and everything he is involved with. Notice how his witty responses actually set up the big jokes, often at his own expense. Notice how Ted moves the plot and sets up each character with each movement while simultaneously making or continuing to set up the big joke. And, enjoy it when he makes the punch line, as those are the most rewarding for a character with the biggest burden on his back.

Just sit back and notice.