The Newbie’s Guide to How I Met Your Mother

I remember what I thought when someone told me I should watch How I Met Your Mother. Firstly, what does that title even mean? And wait, what? It’s a network sitcom? And there’s a LAUGH TRACK? Ugh. Not for me. My comedy taste was more alternative — I watch Adult Swim for Pete’s sake.

Reluctantly, I picked up the first season on dvd on clearance and sat down one weekend. They had me at the pilot episode. Now seven seasons deep, How I Met Your Mother (or HIMYM to the insiders), has been one of the most consistently funny and touching show in my rotation. The first six seasons are now available on Netflix Streaming, and it’s worth watching during a weekend bender — believe me, a 22 minute episode is not enough to satisfy.

Sitcoms, especially multi-camera network ones,  can lose their steam easily, but HIMYM has kept my interest by succeeding in the following:

1. Well-developed characters.Six young friends living in New York City is not exactly a novel idea, but unlike previous incarnations, the characters are not one-dimensional, and more importantly, defy the predictable gender stereotypes often seen in other sitcoms.

Ted, the protagonist, is far from macho ladies’ man. He is sensitive, often socially awkward and has major aspirations of settling down and getting married. He is attractive and charismatic, but also has some endearing nerdy-type interests and tends to talk too much about the history of architecture.

Lily and Marshall, perfectly played by Jason Segel and Allyson Hannigan, were already a long-term couple when the show started and were married in the second season. Whereas many sitcoms use the concept of marriage as fodder for tired storylines (man just wants to do manly stuff, nagging wife gets in the way of his happiness; man and wife bicker over something and highlight how men and women are from different worlds, etc), Marshall and Lilly’s comedic moments and appeal come from the fact that they work together on the same side in a conflict, and helping each other out of trouble. It’s nice to see a couple whose main focus is not fighting with each other.

2. Just the right amount of broad comedy. Neil Patrick Harris as womanizer Barney Stinson provides some of the best one-liners and physical comedy of the show. Barney’s selfish, womanizing, materialistic character is certainly over the top, but it is a sitcom, after all. The broad comedy works because it is focused on one character and not everyone — Barney’s antics are only funny because they are in contrast to, and to the shock of, the other more grounded characters.

3. The characters like each other. The characters come together in situations because they want to — and not just because they are the main characters of the show despite never having anything in common (e.g. Saved By the Bell-style). The strong friendships between Ted and Marshall is endearing, and is based on real love and respect and not just on Entourage-esque “bromancing.” Watching the two of them and their silly friend traditions is like hanging out with your own best friends.

4. Non-linear storytelling. This is due to the framework of the show. Ted, as an adult (voiced by the under-appreciated Bob Saget) is telling his children the story of how he met his wife (their mother). Thus, the entirety of the show is flashback. This allows for the action to jump around in time; we are able to see scenes in the way future that other episodes will build up to, and to create scenes that pre-date previous episodes. Some of the best episodes are when the action is told from more than one perspective and memory. In season one, the gang finds a goat in their apartment after a party with no explanation, but the concept was brought back several seasons later.

5. Recurring jokes and storylines. The show comes back to private jokes and sayings among the group and will bring them back season after season. It’s not so “insider-y” that a new viewer can’t comprehend the story, but it makes the avid watcher feel like they are “in” on the joke, and bringing it back in clever ways. One of the best instances is that after losing a bet, Marshall is allowed to slap Barney five times whenever he wants, but just five times. Marshall relishes his five opportunities, and uses then throughout the seasons.

If you are not yet convinced or don’t have the time to sit and watch all 130 plus episodes (a total of forty-seven hours), I’ve assembled a primer for new viewers — if not the whole series, here are the standout episodes and the episodes that best exhibit the unique style of the show.

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

And not just just because it is the pilot; the show started out incredibly strong. In the first episode, the audience learns  how the group comes together. Ted meets Robin and says “I love you” on the first date. Robin, the independent, stubborn, commitment-phobe, rebuffs him but she luckily becomes part of the clique.

Season 1, Episode 10: The Pineapple Incident

The gang wakes up forgetting their crazy antics the night before, and have to piece together the evening, The Hangover-style.

Season 1, Episode 20: Best Prom Ever

Marshall and Lilly want to check out a band they may want for their wedding, but the only gig they are playing is at a high school prom in New Jersey. Lilly and Robin pose as attendees, but get a bit to carried away in the high school drama.

Season 2, Episode 4: Ted Mosby, Architect

Barney takes on the challenge of picking up women by telling them he is Ted and an architect. In Rashamon-style, the night is shown from two different perspectives

Season 2, Episode 9: Slap Bet

Robin reveals she has an aversion to malls, but will not reveal why. Marshall and Barney have a slap bet on the reason why — the winner gets to slap the other five times whenever they want. The big reveal is that Robin was a tween pop star in her native Canada and her big hit was “Let Go to the Mall,” which is one of the best parodies of eighties pop culture and music ever.

Season 3, Episode 14: The Bracket

A spurned ex has been badmouthing Barney to all the women in New York, so Barney has to sift through all his past conquests to find the instigator. This episode is a great example of how the show uses visual aids and gags, with march-madness-style bracket framing the plot of the episode.

Season 4, Episode 4: Intervention

Ted’s friends stage an Intervention for him when he considers moving to New Jersey. The gang starts staging interventions for all the behaviors that annoy each other, until they have to stage an intervention for staging interventions.

Season 4, Episode 14: The Possimpible

Barney helps Robin find a job. Barney’s over-the-top video resume is shown, as are many of the fake websites created for sites mentioned on the show.

Season 5, Episode 8: The Playbook

Barney reveals that he has a book with all the schemes and plays he used to pick up women, including the “Lorenzo Von Matterhorn”, in which he creates a persona with a website. The rest of his friends try to help his latest victim, only to be ultimately outsmarted by Barney in a brilliant “The Usual Suspects” type ending.

Season 6, Episode 4: Subway Wars

The gang argues about who is more “New York” and knows the fastest way to get downtown to catch a glimpse of Woody Allen at a restaurant. Despite being filmed on one of the fakest-looking sets of New York City, this episode shows the writers have made an effort to depict New York more realistically than say, another show about a group of friends living in New York.

Season Six, Episode 14: Last Words

Marshall’s father dies and his friends accompany him to the funeral. Sometimes “serious” episodes of sitcoms seem out of place, but after 100-something episodes, the audience is very attached to the characters, which makes this episode and Marshall’s grief all the more poignant.

Robin Hardwick is a writer based in Oakland, CA. Follow her on twitter @robinhardwick.

The Newbie’s Guide to How I Met Your Mother