'How I Met Your Mother' Creators Try Something New With 'Bedtime Stories'
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas told IGN that they wanted to do something they’ve never done before in How I Met Your Mother in the final season. I didn’t know anything about this intention to do something they’ve never done before. How I Met Your Mother has been sort of experimental in its nine seasons. The non-linear structure along with its homage to the oral tradition of storytelling sets it apart from many present and past sitcoms. Experimentalism in art is a worthwhile effort. The arts are better for the experimental projects, regardless of a project’s success or failure. William Burrough’s experimented a good bit and mostly failed, while James Joyce experimented and succeeded wildly, ditto Vladimir Nabokov (and David Foster Wallace). T.S. Eliot chose not to write metered poetry, instead composing in free-verse, which opened up the form.
Bays and Thomas adopted Dr. Seuss’ popular style for “Bedtime Stories.” Seuss told simple stories using simple end rhymes. Third graders write poetry using end rhymes. William Shakespeare, poetry’s giant, used end rhymes. The difference, I’ll assure you, between Shakespeare and third grade poetry, is vast. So, Bays and Thomas wanted to try to tell a story in rhyme for three acts plus the tag. I commend the effort and the ambition. One of the two told IGN that writing in rhyme was easier than imagined, which I believe since end rhymes are indeed easy. End rhymes allow for writers and/or poets to get away with rhyming “questionable” and “impressionable.” There’s nothing impressive or worth merit in rhyming the two words but its effect is simple and musical; however, 21 minutes of that leaves one without his or her sanity.
Marshall explains to a stranger the reasons for his incessant rhyming on the bus en route to Farhampton: Baby Marvin can’t sleep without hearing a story told in rhyme. Nevermind the baby didn’t make noise during the drive from Minnesota to New York City. Neither the plot device nor Marshall spoke in any rhyme. Marshall adopts the style of the books Marvin likes to read. Three stories follow: “Ted at the Bat;” “Robin Eats the Cake;” and “Barney Stinson: Player King of New York City.” The appeal for the viewer the return to familiar sets and stories. Marshall’s bedtime stories take one to the apartment, the bar, and the snug streets of small town New York City. (I know that New York City isn’t snug, but the NYC sets for the city look ridiculous.)
The three stories throw one back to the past one last time before the wedding weekend that changed everything familiar for these characters. Marshall defines Ted through his singledom in the story. Robin’s cake challenge happens after she’s broken-hearted again and then reminded of a past love’s happiness just when she’s at her lowest. Barney recalls fondly a fantasy in his head in which he’s crowned the player king of New York City. Ted won’t be defined by his single life after the weekend; Robin won’t feel brokenhearted enough to steal a cake, eat it all, and then drink a keg by herself; and Barney won’t need to tell himself he’s the player king of New York City because he knows true love.
Marshall’s rhymed storytelling doesn’t dwell on these specific aspects of each character. How I Met Your Mother is basically meaningless silliness for two acts until the writers “bring it home” with emotion in the act three. Robin’s story ends with her doing a keg stand, and Ted’s ends with his realization that he’s on a date with a woman who thinks a skinny white dude in Derek Jeter. Your enjoyment of the three bedtime stories depends on your enjoyment of these kinds of sideway stories the writers have told for nine years. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. For a while now it hasn’t, and that didn’t change in “Bedtime Stories.” The rhyming style chips away at one’s sanity with every line. I mean, every line. By the end, Jason Segel’s voice is rhyming in your head on a loop.
The third act doesn’t really bring it all together. The player king story lets Neil Patrick Harris play an assortment of stereotypical New Yorkers. There’s nothing purposeful about the story other than indulging the character who won’t change and an actor who’s too rich to care. The button of the episode happens at the very, very end, once the bus couldn’t move due to a flat tire. Marshall’s outside watching fireworks with Marvin in his story, explaining why he told these stories, and why he’s worried about change when he gets to the Inn. “Bedtime Stories” ends on a sappy note: Marvin’s first memory is of the fireworks he watches with his father. I would’ve liked the episode more had it been framed around Marvin’s first memory; instead, it’s a footnote to an unbearable episode. Rhyming words doesn’t improve the show’s characters or its storytelling.
Bays and Thomas’ effort was admirable. The actors were committed to the material. I still think it’s another horrible episode in a horrible season—perhaps one of the worst final seasons in television history. “Bedtime Stories” was a placeholder, a filler during a sweeps period. Each truth about a character has been hashed and rehashed. We know Ted wants a wife, and we know Marshall’s afraid of seeing Lily. Writing an episode in rhyme is different, yes, but nothing else about the show is. I think experimentation in any form matters only if everything about the form is changing and also if the genesis of experimentation exists already in the form or in its structure. “Bedtime Stories” accomplishes only half.