This week, allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock wonders how old the story of HIMYM really is.
The massively successful American sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which recently began its ninth and final season on US television, is a clever, brilliantly constructed series which is worth watching if you’ve never seen it before (though how can anyone on Planet Earth not have seen it, seriously?). Architect Ted Mosby is telling his children how he met their mother in a seemingly endless series of instalments from his largely unsuccessful love life. His journey is contrasted by the true love partnership of his college friends Marshall and Lily, the conquest-driven sexual adventures of his would-be best friend Barney, and the lingering presence of his erstwhile girlfriend Robin. The comedy is perfectly pitched, from satire to farce to slapstick, parodying itself and its favourite cultural reference points, as well as glorifying and celebrating its home of New York. It’s also really cleverly constructed both visually and narratively, using fragmentation, flashbacks within flashbacks, deconstructed story-telling and multiple points of view both within episodes and, unusually, across the series. The characters might spend a good portion of each episode in their favourite booth at MacLaren’s, but the stories are never static, and not merely because they are propelled forward by the journey to find out who Ted eventually marries.
But what if Ted isn’t really the star of this show?
The narrative is certainly evenly pitched across the five central characters, but what if this is really Barney’s story, not Ted’s? Think of a man of independent means, for whom seduction and sex are the greatest pleasure in life. Think of his accomplice, a well-meaning, practical fellow who will help his friend whenever he can, but doesn’t exactly share his goals. Think of a couple, happy and devoted to each other, but all too aware of the wandering eye of this local lothario who, despite his generosity to both, would like nothing better than to steal the wife away for just a moment or two. And what of the jilted girl, once seduced by the great lover, once delighting him but all too soon abandoned in favour of the quest? Sound like a story you already know, or an opera you’ve seen?
The similarities are uncanny. Barney is Don Giovanni, of course, who even has a numbered list of all his girls (“Right Place, Right Time”, S4). His favourite wingman, Ted, is the intermittently reluctant Leporello, usually doing his master’s bidding even if he doesn’t quite agree with it. Don Barney must have a wingman at all times, and unsuccessfully tries both Marshall and his brother James when Ted is unavailable, but neither quite masters that enabling yet moralising elasticity that Ted offers Barney.
Don Barney is also quite the meddler, and his mostly harmless infatuation with Marshall’s girlfriend/wife Lily often drives him to interfere and manipulate his friends, professedly with their best interests at heart. Marshall does have something of the peasant Masetto’s lumbering innocence about him, and Lily has a sense of Zerlina’s sexual adventure about her, occasionally confessing to fantasising about Robin, and when required, revealing her pregnancy boobs to Barney just so that he won’t touch them (“Ducky Tie”, S7). She will never give in to Barney’s lust, but she concedes more than once to Barney’s manipulation of them, just as Zerlina does to Don Giovanni.
And then there is poor Robin, a hybrid in many senses of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. She is a Daddy’s girl just like Donna Anna, who gives in to her attraction to Don Barney and then spends three seasons trying to deal with the consequences. Yet like Donna Elvira, her misery is public, particularly when Don Barney returns to his seductions (“The Playbook”, S5), and her desire for both revenge and restoration is utterly confused (“The Stinson Missile Crisis”, S7). At her most objective, she is a sort of conscience to Barney, especially as he wrestles with his feelings for her. But at her least objective she is even aided in her Anna-esque pursuit of emotional justice by her very own Don Ottavio, the shrink Kevin who, though much later on the scene than Don Ottavio, plays the same role in trying to bring sense and stability to Donna Robin’s state of mind.
It’s a story as old as the hills of Andalucia and there are times when I wonder what happened to Leporello after Don Giovanni went off to meet his fate. There are some who might argue that Barney getting married is akin to a state of hell – including Barney himself – and one could argue that it is only after Barney marries that Ted is set free to find his own future.
But then, maybe it’s just about 5 people falling in love.
Cadell Blackstock is the author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, a satire on sex and celebrity, and a contemporary rewriting of the Don Giovanni story. Download a sample from Amazon (UK, US and other sites) or find out more about the book and Cadell’s other blogs on his page.