Continuing my new segment “TV Education,” we turn our attention to the CBS hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother this week. HIMYM is a pretty typical sitcom, except for how it tends to play with our perception of time. The show has pushed the envelope with temporal viewing.
In his writing “Narrative time,” Julian Murphet explains that “all storytelling is necessarily extended in time” (60). Murphet also differentiates between the story of a narrative (the events as they happened in time) and the plot of a narrative (the events as they are released to the viewer). A plot can manipulate the chronological order of its events in order to more effectively construct a narrative.
The methods that Murphet details—flashbacks, freeze frames, flashforwards, and montage—all exist in the HIMYM episode “Lucky Penny.” These techniques make the episode’s narrative unconventional, but it is also important to note how the episode fits the typical three-act structure of narrative as well.
The episode “Lucky Penny” begins as many episodes of HIMYM do—with a shot of Ted’s children in the year 2030, the year in which he’s telling the whole story. The show is reminding us that the entire narrative of HIMYM is actually a flashback, so unconventional manipulations of time are to be expected. We then begin with Ted and Robin rushing to make a plane that is “Ted’s destiny.” This is explained during a freeze frame of the two running through the airport to lend significance to the narrative. The stakes are set for the episode—Ted really needs to make this plane in order to take the next step toward his dream career.
Ted and Robin arrive at the gate after the door is closed, and they spend the episode trying to get to Chicago. But the meat of the narrative isn’t devoted to this development—it’s devoted to every chain in a link of events that made the late to the airport that day. These chains are individual flashbacks explaining a sort of butterfly effect that runs through the episode, and they are revealed in reverse chronological order. The plot isn’t building toward a revelation in the future, it is building toward a revelation in the past. We find out that the whole reason Ted was late to the airport is because of a penny he picked up on the subway, and this is the narrative climax of the episode.
While the episode does employ flashbacks, freeze frames, montage (Marshall’s training for the marathon), and flashforwards to construct a different kind of narrative, the basic story of Ted and Robin trying to get to Chicago does follow three basic acts. The first act establishes the problem of them not making it to the gate on time and asking the airport employee for help. The second act occurs after the employee tells them the flight has left and they race to another airline to try to make a different flight to Chicago. In the third act, we find out that they don’t make this flight either, but we are given narrative closure when older Ted narrates that if he had taken that job, he never would have met the kids’ mother. This storyline follows the basic pattern of initial conflict, rising action, and conclusion typically seen on television.
So HIMYM is a perfect demonstration of how a show can push the envelope in one way but also follow convention in another. Does anyone else have a favorite episode in which HIMYM played with TV conventions?