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Writing Lessons We Can Learn From HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

I have lost all respect for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

In eight previous stellar seasons, they’ve only awarded the CBS smash hit TV show HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER Emmys in technical categories  (cinematography, editing, makeup, etc.).

They’ve never ONCE nominated the show for a writing award. Not once.

How is this possible?

The only above-the-line (ie, creative) person who has consistently earned Emmy nominations is Neil Patrick Harris, for playing the irrepressible Barney Stinson–and even he has never won. (Seriously, people, what’s up with that?) As a die-hard HIMYM fan, I know he’s deserved to–multiple times. (It’s especially sad because he’s won Emmys for HOSTING awards shows–just not for, you know, being an actor. Unbelievable.)

So if the (cough, cough) esteemed Academy (along with lesser lights such as the Golden Globes) can’t seem to get excited about the writing of a hit show that’s run nine amazing seasons (and why do shows like that run 9 amazing seasons???)–then why am I talking about it?

Because, writers–THE WRITING IS AMAZING. For my money, it’s the best television writing today, and among the top TV writing of all time (I’d put it a half-step below I LOVE LUCY for best TV writing ever–and no, I’m not kidding.)

And I don’t need the Emmys or the Golden Globes to prove me right on this.

If no one else is giving them kudos for writing – well, okay, ALMA (whoever they are) apparently awarded ONE writing award in 2008 for a specific episode (thanks, ALMA, she says grudgingly)–then I’m awarding them the kudos. Because HIMYM is in every way an outstanding example of great series writing.

Consider the following:

1) They use flashbacks.

Flashbacks, as every screenwriter who breathes can tell you, are one of the biggest screenwriting no-nos out there. YOU DON’T FLASH BACK because it disrupts the dramatic flow of a scene, often is completely unnecessary, and almost no one knows how to use them effectively.

Well, try this: HIMYM–the entire show itself–is ONE BIG FLASHBACK. The whole series is a story told by a much older Ted Mosby to his teenage children, starting with his coming to New York in 2005. And each episode is part of the epic story of his search to find true love–along with the growing and changing relationships of his four best friends over a period of years.

Not only that, but they use flashbacks in EVERY EPISODE, multiple times–and they WORK. They flash forward in time, they flash backward, they even (this is stylish) flashed to a full epilogue recently, telling us what happens to our favorite minor (guest-starring) characters in the future – and they DIDN’T EVEN WAIT TILL THE END OF THE SHOW, or even the EPISODE, TO DO IT. You gotta love it.

2) They created their own culture.

If you watch the show, you know what The Bro Code is. What The Playbook is. Who says, “Suit up!” and why. You may even have thought about whether you’re too old for some of the items on The Murtaugh List, or whether you’ll be one of the ‘2 out of 3 times’ that the Naked Man ploy works. You know the secret of Robin’s shameful past, and the name of the bar where they hang out (don’t make me say it for you).  This comes not just from funny lines or moments, but from the repetition of said points, often in episodes far removed from the original episode where the stuff was first coined. Episodes further on refer back to episodes that have aired previously. It keeps you watching. Keeps you connected. Keeps you CARING.

In addition, there are ongoing characters who do NOT appear in every episode, but who have appeared often throughout the series. Ranjit the driver is one great example. He’s been with the gang from the beginning, through to their wild New Year’s Eve celebration several seasons back, to Ted’s first attempt to court Stella with a five-minute date (SO charming!), straight through to Ted’s touching advice to Robin in the back seat of his limo on the night his building is officially opened as part of the New York skyline.

How about Brad, Marshall’s friend from law school? He shows up to pair with Marshall when Marshall’s lonely for couples things to do, now that Lily is (temporarily) gone. He shows up again as a down-and-out guy Marshall takes pity on and gets into a job interview at his law firm. (BIG mistake!) It gives the actors a chance to do a lot of different things with the same character.


3) Each episode has an uplifting moral.

Yes, an honest-to-goodness moral–mostly derived from two separate (but equal, of course) plot lines. Or the A story and the B story, for you TV writing purists. Since the story is, after all, directed at Ted’s two teenagers, Ted makes the point to them often about things in life they could forget, discount or overlook. So the end of each episode is not just an arc for characters in the show, but also for the teens listening to the story.

My favorite, I think, is “The Best Burger In New York City”, in which Marshall finally tracks down what he remembers as the very best burger he ever ate in his life–but as it was his first week in New York, he got lost trying to find the place where he’d eaten it. Ted at one point tells him, “Buddy, you’re going through a tough time now. I get that you want to find this burger, but Marshall, it might not be the same burger you remember–or it might really not have been that good to begin with.” Because all of us, let’s face it, when we’re in a tough situation, like to remember something as possibly more wonderful than it was, if only to lift ourselves out of the dull gray routine of now.

Know what I love about this episode? They do finally find the burger joint–and the burger IS as good as Marshall remembers. I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t been–and I think the writers knew most of their audience would have been. So they let us know that sometimes, life really IS as good as we remembered it. That’s a lovely thing to know.

4) It has moments of being magical.

Some who read this who won’t think much of this point–but I think the idea that life can be–and often is–magical, is a great lesson to teach your kids.

In one especially beautiful episode, “Miracles”, Ted points out that just taking a random step or two in one direction or another can be a life-changer–and that those small changes can lead to extraordinary things. What’s even better is how the seemingly random connections of early episodes will lead us–and Ted–inevitably to the moment where he meets his soul mate. The seeds for this are planted several seasons ago, and are just now coming to fruition.  And that leads to perhaps my favorite point:

5) The series has a wholeness, a continuity and a unity that most others seem to lack.

At least once or twice a season, a character asks Barney, “Really, Barney, what is it you do for a living?” Barney always answers, “Please!” and goes on to another point.

It wasn’t till a few weeks ago that we actually learned what Barney did for a living–and “Please” is an ACRONYM for it!

How can you not love this?

As a writer, realizing that these writers are thinking ahead, staying with the game plan and that each episode is part of an organic growth pattern, not just a desperate grabbing for whatever they can think of, makes the whole series so special. THEY HAD IT FIGURED OUT A LONG TIME AGO, no matter how long–or short–the series would last. That it lasted this long, IMHO, is not just about the stellar performances, the amazing cohesiveness and likeability of the cast and the great directing (along with all the other great technical stuff), but more importantly, about the underlying plan the writers had and STUCK WITH virtually to the end. (I’ll interrupt myself here to say that the opening episodes of Season Nine were, unfortunately, very disappointing. Written by writers who had not been credited on previous episodes, they DID seem stuck-on and often not very worthwhile, but fortunately for all of us, the real HIMYM came back in full force around episode 6 or 8 and hasn’t disappointed for a second since.)

This also includes the fantastic growth we’ve seen in all the characters, particularly Barney, who goes from selfish, self-centered and sleeping with any woman he can to falling deeply in love with Robin and learning to deal with committing to one woman. (In “The Bracket”, possibly my favorite episode, Barney tries to identify a woman who came up to Lily and told her to stay away from Barney, who had once dumped her. When Lily fumbles, Barney tries to help her: “Did she have dead eyes and an air of self-loathing and despair?”

“Yes!” Lily says triumphantly.

“That’s all of them,” Barney says.)

But before he does fall in love with Robin–a plotline that unfolds slowly over several seasons–we have a terrific episode where Lily, currently separated from Marshall, moves in with Barney platonically and ends up helping him drive away his one-night stands by pretending to be his wife. What she learns is that Barney is TERRIFIED of intimacy, and that’s something we need to know in order to understand his slow turn from having Robin as his ‘wingman’ when he picks up women to being the woman he proposes to oh-so-romantically at the end of last season. (Seriously, guys, I would say yes to a proposal like that.)

I’ve heard a rumor (?) that they’re actually doing a sequel–I kid you not–called HOW I MET YOUR FATHER. It’s Hollywood–why are we surprised? BUT–I’m also told the original writers will be back at the helm. If they are, I’ll watch it.

Because the lovely life lessons of HIMYM will be applicable yesterday, today and tomorrow–and when they’re written as well as this series, they’ll always be worth tuning in for.

And as writers, I can’t urge you enough to study writing like this (whether you’re a novelist, playwright, screenwriter–doesn’t matter) in order to see how beautifully good writing supports everyone else involved in a creative endeavor. Of course the great part of that kind of research is–it hardly feels like work at all. And THAT should tell you that they’ve hit on something VERY good, something well worth tucking into YOUR bag of writer’s tricks.