I am about to give a show with which I am particularly displeased this week a lot more attention than I’d like to give it, but I suppose sometimes that’s the nature of the game.
Last night’s episode of How I Met Your Mother was really, really bad. It let the characters be more misogynistic, simplistic, and self-involved than unusual, but it also highlighted an aspect of the show that is narratologically fascinating. Just in case you haven’t watched (and based on last night’s episode, I wouldn’t blame you), the premise is that an older version of one of the show’s main characters, Ted Mosby, is retelling stories from his youth for the enlightenment of his teenaged children. The main sections of an episode are these past-tense stories, narrated in a typical sitcom style, with occasional interventions from future-Ted in the form of a voiceover. Usually there’s an introduction (“Kids, in the winter of 2010…”), and sometimes a call back to a joke or plot point from a previous episode (“You may remember the goat from…”), but future-Ted isn’t often overly meddlesome as narrators go.
It’s mostly because of the show’s longevity, I think, that this strange storytelling technique no longer seems exciting or complex, but in the beginning it was a big deal. When will Ted actually catch up with the show’s title? How do occasional hints about characters’ futures change the way time on the show moves? I think, though, that even now, when the shine has worn off, there are some even more interesting questions that I’m probably only thinking about because I’ve been TAing a Narrative and Narrative Theory class. Much though I hate to give current, depressing How I Met Your Mother more credit than it deserves, they’re worth asking.
There aren’t very many examples of protagonists who narrate their own shows at the moment, although voiceover is relatively common. There’s Dexter, and Burn Notice, and I suppose we could probably count the voiceover segments at the beginnings and ends of Grey’s Anatomy. The voiceovers on Desperate Housewives or Gossip Girl are first person, but aren’t autodiegetic (from the viewpoint of the protagonist). Glee plays with voiceover, but it gets handed from character to character and is never sustained for very long. I’m sure there are other examples I’m missing (remind me of them, please!), but for the most part, voiceover from a protagonist seems so cheesy and simplistic right now that either it has to be supported by hefty generic convention (Dexter, Burn Notice, Veronica Mars, all of the Star Treks) or revel in its own sentimentality (Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City) or both (In Plain Sight).
This was not always the case, as anyone who’s seen The Waltons or The Wonder Years well remembers, but television and any visual narrative form has a particularly hard time standing up to the device’s inherent goopiness. There is rarely any concern about the veracity or reliability of a first person narrator on TV, because the images are right there in front of you, confirming the truth of anything a voiceover tells you. Meredith Grey wonders about the stability of surgeons outside work, and there they all are, knocking back shots and bemoaning their personal lives. When Dexter feels paranoid that someone’s chasing him, we know it’s because someone actually is chasing him, because we saw the car in the rearview mirror! This is not the case in primarily verbal forms. When a narrator in a novel says, “I saw a ghost appear before me,” the absence of an image of a guy covered in white powder and shaking his chains makes it much easier to question whether a ghost is actually there. My favorite example of a particularly recalcitrant narrator will always be in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, where Lucy Snow is so reluctant to narrate her own story that she consistently lies to her reader to preserve her own privacy. It would be really hard for a voiceover to create that level of uncertainty about the reality of what’s taking place, because the visuals always appear trustworthy.
Which brings me back to How I Met Your Mother. Future-Ted Mosby is telling this story for his children, but unlike almost any other first person narrator I can think of on television, his memory’s not always great, and he tends to edit for the sake of censorship. For the most part, Ted stays out of his own way, narratorially speaking, but last night, Ted couldn’t remember the motivation for a fight between Lily and Barney. As he told the story, he would revise his account of who said what, and the visuals then changed to fit the new version. At one point, Barney balances a beer bottle in mid air, which makes no sense whatsoever until Ted remembers that at this point Lily was pregnant, and is then able to add her large belly as the support for Barney’s levitating drink.
This kind of overt reference to future-Ted’s fallibility doesn’t happen that often, but there are small reminders along the way. The most consistent example of this happens whenever future-Ted tells a story about his college years, and giant sandwiches act as visual stand-ins for drug paraphernalia.
As has become obvious over the last six seasons, future-Ted’s narratorial influence extends much farther than most TV narrators, going beyond the voiceover and including the order in which a story is told, which events are left in and which omitted for later (the goat), as well as what that story actually looks like. Scrubs used to be a little like this, particularly in some of the later seasons when JD’s surreal imagination was no longer indistinguishable from the rest of the show.
Even when I’m angry at How I Met Your Mother, I still like this central conceit for the show. I like the idea of a televisual narrator with abilities and influence that goes beyond the voiceover and has a more consistent, personified, flexible impact on the story.