Following up this Twitter conversation:
How I Met Your Mother has a remarkably similar setup to Scrubs, and as it goes on exhibits the same flaws. I say this as someone who liked the first few seasons of HIMYM and really liked the early seasons of Scrubs.
Both shows feature a Boyishly Charming Protagonist who as the show begins is starting his life as a Young Professional. He struggles to find True Love and is trying to Find His Way. He narrates the show, and a huge part of the continuing narrative involves his romantic mishaps.
He is joined in this New Chapter by his Best Friend from College, who is likewise entering The Real World and facing the same struggles. However, both Best Friends are quickly and rapidly paired up with the Best Friend’s Partner (Carla/Lily). The fourth major character is the On-Again/Off-Again Romantic Interest Who Might Be the Protagonist’s True Love. The fifth slot is given to a Scene-Stealing Sociopath, an almost cartoonish character who has very little time for all the touchy-feely drama that consumes the other four protagonists.
This is a solid set-up for a situation comedy. If you tried hard enough you could probably map it to any number of other shows with slight variations. But after a few seasons, it begins to unravel. Within a season or two, the Best Friend starts to advance in his career, proposes to and later marries his girlfrend. They have relationship troubles, but they resolve them and end up having a solid marriage and even have children. They become adults.
But the boyishly charming protagonist finds himself in an endless loop with his True Love(?). They get together, then break up. One of them enters into a serious relationship with a Famous Guest Star – one of them on HIMYM is even Sarah Chalke from Scrubs — but due to narrative strictures and limited appearance contracts, these relationships never last. Sometimes the Protagonist/True Love(?) break off their romances to reunite; other times it’s a result of some sort of neurosis. As the seasons go on, the trail of human wreckage they leave behind mounts. How many engagements are broken off, how many weddings cancelled at the last minute, how many innocent lives are thrown into upheaval because the theoretically charming JD/Ted/Elliot/Robin still have A Lot Of Things to Figure Out? Flaking out and making rash decisions is identifiable, even vaguely charming when you do it at 24. As the character enter their thirties and make the same mistakes for the third or fourth time, they begin to come off less charming and more seriously damaged. This is highlighted by the constant presence of Turk and Carla/Marshall and Lily. They exist in the same quirky neurotic sitcom world, but because narrative structures do not require them to be in a constant state of existential crisis, these couples are allowed to mature like normal human beings.
While growth and maturity is a boon for those characters, the Scene-Stealing Sociopath is forced to “mature” as well, to his detriment. While I’m sure that Later Season Dr. Cox or Barney would be far more pleasant dinner companions than their earlier incarnations, their one-dimensionality and dedication to Laying Sick Burns and being really good at their callings (being the best doctor, getting laid) was their charm. Both shows chose to open up the interior life of their Sociopath with mixed results. John C. Reily and Neil Patrick Harris are both likeable and talented enough that they largely make it work, but where the shows’ flaw is not allowing the protagonist to mature, it’s misplaced to put similar efforts into the characters designed to be shallow. Plus, both shows frequently decide to flip the character’s switch back to Unstoppable Snark Machine Mode, which can be jarring and unpleasant.
Both shows, even in their later seasons, are staffed by a group of very talented actors, writers, directors, and staffers. Both shows have produced memorable scenes and enjoyable episodes in each and every one of their seasons. Okay, maybe not the Med School season of Scrubs, but I don’t think I ever finished watching it, maybe they snuck one in when I wasn’t looking. Scrubs and HIMYM are a weird middle ground between Traditional Sitcom and whatever sort of super-serialized beast that is the modern Arrested Development/Parks & Recreation/Communty. Some things change from season to season, but both shows fear substantially or permanently changing the lead character. In an otherwise static ‘world’, that’s something that’s easy to overlook as long as the show is funny. But when the world changes around the Eternal Neurotic Manchild, the whole thing begins to curdle.
Then again, HIMYM just aired its 162nd episode, and Scrubs limped its way up to 182 if you count that weird Afterscrubs mini-season. Many of the shows I would cite as “getting it right” are lucky to get half that many episodes. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or maybe in another universe where there are 100+ episodes of Arrested Development or Party Down, I’d be writing this about them. Lord knows allowing the main characters to mature didn’t keep The Office from having some rough spots later on. Both Scrubs and HIMYM are (or have been) solid sitcoms. I just find it fascinating how similar they are.