Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Yellow Umbrella: Losing my past in the endings of "How I Met Your Mother" and The Dangerous Summer

“In exactly forty-five days from now, you and I are gonna meet. And we're gonna fall in love. And we're gonna get married, and...we're gonna have two kids. And we're gonna love them and each other so much. All of that is forty-five days away. But I'm here now, I guess, because I want those extra forty-five days. With you, I want each one of them. And if I can't have them, I'll take the forty-five seconds it takes before your boyfriend shows up and punches me in my face. Because... I love you. I'm always gonna love you. Until the end of my days, and beyond.”

-Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother (from "The Time Travelers," Season 8, Episode 20)

This week hasn’t been an easy one for me from a pop cultural standpoint. In fact, it’s probably been the toughest one I’ve ever faced on that front, if only because the fates seemed to be conspiring against me with the singular goal of taking a hatchet to the memories that surrounded the last three months of my senior year of high school.

Five years ago this week, I started watching How I Met Your Mother. I wasn’t one of the people who loved and believed in the show from the get-go, partially because I just didn’t watch TV much when it started airing, and partially because I have this tendency to jump into sitcoms late anyway. But I had enjoyed the few episodes I’d seen leading up to late March 2009, and with my spring break coming around and nothing much to do to fill the time (I was never one of those people who jetted off to exotic locates), I downloaded the first season on a whim and began to watch.

I immediately fell in love with the show, attracted to the magnetic charms of the talented ensemble (which kept two of the funniest men in show business, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel, steadily employed for nine years) and drawn to the unorthodox premise of the plot’s structure. Mostly though, I loved How I Met Your Mother because I saw myself in Ted Mosby. As the central protagonist of the tale, Ted seemed to go through one false start after another, missing romantic connections, sacrificing or compromising his own dreams for the happiness of others, and yearning for some shard of hope and happiness that always seemed to allude him at the last minute. There was something intensely relatable there, and there still is.

Where other people thought Ted was an uninteresting lead or a character that didn’t belong in a show with so many more colorful personalities, I saw Ted as the honest, lovable core of the show. In a group full of larger-than-life characters, Ted was real; Ted was vulnerable. Ted was funny when he needed to be, but his jokes never betrayed the deep romantic sadness that was always lurking just beneath the surface. Played by Josh Radnor in one of the most underrated television performances of the past decade, Ted became – for me at least – the reason to watch How I Met Your Mother. I enjoyed the gags of course: the slap bets and misadventures and the ridiculous womanizing tactics employed by Barney. But I, for one, never lost sight of Ted in the midst of all of that; I never stopped thinking that this story, this tale of Ted’s many failures and flaws, would ultimately be perfect because he would find the love of his life and get the happy ending he deserved.

All of this led me to watch the first three and a half seasons of How I Met Your Mother in the space of a week and a half. I started the show the Thursday before my spring break and I wrapped up the most recent episode the next week on Sunday, a day before it would be back on the air and I could start watching for real. It was and is the most insane bit of television binge watching I have ever participated in, and it got me more excited to follow this show through to its conclusion than I had probably ever been about any television event.

I watched How I Met Your Mother through each of my college years, even as I grew and changed and found the love of my life while Ted was still out there searching for the love of his. But despite the fact that How I Met Your Mother was a consistent part of my week for five years, when I hear the simple melody in the show’s introduction, it still takes me back to my senior year of high school. The same is true for The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun, an album that came into my life probably a month after How I Met Your Mother did, by a band who called it quits two days before How I Met Your Mother did. And that cruel but poetic bit of irony has been tough for me to take this week, to say the least.

Much like How I Met Your Mother, my love for The Dangerous Summer came on fast and strong. I downloaded the album after reading a rapturous review of it by Blake Solomon at Absolutepunk (who I now have the privilege of calling a colleague), and it hit me like a ton of bricks because it came along at the perfect time. To this day, Reach for the Sun is one of the most emotionally naked albums I have ever heard, an album so honest, cathartic, and unapologetically vulnerable that I probably would have fallen in love with it no matter when it first reached my ears. But the day I first heard that album just happened to be the day after my sister’s college graduation, and as a result, it sort of became my “end of youth” album.

Everything was changing at that time. My siblings were moving onto bigger and brighter things, and frankly, so was I. I had a month left in high school and I’d just gotten the college acceptance I had been waiting for all year. I was excited to see what the future would bring, but I was also scared: scared of leaving my friends and my home behind, scared of failing to achieve my dreams, wondering alway whether there was success and love and happiness waiting out there for me in the future. All of that was encompassed by Reach for the Sun, in AJ Perdomo’s caustically emotive vocals and the confessional words of his songs, but it was also staring back at me from weekly episodes of How I Met Your Mother and from Ted’s wearying journey to find his happily ever after. I guess it makes sense, then, that these two pieces of art, this album and this TV show, ended up sort of grounding me and inspiring me throughout those last few weeks of high school. There was sadness and fear in both, but there was also immense hope, and those messages gelled perfectly with what I was feeling at the time.

I suppose that’s why I stuck with How I Met Your Mother and The Dangerous Summer right until the end. Both projects followed a law of diminishing returns for most people. Each passing season of How I Met Your Mother caused many to throw up their hands, decry something about the show taking too long or losing its way, and give up. Similarly, each Dangerous Summer album had fewer fans than the one that had come before it, culminating in the largely lukewarm reception that greeted Golden Record, last summer. I held on though, because letting go or giving up felt like it would be a betrayal of what this show and this band had meant to me at a very key moment in my life. I couldn’t forsake Ted’s story because it felt tied to my own, and I couldn’t forsake The Dangerous Summer’s music because it had served as refuge for me in a tumultuous time.

And frankly, I still saw myself in these two disparate pieces of art. There was a time when I would have called the sixth season of How I Met Your Mother the best in the show’s history, largely because of how moved I was by the duel storylines featuring Marshall and Barney’s fathers. As someone who has never had much of a relationship with his real father, but who has truly found a paternal figure in his step dad, those plots struck an emotional chord with me, and I was proud of HIMYM for being willing to transcend its comedic roots and tackle such serious, poignant issues. As for The Dangerous Summer, I would have – until very recently – ranked 2011’s War Paint as their best. The album collided with me when I was at yet another crossroads in my life, and it became my soundtrack for another summer and another year. Lately, I’ve come back around to Reach For The Sun as the band’s definitive statement, whether because of nostalgia or simply due to a love for the album’s best songs, but War Paint held me together when I needed it to as well, and that’s something that you can’t buy or force because it just has to happen on its own.

Suffice to say that I have never been able to divorce my emotions or personal experiences from either How I Met Your Mother or the music of The Dangerous Summer, and that’s why I never lost faith (or perhaps couldn't lose faith) that both would find their way. I wasn’t the biggest fan of HIMYM’s seasons 7 and 8, but I firmly believed that the show’s creators would orchestrate a final season and a grand finale that would tie everything together and establish the show as one of the greats. And I also thought The Dangerous Summer would get past their endless band drama and line-up changes to create something transcendent again, even after Golden Record landed and was admittedly hit or miss.

I held onto my faith for so long, in fact, that it outlived the things in which I was supposed to be putting that faith in. Last Saturday, The Dangerous Summer broke up with little more than a letter to fans from frontman AJ Perdomo, the band ultimately torn apart by the very inner conflicts I had hoped they would move past. And How I Met Your Mother, this show I had been watching for five years all in the hopes of seeing Ted’s big, well-earned happy ending, betrayed me in its final episode by relegating the titular mother to supporting role status before killing her off and reversing years of character development for virtually every member of the cast. True to my investment in the show, I refused to believe that it was going in the direction it did until every shred of evidence was against me, until we learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mother wasn’t going to walk into the room and kiss Ted on the cheek as he finished his long and winding story. Then, I finally let the faith go and let the anger in instead.

Losing The Dangerous Summer wasn’t easy, but it was something I could deal with. Even if the band was breaking up, even if I wouldn’t have new albums from them in the future, I’d still have the memories I’d formed with Reach for the Sun and War Paint. Losing How I Met Your Mother was harder, not because the story was ending and I wouldn’t be spending Monday nights with these characters anymore (though I had a pang of sadness over that fact on the morning of the finale), but because the writers tore the rug out from under me with the ending in such a way that I’m not sure I will ever be able to look at the series in the same way again.

When I fell in love with this show, the connection came because I knew that Ted’s sadness had an end, that he was going to meet the perfect woman and she was going to take all of his failures and rejections and losses and make them okay, because they all led to her in the end. Thomas and Bays made good on one half of that promise, because they somehow managed to find the perfect person to play the girl of Ted’s dreams. Cristin Milioti, who came onboard with the show in the eighth season finale and appeared sporadically throughout this final season, never hit a false note in her performance. She was sweet, quirky, and thoughtful, but she also had the same deep sadness and sense of loss in her past that Ted did, and those qualities combined to make the two characters a perfect match. Unsurprisingly, fans fell in love with Milioti and the chemistry she had with every member of the cast (including, in their brief moments together, Radnor), and it seemed for a moment that Bays and Thomas had accomplished the most difficult challenge they had laid out for themselves in the premise of their show: writing a character and finding an actress who could bear the weight of all the stories and expectations the show had created over the years. The mother was, in a word, perfect, and with the right ending, that fact could have made up for every misstep this show ever made.

But then Bays and Thomas threw it all away. In one of the most shockingly inept moves in the history of television, the How I Met Your Mother finale somehow manages to ruin the episode, the season, and arguably the entire series in the space of five minutes. The fault is laid upon a scene that was filmed eight years ago: the scene where Ted’s kids finally get to react to the tale their father has spent so very long telling them (“I kept this story short and to the point!” Ted says once he’s finished, giving Radnor the chance to deliver one last goofily golden line). Rather than remark on the beautiful tale of their parents’ first encounter (a perfect scene, set on a rainy train platform and soundtracked by a downbeat cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”), Ted’s kids roll their eyes and say the story wasn’t about the mother at all, but about Robin. It’s bad enough that the show doesn’t even confirm the mother’s death until after these statements are made – she passed away six years previous, of some undisclosed illness – but the decision to send Ted back to Robin rather than giving him the ending he deserves with his perfect wife feels like a betrayal of his story and his character. It breaks his happy ending, it recolors the entire narrative of the show, and in connection, it pick ups the memories I had of watching this show and rooting for Ted and shuffles them around until they are unrecognizable. It may seem silly, but I legitimately feel like I’ve lost part of my past because of this ending.

And that may actually be silly. Because all of this is trivial and inconsequential, right? The ending of a sitcom, the break-up of an emo/pop-punk band, does any of it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Others will shrug their shoulders and say that was just a TV show, or that The Dangerous Summer was just a band, and for some people, that’s true. For some people, pop culture and entertainment and art is never more than a minor diversion to fill up space in life when nothing more interesting is happening. But those people just don’t get it. And I say that in a way that is completely not meant to be disrespectful or elitist or bitter, but rather, in a way that is meant as a simple statement of fact. Because sure, there will be other TV shows and other bands, but not this TV show or this band. These pieces of pop culture that I saw myself in, that I cataloged pieces of my life around, that played a huge role in helping me grow up and become the person I am today and realize what I want out of life, they aren’t so easily replaced. Some people never form that kind of connection with a TV show or a band or an album or a song, and that’s fine. For them, it really is just a show, just a band, just entertainment.

But that’s not what art is for people who really love it, for people who invest themselves in these things to the point of insanity or stupidity or both. For me, for us, music and film and TV and stories and art are as vital as oxygen. They are the devices that we use to make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us, reminders of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met along the way, signals that we can use to explain or express things when we can’t find the words to do it ourselves. And that’s why losing How I Met Your Mother and The Dangerous Summer in the same week has blindsided me like a bus, because now these two mile markers from a very important time of my life are gone, and it’s left me feeling like a fucking computer program that can’t find its files.

In the case of The Dangerous Summer, things will be fine. I’ll always wonder if the band could have accomplished even greater things than they had already, but if the magic was fading away anyway, at least I get to hold onto the albums that were so important to me. Time will tell whether I can watch the earlier seasons of How I Met Your Mother again without seeing the whole thing as a long con. But suffice to say that when Ted lost his happy ending on Monday night, only to have it supplanted with one that was infinitely less happy and less fitting and less well-earned, I lost a part of myself. I lost the part I had invested in Ted Mosby’s ongoing struggle to find “the one” all the way back during spring break of 2009. And maybe that’s what I get for being the idiot who pours so much of himself into art and pop culture, for being someone batshit crazy enough to write 3,000 words chronicling all of this. Right now though, it feels like the ultimate betrayal. 

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