Tag Archives: How I Met Your Mother

Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

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On Finales

So Parks and Recreation ended a few weeks ago bringing an end to a particularly great show that I got into far too late. The finale was especially wonderful, elegantly tying a bow on seven years of stories.

Rather than having some big hoorah, though, the episode has the former Parks Department take on an utterly inconsequential task (getting a swing in a park fixed) before going their separate ways. With the whole season serving as an effective wrap up to the current proceedings, there was no need for there to be a big artificially succinct Final Big Moment. Instead, Parks makes fixing the dumb swing matter by flashing forward with each character to see where they are in the future.

Parks is far from the first; How I Met Your Mother did it in their finale first year. I’ve talked about my many qualms with it narratively, but it was a structurally solid technique. We got some closure on characters and know what Ted ended up doing, even if it went against everything that’d been built up thus far. But Parks goes further and arguably does it better by going to several different spots in the future for each main character (and even some lesser ones). We find out many of the key points events happens to them in the years afterwards. Some of their bigger decisions are prefaced with vignettes showing off key character moments and their growth. At the end of it all there’s this strong sense of resolution.

If anything, Parks errs on telling us almost too much. It seems nearly as if we know everything that happens to these characters in the future. Little is left to the imagination, we know Andy and April have kids, we know Ron ends up happily in charge of a National Park, and we know that either Leslie or Ben became president. By the time the finale ends we’re left knowing that we’ve heard just about all the stories there is to tell about these people.

Which makes me wonder what we want out of a finale to a show. There’s something fun about an ending that implies the adventure continues: look at Serenity (effectively the finale to Firefly) which has since spawned a couple comics, or even Chuck which remains open-ended enough for more to happen. But an ending like Lost’s which firmly closes the door on anything else isn’t bad either. So what makes an ending satisfying?

I think closure is what really matters. The ending of Serenity left a few balls up in the air while still resolving some subplots, like Simon and Kaylee’s romance and what happened to River. But even though we knew Mal wasn’t quite out of the woods and that the crew as a whole were a little worse for the wear, we’ve got this sense of finality. This adventure is over; even if there’s more to come, for now the major issues are resolved.

What’s important is that the ending fits the story. Firefly’s works so well because the show has always been bittersweet. Lost is fundamentally mythic and Chuck was always about a romance and family. Parks’ fits because the show’s format has always been a little meta, so showing what happens ten to forty years down the line isn’t out of place. Lost couldn’t have Parks’ ending and it couldn’t be the other way round either.

It’s hard to get endings right. Don Quixote’s ending allowed for some guy to write a sequel, so when Cervantes wrote an actual sequel he had Don Quixote die at the end so no one would write another allowing him to have the final word on his knight errant. How I Met Your Mother undid (at least) a season’s worth of character development with its finale so even though we knew what happened to the characters we felt a little cheated out of our investment. Parks and Recreation had its cake and ate it too; we know that things work out for everyone in their own way, and we’re okay with that. We’re invited to fill in the blanks (is Leslie or Ben president?), but we’re told things are alright. And that’s good enough.

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Background Details

There’s a building I can see outside my window that’s under construction. I’m not sure what it’s going to be or where exactly it is, but it looks to be somewhere in TriBeCa. The basic structure of it is there, there’s a crane going up the side, and it looks like the skeleton of a monolith as there aren’t any external walls up yet. There are tiny lights on each floor that glint in the daylight.

To my sci-fi-addled mind it looks like something you’d see in the background of Destiny, or maybe a new spaceship being built in Star Trek. It looks cool, almost otherworldly.

In other words, it’s something that could help tell a story. Visual storytelling (comics, movies, television, video games; anything that requires you to look at images) depends heavily on details to give life to the scene. Filling the background of the scene with details lends credibility and reality to the world.

This can be done in very subtle ways. In early seasons of How I Met Your Mother there were a pair of swords hanging on the wall of Ted and Marshall’s apartment. They were referenced on occasion, used once, but for the most part were sort of just there. That said, these two friends who met in college having swords on their wall added a sense of history to them, more so, than, say, a wreath would have (needless to say, Chekhov was probably very happy when they finally used them in a duel).

For all its epic-ness and grandeur, The Lord of The Rings films are filled with smaller, tiny details. Carved on helmets are runes which, should you have the bother to translate them from Tolkien’s appendices, say stuff actually relevant to the world. One of the buildings in the background of Minas Tirith is a ratcatcher, for example. Another one of these details is found in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, where Sam rescues Frodo from the orcs. There’s a lamp in the uppermost room which, if you look closely, was made from the helmets of Soldiers of Gondor. It’s a tiny detail, one that most people won’t notice, but it adds to the overall feel of the film. As I’ve said before, it’s these little details make a world seem real.

Which brings me back to Destiny and the spaceship-under-construction building out my window. Much of the game’s storytelling is done through environmental details. You’re not necessarily shown the story or the game’s background lore, but it’s there. When you enter Old Russia’s Cosmodrome you can see ruined buildings all about and, rising over the horizon, a huge spaceship with what look like futuristic space shuttles attached around the side. You’ve heard details about a Golden Age, expansion, and colonyships, but seeing that massive spaceship decaying in the distance adds a reality to it.

For a game so sparse on explicit storytelling, it does wonders with the little things. Item descriptions mention how the Titans raised the Wall or the exploits of some Saint-14. We’re not told more details than that, but, again, it adds to the feeling of depth and bigness of the world. Even things like seeing the crest of the Vanguards on a wall add further reality to it. The world feels like it’s breathing. These details make it seem alive.

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Mother Met

I wasn’t a fan of the How I Met Your Mother finale that aired on Monday. Now, I usually like finales; I love the ending of Lost and I do like how Chuck ended. Though both are controversial in their own right, they felt emotionally honest and true to the show. The problem with How I Met Your Mother’s “Last Forever” was that for what it was trying to do, it felt unearned.

And if you haven’t seen it yet: SPOILERS

My main complaint is, of course, Ted and Robin getting together at the very end. Why is this such a big issue? Because it undoes a season’s worth of work. That’s the primary problem with the finale: it backtracks. What have we spent most of the past season doing? Just about every episode’s pursued either a ‘Ted-gets-over-Robin-so-he-can-meet-the-eponymous-mother’ or ‘Barney-and-Robin-get-over-issues-and-recommit-to-each-other’ plot in some form or another. The penultimate episode (finally) wrapped up both arcs; Ted was over Robin, Barney and Robin were married.

Undoing the latter within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the finale and undo the former in the last three not only feels cheap but doesn’t mesh well with, y’know, everything else. It feels like a gut punch to anyone who spent those hours with the show.

Sure, people get divorced in real life, but the issues with Barney and Robin is, again, the year we spent confirming that they should be together, only to see a single fight a couple years in the future that led to them deciding they shouldn’t be together. It was handled so abruptly that it’s unmerited. If they were to pursue this route, they would have to spend more time on it. It’d been such a long time coming; both Barney and Robin had to get over commitment issues over the years to get here. To have it undone so quickly was a shame.

With that, How I Met Your Mother has been a show that lets its characters change. Barney spent the past couple seasons leaving his womanizing ways. It was a huge change for one of the pillars of the show, but it worked. Though him regressing post-Robin does show signs of rock bottom, it feels like a huge slap to the face of the last couple years (and 31’s baby, though sweet, also feels shoehorned and raises additional questions [does he have custody, is he settling down with 31, etc])

Finally, the mother. My biggest concern with the finale (and this season) was that we wouldn’t be sold on her relationship with Ted, wouldn’t get that catharsis. And with so much of the finale spending time with the other couples (despite both being pretty much wrapped up in the prior episode), I felt like we were running out of time. But the scene under the umbrella where they meet (Tracy!) was wonderful and the train moving past would have made the perfect ending. Because right then, I was sold on the mother, I was sold on Ted and Tracy. Even if she died, it’d make for a pleasant, bittersweet ending.

To have it end with Ted going after Robin, though, made the mother seem like an obstacle along his way to Robin. Suddenly the mother didn’t matter. And that felt dishonest, that felt untrue to the Ted from the beginning and the Ted we got to know. It happened too quickly (though it was six years in the plot, it was barely a cut for us) to feel earned. It felt cheap, and made the show feel cheap.

All that said, I have the utmost respect for Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. They shot the bit with the kids nearly a decade ago and stuck with it (though editing could have changed the ending); they stuck with their original idea through it all. They stuck to their guns and told the ending they’d wanted to tell all along. I do think they got screwed by the network, though in basically the opposite way that Firefly did: the show went on too long. I feel like the twist would have worked better three or four (or even more) years ago, or even if they hadn’t built up Tracy so much. But still, to pull a twist that big on this sort of show? That takes balls.

I guess your reaction to this ending depends on why you’re watching it. To call back to Lost for a second, I watched it for the characters, not the mysteries, and loved the finale. With How I Met Your Mother, I watched it because I wanted to see Ted meet the mother. I guess if your investment was anywhere but there, the ending would have landed better.

In any case, I would have been alright with the finale were it not for those last three minutes. For me, it ended with the train.

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Change is Good

The TV show Chuck begun with a really simple conceit: nerdy, intelligent twenty-something stuck in a crappy deadend job in a BestBuy BuyMore suddenly finds himself with a CIA computer (the Intersect) in his brain and involved with various spy activities with agents from the NSA and CIA.

Simple.

The show could have very easily fallen into step; keep the perpetual romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah (the CIA agent) with Casey (the NSA one) filling the role of the authority figure. They’d fight the villain of the week and just maintain that status quo. It’d be fun, filled with great gags with Chuck and best friend Morgan or with his inability to really mesh with the whole spy gig. Instant formula.

Only they didn’t.

In Season Two, Chuck gets the Intersect out of his head. But then the show plays with the idea of the Intersect, giving him a new one that rather than just information, gives him skills too. So come Season Three, Chuck, now an intermittent badass, is able to actually take to the field. He and Sarah become a committed couple (eschewing the will-they-or-won’t-day schtick), and Morgan is let in on Chuck’s double life. As the series continues Chuck loses the Intersect and becomes a spy in his own right, Casey softens into the papa wolf of the group (which in turn expands to include Morgan and Chuck’s sister and brother-in-law). Seasons 4 and 5 were very different from Seasons 1 and 2. The show kept its heart throughout, but allowed its characters to grow.

TV’s a special medium. It’s a blend of short and long-form storytelling, one that allows for long arcs and even changing genres. Look at Lost. The show shifted gears from mostly a drama-mystery to mostly science-fiction show. But, despite the change, it remained heavily character focused right up to and during the end. Lost couldn’t have kept spinning its wheels with the castaways on the island idea, it had to develop beyond the simple idea.

What happens if a show does stay the same? Look at The Office, which began to wear out its format and stories a while ago. Recently, though, the show has begun to explore its idea of being a mocumentary and, with only a couple episodes left, allow its characters to really start making big life choices (that would have them leaving Dunder Mifflin and thus the show). In this case, the show format grew to hamper the story. Anything we saw on camera had to be justifiably filmed by the documentary crew.

Sometimes watching characters grow and change is good too. Look at How I Met Your Mother over the years. Granted, some episodes/storylines fall flat and nothing seems to happen, but the show isn’t afraid to let the characters grow. Barney, for example, grew from a one-note womanizer to an engaged man. Their friendship remains constant, but they’re all in different places from where they were seven years ago. ‘cuz, y’know, people change.

Which brings me to Community. Here again we have a show that’s changed over the years as characters develop and relationships change. Abed has become more social and Jeff legitimately cares now. It’s not as much of a black-and-white change as in other shows, but the dynamic between characters steadily grows and shifts over time. Watching Season One makes you realize just where these characters go. It stays interesting.

I find TV to be a fascinating medium with great potential. Shows like Lost and Game of Thrones wouldn’t work as a film. Long arcs play out so much better in television, especially when they’re character focused. One thing that Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, and Community all have in common is that though some of the storylines can be farfetched and goofy, the characters are always treated with a level of respect and allowed to grow over time. No matter how unrealistic the world around them can get, the characters stay grounded. The shows continue to be interesting and we really begin to fall in love with them and who they are. They change, and change is good. Sure beats pulling a The Big Bang Theory and making the same joke for years on end.

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One Year

Holy crap. This is my fifty-second post. That means I’ve been keeping up this blog for one year. One post a week for a whole year

Dang.

I’m actually quite impressed I’ve managed to keep this up. My last attempt at a weekly blog wound up becoming bi-weekly, then monthly, then wheneverly. The fact that I’ve been keeping Essays, Not Rants! going for the past year with weekly posts of at 600-800ish words makes me want to give myself a self-five. Which I’ve done..

I’ll admit, it’s not the easiest thing. Sometimes it comes easy, sure. Posts about storytelling and Jesus or Cortana and video game feminism or analyzing The Avengers. Posts like those are fun and come remarkably easy. Sometimes I get those done in the middle of the week.

But my normal Saturday morning routine tends to be me going “crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapineedtowriteapost.” Then writing the thing and posting it. Sometimes they turn out alright. Sometimes less so. But I get the post out.

So this makes me think about how crazy it must be to write TV shows and other forms of serialized fiction. See, I just write posts. Sometimes my last ditch effort to find a topic is spending an hour exploring TV Tropes. But having to come up with around twenty-four stories each lasting from half an hour to a full hour? That’s impressive.

Granted, I’m the only one in this outfit, I do all the writing and all; TV shows have entire teams of writers. But my point remains: keeping stories going isn’t easy.

Because this is me, I’m going to bring up Lost. It’s overall an incredibly strong show with fantastic characters and a great narrative, but it’s not perfect. Some episodes (particularly the middle of season 3) felt draggy and filler-like. Granted, most of them had some redeeming qualities, but it’s easy to see how it lost its footing when it wasn’t sure how much longer it’d have to tell it’s story. The fault wasn’t so much in a lack of inspiration as a question of when the writers were going to have to begin tying things up for the major reveals and change of pacing that season 4 onwards would bring.

Chuck is another show that prevailed despite the question of whether it’d continue. Basically, we got several series finales. Not season finales (although we did get two of those in season 3), full series finales. See, Chuck was a show that was always just on the edge of being canceled but also a show that had a very clear narrative for each season. They had to tie up the story to do justice to the shows’ characters, else the story they were telling would have, well, been pointless.

To their credit, they pulled it off. Each finale felt like a proper finale and each continuation didn’t feel entirely forced. I have great respect for the team behind Chuck; they cared about their fans enough to make sure they got their proper ending. No matter how many times it ended.

Which brings me to How I Met Your Mother, another show on TV I enjoy. Currently in its eighth season, everything this season seems to be leading up to Ted finally meeting the mother in the season finale (then spend the next season letting us get to know her). Keep in mind: this is season eight. It’s taken eight years for the plot to advance to its natural end point, and those eight years were because it kept getting renewed for season after season. It’s not necessarily bad to get more episodes, it just harms the conciseness of the plot. Now, some of the stories within those years have been great, some have been dreary and left us itching for the arc to conclude. Good news is the show has for the most part been consistently funny and has had an almost fanatical adherence to continuity. It’s not a bad show, Ted just needs to hurry up and meet the mother.

Carrying a story on isn’t always easy. And I guess neither is keeping a blog going.

So thanks for reading guys, it’s been a heckuva year. Here’s to the next.

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