Prosecution: Ted Mosby, you are the worst. The worst in every conceivable way. You’re the worst part of How I Met Your Mother, a show that is completely about you.
Defense: Go on.
Prosecution: It’s not even because you started a story about a decade before what you say you’re going to tell is even relevant. It’s not because of your stupid hair or the fact that, when older, you sound like Bob Saget.
Judge: . . .
Defense: He is Bob Saget.
Prosecution: To put it simply, you make How I Met Your Mother harder to watch.
Defense: But what about how awesome Barney and Marshall and Lily and Robin are?
Prosecution: This is my point! How I Met Your Mother without Ted would be one of the best shows on television.
Defense: But comedy needs a straightman!
Prosecution: Ted Mosby is the worst.
How I Met Your Mother has been on forever and we still have yet to see more than even a glimpse of the children’s mother so let’s start there. And, yes, I realise this is a structural bookending problem and not necessarily a problem with Ted Mosby, but the inherent flaw in this stupid structure is placed solely on Ted’s shoulders because he’s the one telling the story as Bob Saget. Anycase, to put this into perspective, it’s as if I were to tell you about the story of how I went to college by beginning in middle school.
Also, season one: Ted Mosby begins the story of how he met his children’s mother by telling them how he fell in love with and eventually dated a woman he refers to as their aunt Robin. Why? What is that all about? Who tells their kids about any of the sexual exploits of their life before they met their mother?
But here I must digress to talk about another show–one that I love–Scrubs. Scrubs was one of the first lauhgtrackless shows on television. Before Arrested Development or The Office, Scrubs really kicked off that whole aesthetic of singlecamera sitcoms. I mention Scrubs because Ted Mosby is essentially JD, except the worst. JD is a hopeless romantic who’s kind of a jerk sometimes, but ultimately a very nice guy always hoping for the best. He’s human is what I mean. He’s also incredibly silly. That was a big thing about Scrubs and the source of its awesomeness. It began in a sort of limbo between comedy and drama and the first two seasons really weren’t sure if they were a serious comedy or a funny drama. Season three and beyond is where the show really comes into its own and just goes with its own absurdity. The show becomes extremely silly but still manages to tug just right on the heartstrings. And JD is what keeps the show together. He’s always in love but he’s also so comically absurd that we can handle all the melodrama following him around. But most importantly is his ability to deliver the seriousness that a show about doctors kind of demands from time to time.
So that’s JD. And Ted Mosby is a JD where everything went wrong.
A lot of these are all structural problems. Part of what sitcoms like this rely on is an under-romance. That being a romance that begins early, ends in the middle, and comes together at the end. I mean, almost every relationship sitcom has this. What the structure does to How I Met Your Mother is force the audience to never meet the mother and so it has to end with Ted running away with someone we, the audience, don’t know or connect with. The way the writers handle this is by throwing in a lot of pretty actresses into the mix who usually get an episode or three to deal with Ted’s shit. Oddly, they’ve sort of solved this problem by giving the under-romance to Barney and Robin, who are both immensely better equipped to be on screen.
[Sidebar: another structural problem is that season six through eight appear to be stopped on the same day–Barney’s wedding. The narration jumps ahead to it and then jumps way back to tell us how we got there, which sounds familiar.]
Let’s look at the other characters. Marshall is a giant from Minnesota who believes in aliens and bigfoot and wants to make a positive contribution to the world through his work as an environmental lawyer. He’s in love with Lily who’s been his other half since the first week of college. What makes Marshall interesting is that he needs to make real choices. He gives up on his dream to save the planet by working as a lawyer for giant corporations that he morally opposes, which, I imagine, is all too common to most americans. Him and Lily are the only ones who seem to struggle with money, which also makes them the most relatable. Though really, the show gives very few indications of Marshall or Lily struggling. But what really makes Marshall is the actor who plays him. Jason Segel is so funny and likeable that Marshall just dominates the scenes he’s in. Even though he’s a mildmannered, humble, and kind midwesterner, he manages to always be the best part of every scene he’s in.
Barney is an asshole who works some anonymous job at a giant corporation. He’s a womaniser who loves scotch and lazertag and suits. His favorite words are awesome and legendary, and though, on paper, he should be unlikeable, he’s sort of the shining star of How I Met Your Mother, giving every scene a boost through pure enthusiasm. There’s very little to say about Barney except that he is awesome. Also, the show acknowledges his failings while condoning them, which is maybe politically or socially problematic, but this isn’t a show about that and Barney is a caricature that becomes human through the brilliance of Neil Patrick Harris. He’s basically the opposite of Ted. I probably actually connect with him more than the other characters. Not because he’s an asshole, but because he’s a man constantly searching but never finding. Searching for something he can’t even begin to define. He’s a wanderer as I am but he’s built his walls and his boat of different material and his map leads him through different rivers. He also happens to be the kindest character in the show, though the show almost never references this. He gets Ted, Marshall, and Robin all jobs in their desired fields.
Lily, Marshall’s other half, is tiny and fiery and inappropriate and devious and hilarious. She brings big laughs and big emotions to the show. She’s insanely petty but also levelheaded and kind of the group’s mastermind. Alyson Hannigan breaks from her previous roles as a witch/bandcamper and becomes this awesomeness that bubbles about. Also, hers and Marshall’s breakup hits about a thousand times better than any Ted breakup even though we’ve only known them for a season by the time it happens. The reason for that is that Ted is the worst.
Robin is Ted’s initial and ongoing love interest that can’t be his love interest because we know right away she’s not the children’s mother. A former canadian popstar turned american news anchor, Robin is cynical and kind of frustrating but also the character who calls people on their shit the most. Her and Lily are all about hardtruths and are sort of opposites. Lily’s deceptive but also bubbly in personality whereas Robin’s emotionally closed and straightforward. She likes manliness and scotch and cigars and hates children. It took me a while to get on board with Robin, but she’s pretty great once you get to know her. Also, the whole time she’s dating Ted we’re constantly wondering what it is about him that she likes. Probably his enthusiasm and optimism, but it’s very clear she never saw a future with him. I think she knew he was the worst.
That leaves us Ted. But who is Ted? On paper, he’s the titular character of most sitcoms. He’s optimistic and full of love. He wants the best for everyone and believes in everyone. He’s earnest and generous. So why do we hate him so much?
It’s hard to explain. There’s something about every single second he’s on screen that’s almost unbearable. Usually a show like this demands a straightman so we can get a realistic look at the world. But Ted isn’t it. If anyone’s playing a role straight, it’s Robin. I think, too, the shenanigans of the rest of the group are to counteract the awfulness that is Ted Mosby. Ted doesn’t ground us. He pushes us away.
I blame Josh Radnor, the actor. His stupid hair and stupid face. But just as much as this is the worst casting for a leading man I can think of in a show so successful, it’s probably also a problem of writing. Ted is given very little to work with. Too much of his time is spent drifting from woman to woman. He’s what holds the group together but he doesn’t add anything beyond the glue. The show only needs Ted to justify how these other characters know one another, which is all the more tenuous since Barney just kind of dropped himself into their lives. Like Barney, Ted is a wanderer but his goal is too focused and narrow. Barney wants to live an awesome life while Ted wants to live the stereotypical american life that’s meant to resemble success. He wants a whirlwind romance without the work. He wants a family and doesn’t seem to care who he makes it with. Every choice and action of his is made by another. His jobs are found by other characters and his romances are defined by his friends, who always try to bring him back to reality from the stars he wanders through with closedeyes.
Ted Mosby, despite all the things he should maybe be, is only one thing: the worst.
Somehow, though, How I Met Your Mother isn’t really hampered by this. It may even be the adversity that makes it successful. The four other leads need to be that much better to keep Ted from pulling them all down. Barney, Lily, Robin, and Marshall are on a sinking ship called Ted floating across the atlantic that just keeps going because they row so effortlessly and perfectly.