It just had to be that this year’s finale of How I Met Your Mother was going to share space with the 20th anniversary of the debut of Friends, didn’t it? It seems pretty appropriate; the two sitcoms have been favorably compared to each other through most of their runs. Hell, its even been argued that the two of them might as well be the same show. They both star characters who live in a parallel universe’s version of New York City where there is no diversity and rent control is a thing. Both of them feature years-long story arcs about the romance between two particular characters; both are brought up in efforts to define their generations through pop culture. At first glance, there is some definite evidence that How I Met Your Mother was taking its cues from Friends. When you try to really compare the two of them side by side, though, the real differences start blaring at you, and you’re then forced into one of those corners where you have to take a Beatles/Elvis stance: You only get one pick and you have to hate the other one.
Fine. That’s not something I have too big a problem with. My problem begins with the fact that so many writers seem so eager to automatically throw the statue at Friends, mostly because they grew up watching it. It’s an interesting phenomenon; it’s one thing to believe everything was better back in your day, but it’s another thing completely to refuse to acknowledge if something may or may not be better based strictly on nostalgia for childhood heroes. So now, it’s time to look at both of these shows as empirically as possible. To prepare, I’m binge-watching DVDs and online streams of as many episodes of both shows as I can. I doubt I’ll get to them all, but I can get to an enormous chunk of both. So let’s do this! Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother. One day, I’ll learn.
Friends gave us Rachel Green, Monica and Ross Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, and Chandler Bing. HIMYM introduced Ted Mosby, Lily Aldrin, Marshall Erikson, Robin Scherbatsky, Barney Stinson, and Tracy McConnell (she was one of the main cast characters during her brief stint on the show, so much so that her actress’s name was in the opening credits, so yes, she counts). Some of these characters share remarkable similarities to each other, at least in a few ways: Barney shares the fact that no one knows what he does with Chandler and his tendencies with women with Joey; Lily and Monica share some apparent neuroticism and spontaneity; Ross and Ted both have penchants for romanticism. Characters in both shows reach ridiculous low points – in Friends, Phoebe tried to keep one of the triplets, while Ted made Robin get rid of her dogs in HIMYM. Yet, for all the similarities, the characters all took different paths in their development. The characters on Friends developed and matured in a more subtle manner while the HIMYM gang was more up front about their changes of character. On the other hand, the differences between all the characters in the show were a lot more obvious on HIMYM. HIMYM also stereotyped less; Friends had its ditz, its romantic, its career person, and its man’s man. HIMYM frequently crossed these traits over from character to character; career woman Robin was also the show’s man’s man, for example – she loved guns, hockey, scotch, and cigars. Lily, Marshall, and Barney all shared the role of the ditz.
I prefer HIMYM. Issue one: Phoebe. I love her, and she’s one thing that could be counted on to rescue Friends when it was having trouble, but she’s a waste of space and seemed to be shoehorned in. HIMYM never felt like it was having any trouble trying to fit any characters in, even during the last season, when Tracy was added to the main cast outright. Issue two: The development arcs of Barney and Tracy showed what HIMYM was capable of at its best. Usually when a TV show runs long, all the characters start out as fully realized humans and, as the writers start to feel stretched for creativity, they start to fall back on some of the more unique quirks of the characters, flanderizing them until they’re nothing but quirks. Barney went the opposite route; he was a fully realized caricature through the first few seasons with a few glimmers of humanity; as he developed, he matured, and his better side came out as he decided to settle and form a relationship with his estranged father. (This is why I’m always amazed when critics bitch about HIMYM’s later seasons; did they really miss the old, borderline rapist Barney that much? His development made the whole series very satisfying.) And while we only had Tracy around in one season which didn’t span every episode, her development was so strong that the audience felt totally gypped by the finale. Issue three: The cast of Friends sometimes came across as so interchangeable that it could have melded together at certain times. Trying to tell them apart when they get angry or upset – which happens often enough – can be something of a chore. The characters on HIMYM never fell out of their personas and blended together to such an extent. Of course, that’s an issue with Friends, and not exactly a flaw…
It’s very possible Friends and HIMYM were cast in two different and very distinct ways. The cast of HIMYM looks like the actors were all tested and chosen purely on the strength of their individual character portrayals before being rounded up and thrown at each other, and it turned out to work for the best. Friends seems to have been cast with character chemistry as the first thing in mind, like the actors were whittled down to a particular selection and then tested against each other. HIMYM cast the most talented actors it could find for its characters; Friends cast good actors who made each other look great. The difference definitely shows in the final products. Friends ended up casting six unknowns and making household names of not only Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but also actors Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. The actors flew off each other like atomic particles and were so closely bonded when the cameras were off that the emotion they felt in the final episode was genuine. HIMYM can counter using the fact that its individual performances were better; Neil Patrick Harris and Cristin Milioti could both clearly act circles around every other cast member on either show, and the others were excellent as well. The particular traits of every character on HIMYM were also highlighted more, so all six actors had to perform an exceptional balancing act to see their characters were able to merge those traits into someone whole, and not just a mess of ideas the writers could flanderize at will. They all succeeded.
This one goes to Friends. While the cast of HIMYM did everything right, it wasn’t enough to stop the emergence of Barney Stinson as a breakout character. Although Barney eventually developed into a complete character, it’s still his early Bro Code and Playbook musings which dominate HIMYM popular lexicon. In the meantime, Alyson Hannigan’s name is still synonymous with Willow Rosenberg, her character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make anyone forget Doogie Howser; and Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders are both still remembered purely as Ted and Robin. Jason Segel and Cristin Milioti are popular movie and Broadway commodities, respectively. The Friends cast, meanwhile, are still associated with each other, no matter how far away from the show they’ve gotten. No matter how successful Jennifer Aniston gets, when her name is brought up, she is still just another name among six particular TV actors.
Overdone Romance We Got Sick Of
In the first episode of Friends, we met Ross Geller, a very recent and heartbroken divorcee; and Rachel Green, a runaway bride. Right off the bat, from first to last, the show did everything it could to throw the two of them together. So the two of them took some pretty nasty trips in the ten years Friends lasted on the air before finally settling into their surefire happily ever after in the final episode. The drama between Ross and Rachel took such absurd turns that, at some point, you have to wonder if the writers were intentionally prying the two of them apart and teasing the audience just to prolong the romance. It devolved into soap opera territory. Everything moved right along for the two of them at first; they crushed on each other in the first season; were dating in the second; broken up in the third because Rachel decided she needed an indefinite alone period, in which Ross jumped another girl’s bones; and reconciling only to break up again in the fourth. It’s a reasonable trajectory, but it gets spoiled by the end of the fourth when Ross marries a rebound fling and says Rachel’s name at the wedding, and from there it just got absurd. HIMYM did a bold thing by introducing Ted to Robin in the pilot episode, only to clearly establish in the end that Robin isn’t The Mother. It helped free up the show to give a few romance storylines to Ted and Robin because, since it was established that Robin wasn’t The Mother, the show was able to try anything it wanted for awhile. Like Rachel and Ross, though, it devolved, and by the eighth season they were dredging up the idea of Ted still being in love with Robin, who had been established as Barney’s match for some time by then. Ted’s romantic past with Robin, in fact, hadn’t been any obstacle between him and Robin or Robin and Barney for a long time, but creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided to shoehorn an ending they had written for Ted and Robin seven years before the show concluded.
You know what? I’m giving the edge here to HIMYM. I know I have every reason in the world to prefer Ross and Rachel; after all, Friends didn’t tell us well in advance that Ross and Rachel weren’t ultimately each other’s other halves. It didn’t make a big show of one of them completely letting go of the other one in the final season to show us once and for all that it wasn’t meant to be, over and out, only to renege. Friends didn’t kill one of the main characters, as if she was an inconvenience to the writers, just to make it happen! But what Friends did do that made Ross and Rachel inexcusable was turn their first breakup into a goddamned punchline! “We were on a break! We were on a break!” I’d like to show Ross Geller a fucking break! Besides, between their drunken Vegas wedding, their love child, and Rachel’s final decision to stay with Ross, it’s not like they were lacking for drama.
Resonance With Times
For being a voice sitcom sparked from the grunge era, Friends certainly packed a lot of shining optimism. I’m not saying everything was always wonderful for the characters on the show. Hell, Phoebe sang “Smelly Cat,” which could have fit right into the Lilith Fair lineup. The characters, however, seemed to develop that great Hollywood character habit of failing upward. Setbacks never seemed to affect them very much, and usually they quickly landed on their feet. Friends also came off geared toward a mainstream audience; right in the first season, Phoebe has a quick fling with a physicist who is a little uncomfortable with the idea of romance and spontaneity. It was the typical trope of the time: Nerds are to be ridiculed. In addition, while Friends did deal with homosexuality, it treated homosexuality like an odd character tick; something which was bad at the time, and absolutely inexcusable now. In HIMYM, setbacks were really that; they properly set the characters back. Although it’s treated like an idealistic fairy tale, there is a very dark vein streaming through the world of HIMYM, and the characters regularly end up in compromised positions, frequently embarrassed and humiliated while trying to make the best of what just happened to them. Lily leaving Marshall to pursue her dream of being an artist is one example; Robin’s anchor job on early AM TV is another; and Ted trying to start his own architectural firm is a third. There is also the geek factor; HIMYM actually has TV’s best attitude toward geeks. Marshall, Ted, and Barney are all huge Star Wars freaks, and Barney even has life-size Stormtrooper armor in his apartment; they love to play laser tag; they’re frequently seen playing video games; and they enjoy an annual event called Robots vs. Wrestlers.
HIMYM. Although Friends featured cell phones and laptops long before they were in vogue, and it did improve its view on gays – even showing a wedding between a gay couple long before the current gay rights movement – it still set out to give viewers a look at normal, mainstream people with socially acceptable interests. It perceived outsiders as geeks or thugs in a negative way. Setbacks on Friends barely made any lasting dents in the characters. On HIMYM, setbacks were real stingers, and the characters were frequently seen doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do in mentally broken states. HIMYM also had the more accurate take on geeks – their geek interests, while prominent, aren’t caricatures, and they don’t define the characters. Rather, geek interests and tendencies are treated as side interests of the main characters, who are able to keep their geek lives and professional lives separate.
In any good TV show, we need to be able to sympathize with the characters; otherwise, when we laugh, we’re laughing at them instead of with them. Therefore, it helps to have great ways of projecting times and scenes of deep emotions. Friends axed one of the most insufferable tropes that came to define sitcoms in the previous decade – the Full House music, which replaced real emotion with gagging melodrama. Otherwise, emotion was conveyed by the actors and the script, both of which did fine jobs, and music which was performed by professional musicians. Occasionally, the camera would zoom in very slowly on the troubled character or the character would be isolated. HIMYM, being a more surreal show than Friends, would frequently use surrealism to convey a sense of sadness. It was also privy to using its stilted structure to do the same, allowing it to move back and forth between conversations about the character and the affected character. The portrayals of the characters and the music was frequently a big help as well. Friends, however, conveyed its emotion in a straightforward fashion while HIMYM usually had a joke or two waiting to be used to lighten the mood a little bit.
HIMYM. The trouble with trying to provide emotional heft strictly through the affected characters is that it’s like describing the symptoms. Sure, you can sympathize, but there’s no real relation unless you’ve personally been there yourself. HIMYM’s surrealism is more than a quirk; it’s an effective way to paint a very exacting picture of what the characters are experiencing. In one episode, for example, Robin learns she’s barren and can never have kids. Instead of simply saying it, the episode cuts to a pair of kids in a living room which are ostensibly Robin’s as Robin narrates to them. Then they fade away as the room is replaced by snowy Central Park and the sofa is replaced by a park bench which Robin is sitting in, drinking a carton of eggnog, contemplating what she just learned. One later episode of season eight, “The Time Travelers,” so brilliantly captures the true essence of Ted’s loneliness that I have trouble watching it: Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, and Lily meet in MacLaren’s for a night or Robots vs. Wrestlers Legends. Ted is busy the following day and unsure whether or not to go, and debates the pros and cons of going with Barney as well as future versions of themselves. This might sound odd, but it’s a sort of surreal vision the show has come to be known for. Marshall and Robin get into a fight about who named a drink served by the bar. Soon, Coat Check Girl – a guest character from one of HIMYM’s first episodes – walks in. Ted recognizes her and starts to wander over to talk to her, but is stopped by two future versions of Coat Check Girl. Both warn him that a relationship with her would be doomed, and he gets distracted long enough for the real Coat Check Girl to leave. Finally, he returns to Barney and says he’s out for the night, and in an understated and very eloquent monologue, Barney tells Ted the cocktail incident is a five-year-old memory and the rest of the night was a product of his imagination, and Ted was debating whether to go alone the entire night. Ted leaves, and Narrator Ted imagines his past self running to The Mother’s apartment and delivering Ted’s now-famous “45 days” monologue to the unseen Mother. The effect is heightened later; of note, “The Time Travelers” is the final episode which involves any interactions with the unseen form of The Mother. Four episodes later, after years of teases, the conceptual Mother ceased to exist, and the actual Mother was finally revealed. Although the reveal was simple – even anticlimactic – it worked because of the sense we received for Ted’s sadness over the course of the season and the fact that the story’s endgame was now in sight. Ted himself wasn’t aware of it yet, but the audience knew he would be meeting his perfect girl within – in the show’s time – just a couple more days.
Friends opens with one of the greatest opening themes of all time: “I’ll be There for You” by The Rembrandts. The song is a definite by-product of the 90’s, and it has the rough, unvarnished edges of the traditional grunge sound. It’s a pretty downcast song, too, describing a lot of bad, serious situations before launching into its memorable hook, which promises that, no matter what happens, they’ll always be there for you. It’s one of those theme songs that transcended its opening theme status and became a heavily rotated radio hit. HIMYM opens with an iconic “ba, ba ba ba ba” going along with its title card, but what most people don’t know is that’s the very tail end of a legitimate song called “Hey Beautiful” by The Solids, a band the show’s creators play in. Like the Friends theme, the song is a definite product of the times in a musical sense. The lyrics don’t make nearly as much sense – I’m surmising the second verse is about the song’s narrator trying to gather the courage to talk to a girl he spotted and thinks is beautiful, but the phrasing is a little random and haphazard. It’s a great song, though, and it’s one of the few millennial rock songs which, while it relies on the slow-driving, smoothly-laid harmony and melodramatic vocals, still lets the background music massage the scene instead of dominating the song and destroying rock music for a decade to come. Also, while the synthesizer is used throughout, it’s used in a minimalist fashion.
Friends. The HIMYM theme was an early version of a trend that’s setting rock music back decades. The Friends theme is a great song, and its message about optimism and togetherness through even the toughest of times is more resonant now than it was when Friends was the show to watch. Also, “Hey Beautiful” isn’t the most technically sound song, either. Even with better lyrics, its time signature changes are less than subtle. Face it, there’s a reason you didn’t know “Hey Beautiful” was a full song until you read this.
Format And Structure
Although every story has a beginning, middle, and end, Friends and HIMYM both got around to showing their beginnings, middles, and ends in different ways. Both of them also used heavily serialized formats. Friends took its cues from most every sitcom that came before it, which means it tells its stories in a straightforward, linear fashion. While this makes the typical episode of Friends easy to follow, it also makes it a bit more difficult to jump in the middle of an episode. Since the show is serialized, a big secret revealed in an episode with series-changing ramifications could easily be missed. When Friends performs flashbacks, it does them smoothly, skillfully weaving them into the main structure of the show. HIMYM uses a flashback as the very plot of the show. It’s prone to jumping and stilting around a lot more; a frequent device seen on HIMYM is to place the audience into the middle of a scene and then go back and explain how the characters came to that point. HIMYM tells stories in a much more freewheeling manner. It will use surrealism, roshamen viewpoints, intercutting, and flashbacks and flashforwards in order to get the point across. Both shows demand your attention, but HIMYM will go out of its way to make sure it has it. HIMYM also based its entire existence on a large story arc, which demanded bold risks from the creators when it worked and ended up sticking around for awhile. Some of those risks were good and allowed the show to keep revealing hidden depths to its characters; some were bad and allowed them to prolong the show (Ted and Robin, ahem).
HIMYM. The format keeps finding different ways of telling stories to emphasize small moments which impacted The Narrator’s life. Not only is it an effective way to keep interest in a story, it frees up the writers to splice other scenes into the narrative, make concurrent callbacks, and even reformat the entire show, which is what happened in the final season. Furthermore, the ultimate story arc allowed the creators to gradually reveal the show’s big secrets about how Ted met The Mother. Think about it: What did we know about Ted meeting The Mother in the pilot? They met at a wedding. That was it. After the first season finale had Marshall and Lily break up, most of the the subsequent season finales peeled back more big secrets about the wedding and the meeting. At the end of season two, Ted and Robin broke up, which we knew would happen, since Robin was established in the pilot as not being The Mother. In the season three finale, Ted proposes to Stella, but she isn’t The Mother. Season four, Ted tells his kids that The Mother was in an economics class he taught by accident. In season six, it started really heating up; the groom, long believed to be an offhand friend of Ted’s like Punchy or Ranjit, was shown to be Barney. In season seven, it was the bride’s turn to be shown onscreen; it was Robin. The season eight finale gave us our first glimpse of Tracy McConnell. And the series finale the next season, well, I’ll be nice and just pretend it never happened.
Every good sitcom has its share of in-jokes which, despite being an eternal theme in the series canon, can be easily picked up and appreciated by newcomers. Friends and HIMYM are no exceptions. In fact, they even share very similar running gags: One is that Barney and Chandler both work mystery jobs which no one else on their shows knows. It works better for HIMYM, though, because Chandler eventually gets promoted while Barney – who seemingly drags in endless oceans of money for nothing – reveals that his “eh, please” response to everyone else’s job inquiries is really an acronym for Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything. Basically, if his corporation is ever caught in one of its more unseemly activities, Barney is the one set up to take their fall. Another is they each had a character with a musical career. Friends gave us Phoebe, who sang some of the darkest, weirdest folk songs you will ever hear with an earnestly upbeat attitude. HIMYM had Robin, a former teenage pop star in her native Canada named Robin Sparkles who had one minor hit and was so embarrassed about it that she told outrageous lies to her friends to try to hide it. They both had catchphrase-spewing ladies’ men as main characters – Joey and Barney. Beyond those, Friends introduced us to Ugly Naked Guy, a nudist from a neighboring building. HIMYM had The Bro Code and The Playbook. There was Fat Monica on Friends, and HIMYM had Lily’s odd sexual fetishes. These lists aren’t even close to exhaustive.
This should be even, but I’m giving the edge to HIMYM for a few reasons. First of all, Phoebe’s songs are only written to highlight her ditziness, and sitcom ditzes are a dime a dozen. Robin’s singing career gave her backstory an interesting twist, and her reluctance to ever talk about it added a dimension to her character. Second, Ugly Naked Guy was originally a hidden character who was there strictly for laughs. At some point, though, Friends decided it had to break that rule and give Ugly Naked Guy screen time. There’s a sacred law of sitcoms which have hidden characters there strictly for laughs that says you never, ever show the character. Never, because it would ruin the mental projection of the character the audience built for itself. It’s why all the Maris jokes from Frasier worked so well – they never showed Maris, and we were given unlimited depth to project how awful she was. Third, Friends turned “We were on a break!” into a catchphrase for Ross. It’s with that one Friends torpedoed any chance of winning a battle of running gags.
Friends just got its ass handed to it. Yes, Friends was great when it was good; upon my repeat viewings, it holds up much better than I expected it to. It was one of the major cultural voices of its generation, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a Cheers knockoff which became popular because it came along at the right time. How I Met Your Mother was something that came flying out of the blue, combining the surrealism of Scrubs, flying hijinks of Malcolm in the Middle, and yes, the emotional gravitas of Friends itself with a groundbreaking story structure. Friends was a product of its time. How I Met Your Mother turned out to be well ahead of it.