I am writing this column on an airplane, and normally, I’d be feeling nervous. I’m not really afraid of flying, per se. I don’t need to get drunk before getting on a flight or anything. But I’m the sort of person who, in most everyday scenarios, can’t help but envision disaster. When driving, I often wonder what would happen if I let my car veer into oncoming traffic. At night, every creak the house makes causes a flash in my mind of the roof collapsing. Don’t try to psychoanalyze this tendency — it’s just who I am. So you can imagine what I’m like on a plane. Every time I glance out the window, I can’t help but think of what it would be like if we were suddenly plunging toward earth. I know it’s not likely to happen, but the slightest turbulence still makes my palms sweaty.
As I said, though, I am currently not fraught with anxiety. That’s because the in-flight entertainment is an episode of How I Met Your Mother.
I have a strange relationship to the show. I initially rejected it as another CBS sitcom aimed at flyover states and old people. I didn’t actually watch an episode until a friend DVR’d a few of the more exemplary ones to show me. It wasn’t an instant love affair: I appreciated the willful goofiness, the way the writers messed with traditional sitcom narrative structures and, of course, Neil Patrick Harris, but I felt that even the better episodes ultimately gave in to disingenuous network TV schmaltz. I’ve now seen a sizable chunk of the show’s eight seasons — all in syndication; I don’t think I’ve watched a single new episode — and I still don’t think I love the show.
And yet, HIMYM brings me a good deal of joy. Not just joy, but comfort. In the last two years or so, I’ve developed a warm familiarity with the show that transcends fandom. I will never actively seek it out, but if it’s on, and I’m not quite ready for bed, I will watch an hour-and-a-half-long block. It’s like that friend you never call and never really wonder how they’re doing when you haven’t seen them for a while, but nonetheless cherish the moments when you do get to hang out. Like that friend, part of what makes spending time with HIMYM so enjoyable is that it requires little commitment: I’ve never watched the show chronologically from the beginning, and don’t feel any need to. Sure, each episode includes long-running gags and inside jokes, and keeping track of Ted Mosby’s relationships is like mapping the human genome, but the characters are simultaneously broad and well-sketched enough that you have a sense of who everyone is by the end of the cold opens. Each episode manages to stand alone even better than Seinfeld, a show that prided itself on minimal arcs but whose characters you needed to spend time with to truly understand.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.