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One of the odder things I’ve seen this week has been the online reaction to this week’s episode of CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Am I the only person who thinks that all the best comedies deal with tragedy in one way or another? (Spoilers for HIMYM follow, be warned.)
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, this week’s HIMYM ended with the death of lead character Marshall’s father, who himself had been a recurring guest in the series to date. The scene where this was revealed was handled with impressive sensitivity, and the show’s creators have promised that it’ll be a plot that’ll continue to run through the next few episodes, but a response I’ve been seeing a lot this week is along the lines of “Hey! Sitcoms aren’t supposed to be sad!”
Thing is, this just isn’t true.
There’s a grand history to “Very Special Episodes” of sitcoms, and I’m sure that everyone can remember at least one episode of a favorite sitcom where things suddenly got… well, not necessarily real, but at least more serious than usual (Normally involving one or more characters temporarily giving into temptation and/or peer pressure before realizing how wrong it is), but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about the necessity for great sitcoms – the really, really good ones that people remember and talk about years after they’ve gone off-air – to occasionally step outside of comedy and into drama, in order to keep the characters grounded.
For a lot of great sitcoms, it’s not that far a stretch: M*A*S*H, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development and The Larry Sanders Show, to name a handful off the top of my head, were all pretty much born from sadnesses of various types, and the comedy that they provided was always tinged with more than a little tragedy. For others – and I think HIMYM falls into this category – it’s an unexpected lurch that underscores how well-drawn the characters are, and reminds the audience that the show is something more than just a yockfest you tune into every now and again (Cheers‘ “Birth, Death, Love and Rice,” about the death of Coach, is a great example of this).
See, sitcoms need sadness. Sitcoms may not need to be sad on a regular basis, but they should be sad, every now and again, if only to remind us that the characters we’re watching are like us; It’s only through seeing the character deal with genuine sadness, trouble and worry do we really feel as if they’re anything approaching real people that we can care about, as opposed to machines set up to delivery set-ups or punchlines on a regular basis. Good writing doesn’t work in an emotional extreme – Remember how randomly funny Battlestar Galactica could be? Same thing – and tragedy makes comedy all the more powerful, not only through making it easier to define, but through making it all the more important.
I don’t know where HIMYM is going with the characters’ reactions to the death of Marshall’s father, but I’m looking forward to finding out, and seeing what the writers and actors do with the journey along the way.