Storytelling and Expectations: How I Met Your Mother, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite

When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.

One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.

Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley ParableThe Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.

Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.

The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.

At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.

At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.

The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.

And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”

Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.

Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.

The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.

Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.

Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.

My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:

 […] the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.

So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).

Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.

I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.

Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.

Bad Life Lessons I Learned from “How I Met Your Mother”

[This article contains LOTS of spoilers about the HIMYM season finale.]

A Google search turns up plenty of lists online with titles like “Life Lessons Learned from How I Met Your Mother.” While some talk about how the show taught them to trust that things will work out or to give things they previously didn’t like another try, others are compilations of lines or morals from episodes that honestly sound more like something you’d read on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper: “Perfect isn’t always perfect” is one example, or “Things happen for a reason,” or, my personal (least) favorite: “Don’t chase after things that don’t work. Let the universe take over.”

Now that the finale has aired, I thought I’d reflect on some of the bad life lessons the show teaches us. I’ve written before about why I think Ted Mosby is in fact quite the immoral antihero. I’ve also previously argued that the show falsely presents true romantic love as marked by perfection and ease: our soul mates, guided by “the Universe,” come to us ready-made as everything we could ever want, and they are the ultimate source of our happiness and fulfillment in life. Now that the show has come to a close, I’d like to explore and expand on these and some other bad lessons it teaches us about what we should expect from romance and life in general.

I’ve watched every season of HIMYM, and I don’t categorically dislike the show. HIMYM has several pros going for it, such as its unique premise and talented cast. There are also, admittedly, some good messages that can be gleaned from the show: that nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m., for instance, or that marriage can be a good and happy thing (a message that’s rather counter-cultural these days as our society delays or dismisses marriage and often praises hyper-sexuality over monogamy). I actually found this article more difficult to write than I thought it would be because of the good things the show has to offer. If it were all bad, it would be easy to dismiss. It’s deceptive mixture of good and bad makes it, I believe, all the more dangerous, because it is easier to be fooled into believing some of the bad lessons it tries to teach us.

I understand that it’s a sitcom and that much of the humor is intentionally ridiculous (e.g., the cockamouse). But HIMYM chooses to, at times, live in a gray area between comedy and drama, and it has received praised it for its willingness to address darker issues (such as the death of Marshall’s father in Season 6). Because of this, I feel the show gives its audience the freedom to dismiss the not-so-serious stuff as simple comedy but also the right to take the serious stuff, well, seriously. The show treats its defining themes—finding your way in life and finding true love—seriously, so I treat them seriously, too.

(I write this article assuming that most readers are familiar with the show, and I sometimes reference characters or events without giving detailed background information. If you get lost, you’ll find the HIMYM Wiki helpful.)

Like a lot of people, I was pretty shocked when what I had considered to be one of the more outlandish theories about how the show would end turned out to be true: Barney and Robin divorce shortly after their wedding, the Mother (whose name is revealed to be Tracy McConnell) dies of an anonymous illness several years after meeting Ted and bearing his children, and the closing scene of the show is Ted (true to form) returning to Robin. The finale, then, pretty strongly supports one of the more prominent Bad Life Lessons woven throughout the series:

Bad Life Lesson #1: Love is something that happens to us: it is a powerful, uncontrollable, external force that influences us whether we want it to or not, and it is defined by feeling rather than action.

In the first episode of Season 8, “Farhampton,” Klaus (Victoria’s ex-fiancée) tells Ted that he’ll know he’s found his soul mate because the realization of it will hit him instantaneously. You see, it is impossible for a person to become your soul mate over time, and anyone besides “the one” will only ever be, at best, your Almost Soul Mate.

Marshall and Lily have a moment like this, as we learn during their telling of how they met in the Season 3 episode “How I Met Everyone Else.” “It was love at first sight,” they coo in unison.

Ted seems to have a similar moment with Tracy when we finally see them meet on the train platform, but he also has lightning-bolt moments with both Victoria and (most notably post-finale) Robin.

In reality, love is not an external force that influences our lives and our choices. Love is a choice. Love is committing to someone in spite of all of their imperfections and shortcomings (as well as your own). Love is choosing to be faithful to someone for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Sometimes being loving means going through the motions of love, even when you don’t feel giddy or carefree, even when things aren’t easy. There’s a line from one of my favorite films, Paris, je t’aime, that speaks to this: upon learning that his wife has terminal cancer, one of the characters abandons his plan to run off with his mistress and decides that he must support his wife in her final months. “By acting like a man in love,” the narrator says, “he became a man in love again.”

Love is not a force that exerts power over us; love is something we choose to do, and that’s what makes it powerful. It is the choice to love and commit to someone that gives the relationship value. My husband, as he does so many things, once put it best: “I know you’re the person I’m meant to be with because you’re the person I decided to be with.”

While Marshall and Lily’s relationship gets lots of praise from critics, it still relies upon the belief in love at first sight and discovering soul mate status in an instant. I actually came to see a lot of merit in Barney and Robin’s relationship, especially compared to Ted’s quest for a soul mate. In Barney and Robin, the show portrays two people who like each other, have a lot in common, and navigate the transition from friendship to romance. It’s clear from Season 1 that they’re a good match (I re-watched the first time they played laser tag together, and it’s still very endearing). Their love is not defined by a lightning-bolt moment of realization; rather, they get to know each other, discern feelings, and eventually get married. Barney’s character growth is the most distinctive over the course of the show, and because of this I came to find him more admirable than Ted (who is just as selfish and promiscuous throughout the show as Barney ever was). Barney realizes that he needs to change something about himself in order to pursue a meaningful relationship with Robin, and he makes a visible effort to do so.

However, the finale reveals that the writers’ intended endgame was for Ted to be with Robin. Ted never fully let go of his feelings for Robin (no matter how many times he—or the audience—thought he did), a fact that his children immediately discern. After finally getting to the moment in his story when he meets Tracy, we return to the year 2030. Ted’s daughter Penny tells him, “I don’t buy it. That is not the reason you made us listen to this…You made us sit down and listen to the story about how you met Mom. Yet Mom’s hardly in the story. No. This is a story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin.” I appreciate that the writers included this because it’s actually quite self-aware on their part. A problem I’ve had with the show for a while is that Tracy is hardly present in a story that’s supposed to be about her, and Ted spends much more time recounting to his children his complicated romantic history with Robin, a woman who is definitively not their mother, as established by the pilot episode. I’m glad that the show finally addressed this, but I’m still disappointed with the ending. Ted’s children ultimately prompt him to return to Robin, who is still single after her divorce, and act on the feelings he clearly still has for her.

The fact that Ted returns to Robin in the end places emphasis back on their relationship, implying that the lightning-bolt moment when he sees her across the bar at the beginning of the series is the onset of true love. In “The End of the Aisle,” Ted tries to calm Robin down before her wedding to Barney as she is having second thoughts, saying that her relationship with Barney doesn’t make sense. In retrospect, Ted’s speech to her seems to apply more to him: “But love doesn’t make sense! You can’t logic your way into or out of it; love is totally nonsensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we’re lost and love is dead and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s just true. You love Barney. And he loves you. And that doesn’t have to make sense to make sense.” Ted and Robin don’t make sense in a couple of key ways: they want different things out of life, and she rejected him several times throughout the series.

If love is a force we can’t control that prompts us to pursue a relationship even if it doesn’t “make sense,” this explains why Ted has never been able to fully shake his feelings for Robin, to the point that even when he sits down to tell his kids a story about their mother he ends up unintentionally talking mostly about Robin instead. The final scene of the show depicts Ted standing outside Robin’s apartment, holding a blue French horn, (presumably) the same one he stole from a restaurant to impress her on their first date twenty-five years earlier. This makes it seem like even Ted’s relationship with the mother of his children is, like his relationship with Victoria and all the other women he’s loved along the way, just another denial of his deeper, irrevocable love for Robin, and the Universe (that is, the writers) had to kill Tracy just to get her out of the way of Ted’s greater destiny.

This ending negates any growth or maturation Ted undergoes up until this point in order to let go of Robin, the woman who represents everything he thought he wanted in a mate; as he tells her in this season’s “Sunrise” episode, “There’s no Top Five [women for me], Robin. There’s just a Top One, and it’s you.” Shortly after saying this, Ted appears to make a conscious decision to finally let Robin go, but again, the end of the finale undercuts this. It also diminishes the significance of his relationship with Tracy and makes her seem more like a means to fulfilling another life goal for Ted: having children (it was revealed that Robin is infertile in an earlier season).

At the risk of sounding heartless, I was hoping that the Mother would end up dead or dying in 2030, but not because I wanted Ted and Robin to be together. I wanted to see a character experience an enduring cost in exchange for attaining something good in life instead of just temporary struggle before getting everything he or she wants, which leads to the next Bad Life Lesson:

Bad Life Lesson #2: “If you’re really honest with yourself about what you want out of life, life will give it to you.”

That is one of Future Ted’s quotes (and worse pieces of parental advice, I have to say) from the end of Season 2, and  this sentiment proves very true for Ted in the end. His nine-year quest to find a mate was hardly a “long, difficult road,” as he says in the finale’s last few minutes. Long, maybe, but difficult? He screwed around with a bunch of beautiful women until magically finding his perfect spouse who provides him with the family he always wanted. Indeed, Tracy was so perfect for him, I didn’t want them to have a completely happy ending because it would have solidified the show’s wrong and cliché messages about love (which I’ve already touched on in my previous articles): that we are all destined to meet a perfect-for-us soul mate, or that said soul mate will fulfill our every desire and be the source of all of our happiness. Finally, if meeting his wife and living happily ever after was the end of Ted’s story, it would have further idolized romantic love and romantic partners. As Marshall says in Season 2, “the one” is the girl you can look at “knowing she’s all you really want out of life.” Oh, boy.

Related to Bad Life Lesson #2 is Bad Life Lesson #3: “The Universe” has a grand plan for your life, the focal point of which is finding your soul mate.

I wanted the show to explore how to move forward when your ideal life plan is legitimately disrupted, how to find joy and peace in the midst of truly sad circumstances, and what that would mean in light of all of Ted’s talk about trusting that “the Universe” has a grand plan and that we should simply expect to get everything we want.

Before the finale, all of the characters were poised to achieve everything they hoped to achieve, with their lives turning out exactly how they hoped they would: career success, wealth, fame, and blissful family lives. While I’m glad on one level that the show did not conform to the cliché ending I was expecting, the finale, in its way, still ends with the ultimate no-cost scenario for the protagonist: Ted gets his wife, his two kids, his enormous house in the suburbs, and his original and most enduring love, Robin.

To be honest, I had so many issues with the show to begin with that it’s unlikely I would have found any ending completely satisfying, and the ending I wanted was probably too tall an order for a single, albeit hour-long, finale. As James Poniewozik says in his piece on TIME: “Intellectually, maybe [the show’s] destination did make sense. Couples do divorce…People take years to find themselves, people drift apart and come back together, people die too soon. A great series could tell those stories and lay out those complicated, hard truths. The problem is, that is not the series that How I Met Your Mother was for the previous nine years. It was just the series it tried to force itself to be for its last hour.”

A more optimistic reading of the finale is that it did convey the message that, in spite of unexpected tragedy, we can eventually heal, move on, and maybe even find love again, as Tracy did with Ted (after her boyfriend, whom we learn of in “How Your Mother Met Me,” died) and then Ted did with Robin (after Tracy died). Jessica Goodman adopts this view on The Huffington Post: “The whole nine seasons became one long tale about moving on from loss, accepting growth in pain, the reality of friends drifting apart and the negation of ‘one true loves.’ Ted didn’t have one true love. He had two, maybe more. May we all be so lucky.” I think the argument that the show actually negates the notion of “one true loves” is better made with Tracy’s example: she had Max, her boyfriend from years before she met Ted, who died tragically. Convinced she had already found and lost her soul mate, Tracy held back on opening herself up to love until just before meeting Ted. However, as Ted’s daughter points out in the final minutes of the finale, the whole point of Ted’s story is that he “totally, totally, TOTALLY [has] the hots for Aunt Robin.”

Overall, Poniewozik is more correct, I think: the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

Now, I might more easily accept Goodman’s interpretation if the show had not invested so much in developing Barney as a character and Barney and Robin as a couple. Poniewozik posits in his article that Robin was not ready for marriage at all, and others say that Barney and Robin simply “don’t really make sense together .” While it’s true that Barney’s history as a manipulative womanizer and Robin’s aversion to marriage and family made it surprising that these two would end up marrying each other, the writers did a good job of making sure that surprise did not feel unrealistic as we watched their relationship grow and develop over time. Quickly divorcing them for no better reason than “We’re not happy” (which really translates to “My job is stressful and you can’t update your blog as often as you’d like, so…wanna get divorced?”) resulted in a jarring about-face for both characters, and it does a disservice to one of the more true-to-life romantic relationships on the show. The flimsy reasons for ending their relationship only further demonstrate that the writers just needed to make Robin available for Ted.

I am also unimpressed with Barney’s other surprise: a love child born when he impregnates a girl during his attempt to have a “perfect month,” in which he sleeps with thirty-one women in thirty-one days. Finding “true love” in his love for his daughter after divorcing Robin and reverting back to his old ways feels more like a thrown-together consolation prize for viewers than a legitimate resolution to his character arc.

There is much more I could say about bad lessons HIMYM teaches us about life and love, as well as other flaws I see in both the finale and the show as a whole (you should see my notes for this article). Alyson Hannigan said that the finale answered questions “you didn’t know you had—or never knew to ask.” Given the cruelty with which the writers treat Tracy, the acrobatic leaps they take in order to get Ted back on Robin’s doorstep, and the undoing of all the good they drew out of Barney, I’m left feeling more like the finale disappointed me in ways I never knew it could.

Ted Mosby Is Not a Hero

Full disclosure: I’ve seen all seasons of How I Met Your Mother available on Netflix, although I haven’t kept up with current episodes. It’s entertaining, it has it’s funny moments, and it’s a way to pass the time. But as I moved through the seasons, I began to get more and more uncomfortable with the show’s portrayal of relationships and less and less sympathetic toward Ted Mosby as a protagonist.

Ted’s character is, on the surface, presented to us as a hopeless romantic: an idealist with a lot of love to give, longing for the day he meets “the one” with whom he’ll spend the rest of his life. We already know that he gets his happy ending, since the premise of the show is that Ted from the year 2030 is recounting his misadventures to his future children, i.e, the offspring Ted will share with “the one.”

But when I think about Ted Mosby, I see, perhaps hidden a little deeper beneath the laugh track, perhaps within the subconscious of the show itself (since I doubt that the show’s writers intend for Ted to come across this way), a man whose selfish actions are supposed to be somehow justified by the fact that he hopes to one day settle down, get married, have some kids, and for goodness’ sake stop sleeping around. I see a man who is just as selfish and casually promiscuous (or at least, just as nonchalant about being casually promiscuous) as Barney—the womanizer of whose lifestyle we’re supposed to kind of not approve (even the other characters on the show look down on his shallow behavior). And I’m supposed to root for this guy?

I’m bothered by the dichotomy of Ted the Romantic, whom we’re supposed to cheer for, and Barney the Womanizer, whom we’re supposed to find shallow and inappropriate (although I think even then in just a friendly, Barney-will-be-Barney sort of way). I think it’s dangerous to root for a protagonist like Ted Mosby, because Ted shows us that it’s perfectly fine to casually sleep around in your twenties-to-mid-thirties as long as you someday get responsible and have a family with “the one;” best of all, this lifestyle is virtually consequence free! And don’t worry, you’ll find “the one.” Everyone does!

This is, I believe, a reflection of contemporary norms regarding sexuality and relationships. And I think it’s dangerous that so many people are buying into Ted Mosby and what popular shows like How I Met Your Mother are telling us about what we should expect out of romantic relationships.

For instance: this concept of “the one.” Ted’s immoral means are supposedly justified by his “virtuous” end: finding his “one,” his soul mate, his future wife. This notion that there is a single person out there in the world who we are destined to be with encourages, I think, the same kind of unrealistic expectations as a Disney princess movie. Searching for “the one” is like waiting for Prince (or Princess) Charming: the only person in the world who can rescue us (from our insecurities, weaknesses, loneliness) and make us complete and truly happy. “The one” is the only person with whom we are meant to spend our lives, and once we find that person it’s time to cue the music, ride off into the sunset, and roll credits. If I put these kinds of expectations, and this kind of pressure, on my husband, I can only imagine how detrimental it would be to our relationship if and when he fails to meet them. After all, while my husband is absolutely an extraordinary man and my favorite person to be with, he is only human. And he is certainly not my savior.

This kind of thinking ignores the less-than-idealistic aspects of real-life relationships that take commitment, sacrifice, and work. Real relationships are not always easy or exactly what we want or expect them to be. This kind of thinking is both selfish and idolatrous: if we subscribe to the concept of “the one” we in turn must believe that the person we end up with will provide us with comfort, ease, and happiness. Further, believing someone to be “the one” sets them up on a pedestal of perfection akin to idol worship, because we are asking of them lowlier versions of things that we should be seeking from God: salvation (instead of comfort), sanctification (instead of ease), and eternal joy (instead of immediate happiness). (I feel I should clarify that marriage can be a vehicle through which God sanctifies people, but that’s different than another person being the sanctifier.)

In the end, I think Ted’s journey is misdirected, and that in turn those who perhaps identify with Ted’s journey are misdirected. Part of the human experience is to search for meaning: what will make us content? What will give our lives purpose? How do I find my own happy ending? The answer lies not with another person—a spouse, a soul mate, “the one”—but with Christ.

You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You. – St. Augustine, Confessions

Grace in Television

Why is it that there are certain television shows that, despite sharing common themes, could hardly be more different:? How I Met Your Mother and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example, initially struck me as being, on the surface, quite similar. A group of friends in the big city, focusing on their entanglements, romantic and otherwise, with a heavy emphasis on bar life… At first glance, they’re practically the same show! And yet my wife Anna and I just finished watching HIMYM’s entire run for the second time, whereas I’ve only ever watched 5 episodes of Philadelphia, and each one left me feeling kinda sad.

Dr. Who and Torchwood is another, even more striking example. Torchwood is actually a spin-off of Dr. Who, and the content and setting is, in many cases, very similar. But Dr. Who takes place in a universe full of wonder, where the utter impossibility of a happy ending only makes that inevitable happy ending more marvelous… whereas Torchwood, despite taking place in the same universe, ended its run by taking an unwilling child from the arms of his screaming mother and literally torturing him to death in order to save the planet from aliens.

Finally, the story of the recent film adaptation of Les Miserables has a great deal in common with the 1967 classic Cool Hand Luke. A man is put in prison for a frivolous crime, punished far beyond reason, under the control of a cruel taskmaster, trying again and again to escape but each escape only makes things worse and worse, until finally the main character dies with a smile on his face. Despite these similarities of plot, the tone and atmosphere of the films could hardly be more different. Luke declares the doctrine of a pointless, cruel world, the best response to which is unflagging coolness; the world will kill you eventually, but best to mock it till the very end. Les Miserables, however, despite death and hopelessness on a scale far exceeding the plights of a single man, reminds us again and again that suffering is not meaningless, that our actions can shape the world, and that death is not the end.

But what is the cause of such division? Why does Ted’s (seemingly endless) adventure of meeting his wife enthrall me and Anna, whereas we can hardly make it through an episode of Philadelphia? Why is the Doctor so very happy, and Jack so very sad? Why is Luke left with only a legacy of mocking coolness, and why does Jean Valjean sing triumphantly of the light awaiting the wretched of the earth?

The answer, I think, is a sense of hope. Philadelphia recognizes the essential sadness of existence; Torchwood, the horror and cruelty; and Luke, the essential unfairness and futility. But the others dare to go further. There is deep sadness in HIMYM, but the very title and premise of the show promises that at the end, all of this sadness is redeemed. There is horror and cruelty in Dr. Who, but it is always overcome. And life is unfair to the wretched and downtrodden of France… but to call their struggle futile is to entirely miss the point.

This is, of course, why some prefer shows like Philadelphia. A show about broken, tired people, doing the best they can in their broken, tired lives; sometimes it’s enough, often it’s not. There is no hope for happiness: Not real happiness, anyway, nothing beyond the momentary pleasure that sex and alcohol can provide. And to those who feel that this hopelessness, this futility, accurately reflects reality, then Philadelphia is doubtless to be preferred to naive, childish shows like HIMYM.

They have a point: this is, indeed, how life used to be. The bar life of Philadelphia is eerily reminiscent of another, much older account of the hopelessness and futility of life.

But no more, as of 2,000-odd years ago. Because that’s when Love Himself came into the world to give us hope again, to heal our wounds and redeem our souls. We now live in a world that, though broken, will be fixed; though sorrow is real, it will be wiped away; though pain is all around us, it will be ended. That is the world that HIMYM, Dr. Who, and Les Miserables portray, and for that, I love them.

They recognize hope. A hope of redemption, of an undeserved and unexpected happiness waiting for those who only need to reach out their hand and accept it. A hope, at bottom, of a grace that goes beyond the cold, hard, “facts” of existence, that defies the “realism” and cynicism that so attracts our culture today. These shows remind me that Christ came that we might have life, have it to the full, and that we might celebrate in living. And God bless us, he even brought the drinks.