Seinfeld was a voice for the adults of the 90s, uniting audiences worldwide and spawning cultural references like “man hands” and “yada yada.” How I Met Your Mother is its counterpart today, partly because it relies equally on guest stars and produces lots of coined phrases, but also because it embodies the millennial generation and its modern discontent.
How I Met Your Mother, which CBS recently renewed for a ninth and final season, is in many ways a throwback to 90s TV. An example is a season one installment when Lily and Marshall spend the whole half hour trapped in a bathroom, mirroring a similar Mad About You episode with Jamie and Paul in the same predicament. The nod to the 90s is acknowledged in an obvious Friends reference in a season two episode of How I Met Your Mother. Ted, Marshall, and Barney sit in a coffee shop for a minute before Barney notes, “Hanging out at a coffee place isn’t nearly as fun as hanging out in a bar.”
While the group of close friends living and dating in New York City does bring to mind Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe, Seinfeld is a fairer comparison. All three shows rely on overlapping storylines, but only Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother at their best weave plots together to such brilliant and hilarious effect.
Take the “Lucky Penny” episode from the second season of How I Met Your Mother. Ted is in the airport, running late for an important flight. As the episode details all the steps leading up to the missed flight, each character plays his or her part. At the end of the tangled scenario, Ted realizes that he started the whole thing by finding a lucky penny. Seinfeld storylines are just as marvelously twisted as its characters inadvertently thwart one another again and again.
Two more Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother parallels are coined phrases and running jokes. Seinfeld has “master of my domain,” “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” “no soup for you,” and the list goes on. Barney contributes many of the catchphrases in How I Met Your Mother, including “challenged accepted,” “lemon law” and “I only have one rule.” Marshall has “lawyered,” and Robin has her infamous “but, um,” which becomes a doomed drinking game.
Both shows are funnier if watched in order, since episodes often recall earlier ones. The slap bet is a recurring joke that spans several years on How I Met Your Mother. A Seinfeld example is in the famous “Puffy Shirt” episode. George is asked if he is master of his domain, to which he replies proudly, “I won a contest,” referencing an episode from the previous season.
While the two shows have marked similarities, at its core How I Met Your Mother departs from the cynicism of Seinfeld. Despite the raunchy jokes, How I Met Your Mother is ultimately as much a romantic as Ted is.
At the start of the show, Ted, like many of our generation, still isn’t married at 27. He realizes that he wants to give up his single status for a committed relationship like Lily and Marshall’s. They’re the imperfectly perfect couple who have only ever had sex with each other, and their healthy, happy relationship is contrasted with Ted’s rollercoaster love life and Barney’s endless series of one night stands. And in the eighth season, even womanizing, staunchly single Barney succumbs to committed romance when he realizes he loves Robin and proposes, destroying his precious “Playbook” in the process of winning her.
Seinfeld did have some similar moments, even though Jerry and George are never quite as convinced as Ted that they should stop dating around and commit. In the seventh season, Jerry wonders what he’s doing with his life. He convinces George that they should grow up, and George takes it to heart enough to propose marriage to Susan, the girlfriend he dated and broke up with in an earlier season. Jerry also has a near change of heart in the final season, when he wonders if he and Elaine have belonged together all along.
Seinfeld had the wisdom to stop at nine seasons, something How I Met Your Mother probably could have learned from, although the shows arguably jumped quite different sharks. The problem with Seinfeld is that too much happened in the ninth season, especially in the critically panned final episode, when the group reunites with nearly every guest star ever to be on the show and ends up in jail.
How I Met Your Mother has the opposite problem — nothing is happening. Ted’s love life, the catalyst of the continuing story, keeps stalling as the writers attempt to spin out the plot for as long as possible. Don’t get me wrong; I love the show and am a loyal watcher in spite of believing that Ted needs to meet his bass guitar-playing, child-bearing, yellow bus-owning soulmate already. Let’s just hope How I Met Your Mother ends more successfully than Seinfeld.