I had one of those weekends where you sit down on the couch and get up three days later having watched four seasons of How I Met Your Mother. And while at first there wouldn’t appear to be much that a Friends-like CBS sitcom and a quirky HBO show from Mike White, the show that How I Met Your Mother most reminds me of is Enlightened. They’re both shows about compromise, but while Enlightened‘s Amy Jellicoe rages against a system that makes her dreams futile, How I Met Your Mother is all about anaesthetizing the pain of selling out.
One of my favorite scenes in Enlightened is when Amy, desperate to escape a corporate job that she hates (and is admittedly terrible at and makes no effort to succeed in), interviews for her dream gig at a homeless shelter. It’s something that would use her skills and that she’d find fulfilling. And it pays less on an annual basis than she owes in debt from her stint in the treatment center. Laura Dern does an incredible job of selling how dreadful that revelation is to Amy, and how insanity-inducing it is that the non-profit system is set up so that only a very small number of the people who would like to work there can actually do so under existing conditions.
Beyond that scene, Enlightened makes clear why Amy hates her job, even if we ultimately can’t entirely sympathize with her approach to it. Dougie, her boss, is crude and unprofessional. Amy’s ideas for making her company stronger and more socially responsible are blown off, and when they finally get attention, she’s set up as the entertainment by a vicious group of executives. It’s humiliating, and it’s boring, and we can sympathize with her desire to get away from it.
How I Met Your Mother, on the other hand, kind of blunts Marshall’s ultimate decision to walk away from trying to work in environmental law when he first does it (I know he leaves Goliath National Bank in future episodes, I just haven’t gotten to them yet). The montage of him standing in front of the mirror, psyching himself up with increasingly diminishing returns, as he goes on job interviews is funny, but it doesn’t actually communicate the loss of a life-long dream (never mind that the show doesn’t really communicate that Marshall is a committed environmentalist other than telling us repeatedly that he is). The fact that Lily’s enormous credit card debt basically forces him to take a corporate job after he’s fired from his first firm should be a deep betrayal with long-term consequences and the show basically deals with it in two episodes.
And even though we’re told that Marshall’s given up on the whole reason he went to law school, the show suggests that ultimately it’s no big deal. When he goes to work at his first law firm, the voiceover tells us that he ends up representing a hazardous amusement park. But we never see him handle one of its manifold issues, which both could have been great plot fodder and could have presented actual moral dilemmas that show what it meant for Marshall to sell out. And when Marshall ends up working for Barney at Goliath National Bank, rather than something that makes him miserable, the job actually looks fine. He and Barney hang out on the roof drinking beer, Marshall appears to get along with his coworkers and to feel no particular qualms about the work that he’s doing. The biggest problem he faces is finding a place where he can go to the bathroom in peace.
I think it’s probably true that most folks aren’t working jobs that are perfect reflections of their passions: it’s not like Amy and Marshall are alone in ending up in a place other than the one they hoped to be. But I appreciate Amy’s raging hope. And there’s something rather quietly sad about seeing Marshall surrender. How I Met Your Mother doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—be Enlightened. But I wish it respected its characters enough to spend some more time with their pain and disappointment.