CREDIT: AP Images/Paul A. Hebert
Earlier in this final season of How I Met Your Mother, a sitcom about a group of New York City-based friends fumbling–and drinking–their way towards marriage and settled adulthood, Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), the show’s inveterate womanizer and leading advocate of fine men’s suiting, took himself out for one last hurrah before his wedding. Over the course of an increasingly drunken evening, he instructed two schlubby younger dudes he picked up along the way on the art of dressing well, pulling chicks, and presenting yourself like a respectable specimen of twenty-first century urban manhood. Before departing into unconsciousness and an epic hangover (and of course, impending matrimony), Barney bequeathed his young acquaintances with a hand-written copy of the Playbook that guided him in his conquest of New York City.
Something similar seems to have happened in a more meta fashion in the world of sitcoms as well, with the arrival last week of Mixology, an ABC sitcom that shares many elements with How I Met Your Mother. While the latter merely featured a bar as the characters’ primary hangout location, Mixology is set in one, and it focuses on the love lives of bartenders and waitresses as well as the patrons. Mixology, like How I Met Your Mother, focuses on urban twenty-somethings on the prowl–no stay-at-home stoners like the gals of Comedy Central’s sitcom Broad City for ABC. And like How I Met Your Mother, Mixology has a view of a good time that has a strong sour undercurrent to it, a whiff of tomorrow morning’s vomit wafting back to what’s supposed to be the wild night before.
“Every story from your twenties starts in a bar!” Marshall (Jason Segal) and Lily’s (Alyson Hanningan) son told them in one of How I Met Your Mother‘s flash forwards this season. But that’s never been entirely true. Some of the show’s best, sweetest moments have come in the apartment that various combinations of the characters have shared over the years. There’s a domestic coziness to the show, and a level of comfort that the characters have with each other that has earned it a certain level of goodwill: How I Met Your Mother had banked a certain number of kindnesses between them, softening the innumerable blows they’ve dealt out to each other.
And How I Met Your Mother has always been grounded by the idea that the characters’ wild antics is leading somewhere. The relationship between Marshall and Lily, who became engaged early in the show’s run, and despite some diversions, eventually married and had a child, set the pace. Ted (Josh Radnor), nominally the main character, has always aspired to be married and have a family. And even Barney and Robin (Cobie Smulders), the swaggering singletons of the bunch, have eventually settled down with each other. The bar on How I Met Your Mother is a place where the characters hung out as a group of friends, where they went on dates, and even, in flash-forwards, where they retire as married couples who need a break from adulthood, rather than primarily a pick-up scene.
Mixology lacks such emotional or conceptual ballast. By design, it’s about encounters between strangers in a bar, and “all the stupid, embarrassing, ridiculous things we do to find love,” or more precisely, someone to smash, as the show’s parlance has it.
Its characters all feel like the cartoons in the stories that Barney tells, without any awareness that Barney, for all of his racist taxonomies of New York City women, his rotating beds that he uses to get rid of one-night-stands quickly, and his contempt for people who don’t meet his high standards, can be generous and considerate to the people he loves. Bruce (Andrew Santino), who increasingly appeared in my notes as “Evil Ginger” makes declarations like “Girls have changed, man. They will sleep with anything. I get laid all the time and I am disgusting, head to toe,” and informs his friend Tom (Blake Lee) that “Girls who wear flats are never trying to get laid. I’ve told you guys this a thousand times. The higher the heels, the looser she feels.” His friend Cal (Craig Frank) has a view of masculinity that reads as straight out of a pick-up artist’s handbook, and includes maxims like “You rape and your pillage and you take what’s yours. Obviously, don’t rape her.” Tom’s treated like an idiot and a patsy for having been devoted to his fiancee, who recently broke up with him. The woman Cal and Bruce encourage Tom to approach, Maya (Ginger Gonzaga), is the daughter of a stereotypical Latino auto mechanic who tells one of her coworkers that she’s looking for a man she can’t push around: “If I talked like that to Don Draper, he would smack me in the mouth. That is a real men.” The closest thing we get to sweet is the moment when a character whose startup has just failed and who has vomited into his date’s handbag spots another woman outside and is charmed by her stutter.
If my version of the bar scene didn’t amount to cocktails on date night, Mixology would have me running for a nunnery with a vigorous alcohol rehabilitation program. But the nastiness of the show seems like a clear descendant of How I Met Your Mother. The characters on Mixology are like those boys Barney encountered on his last night as a bachelor, in awe of a bro-y idea of a “legen-wait for it-DARY” evening without actually having assessed whether the vision of fun they’re being so aggressively sold is actually something they enjoy. Maybe Mixology will develop room for the kind of domesticity and kindness that it mocked so thoroughly in its opening episode, but for now, there’s something exhaustingly immature about its contempt for married life. For all the How I Met Your Mother characters hijinks and silliness, their serious relationships and interests in their jobs seemed grounded in the idea that it’s good to be an adult, rather than an attempt to push adulthood back by yet another decade. And Mixology‘s approach to friendship, in which people badger and insult each other without any sense that their teasing is based in actual concern or respect, feels like its creators, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore of Hangover franchise fame, tuned in to How I Met Your Mother late in the show’s run and decided that its frathouse cruelty was an adequate substitute for closeness.
I write all of this with some sense of sorrow. How I Met Your Mother has many flaws, including casual racism, an overreliance on crazy chicks as plot devices, and the need to paint Robin and Lily as Cool Girls who drink hard, smoke cigars, and hit strip clubs with the boys to justify some of the male characters’ behavior. But when he’s been well-written, Josh Radnor’s performance as Ted, who longs for marriage and a family, has been a refreshing antidote to a scoresheet vision of male success in dating. Lily’s struggles with her identity and her career within her marriage have often been sensitive and well-balanced. And I keep coming back to How I Met Your Mother, even when I take a season or a block of episodes off, because the characters do have the chemistry of friends of long standing. It’s genuinely unfortunate that the elements of the show that seem most influential as How I Met Your Mother winds to a close are some of its worst ones: meanness, scoring chicks as proof of masculinity, chicks with toughness as their only personality traits. As a variation of its predecessor, Mixology is just sour, hold the whisky.