I’m someone who likes to go right to the good stuff, which is probably also why I love romance. It’s like the third ice-cream option (where the first is a cone, and the second is a packaging/waste disaster).
So when I start looking into what’s so great about How I Met Your Mother, I’m gonna go right to the one element that makes the show: Barney Stinson.
The first best thing about Barney is that he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris. I initially thought that Barney was on-the-surface acting that barely required acting chops, but then I went on a NPH bender, and when you see the charm that is NPH, you realise that Barney is a whole separate, wholly realised thing.
He’s enjoyable to watch because we can laugh at him – he gets himself into ridiculous, farcical situations, and tries to make the world see it his way. But when I was watching New Girl the other day, I realised that Schmidt is a similar character: a sleezy player with far too high an opinion of himself on the outside and riddled with insecurity on the inside. But all I feel for Schmidt is a kind of condescending pity. No matter how low Barney goes he somehow never reaches pathetic – and he always holds his own.
So this is where the layers start coming in. The more of the show I watched, the more my suspicion grew that Barney’s putting it all on. He’s attractive, successful, funny and makes bucket-loads of money. If he took himself seriously for a second he would have to live up to something. By sending himself up in the eyes of the world he stays out of reach of intimacy and commitment and expectation.
(I’m not just imagining it either, because we’ve now seen Barney deal with all that stuff. So, clever writing.)
You can see it when he says something outlandish and you realise he’s saying it to make his friends smile, or when you find out he’s been being obnoxious for a very good reason. Barney Stinson plays Barney Stinson most of the time. Which turns the few moments he’s not playing into gold-dust. (Which the writers squandered in season 5, but more on that later.)
This is the difference between Barney and Schmidt. Barney never, ever feels sorry for himself. He is one hundred percent invested in his delusions, or he’s a mastermind playing the people around him for everyone’s amusement, depending how you look at it.
If you look at some of the things Barney says and does, he should be extremely unlikable. So how have they made him the best character on the show?
Part of it is showing v telling. We see him being a superficial, obnoxious dick, and that’s the way everyone talks about him – but he is always there without question when the friends are gathering. So there’s this background context added to him: why are they friends with him? And what does it say about him that he always puts these people first who are so different to him and everything he claims he believes in?
That is great, subtle character work.
He is also a pure gung-ho attitude towards life. As he says to Ted, “Our forefathers died for the pursuit of happiness. Not the sit-around-and-wait of happiness.” He strikes out a lot, but he also has crazier adventures than anyone else. Who doesn’t want to be around that kind of person? He’s unpredictable, which means he’s exciting to watch.
Barney shuts his friends down about their desire to get married (but supports them in other ways – again, showing v telling), but sometimes his abrupt or even harsh way of dealing with them hits on a truth that the other characters can’t get at. He doesn’t let them wallow in self-pity or go over and over and over the same thoughts when a situation is impossible. When they’re off dreaming of the lives they want, Barney’s the one who gives them options in real life – and even though it looks “bad” on the outside, he’s actually saving their butts (I’m thinking specifically of when he gets Marshall a job at the big bad bank, but this happens a lot throughout the series).
There’s a moment in season three when all the underneath Barney stuff pays off. Robin has just slept with him, and Lilly is wheedling her for the details. Because…this is Barney. And she wants just a hint of what that’s really like. As ridiculous as he is on the surface, at that moment you realise that there is something truly desirable underneath.