(The beginning of this post features very minor and general spoilers from How I Met Your Mother, however, half way through I launch into total spoilers of the last season, and I recommend you don’t read it until you have seen the finale. The point at which I start this section is marked clearly.)
Kids, I want to tell you about why I fell in love with a show called How I Met Your Mother and how it ended up breaking my heart…
Relax. I’m not going to make you sit down for 9 years while I tell you a long drawn-out story with no satisfactory conclusion in the way that one of my favourite TV shows had a character do with his (fictional) kids. But I do want to talk about what made the show so great, why it was unappreciated and why it fell at the last hurdle.
First of all, a brief recap. How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM for short) was a sitcom launched into a post-Friends landscape. It featured 5 friends who regularly met in a bar, rather than a coffeeshop (Friends) or diner (Seinfeld). It was the story of their struggles with growing up from post-college through marriage and families and various career decision. In that sense it is completely unlike Friends… No, wait a moment…
Actually, Friends is probably the worst thing for HIMYM because while superficially they have the same DNA, they are thoroughly different shows in the ways the are written and contructed, but HIMYM was launched at a time when every network was scrabbling to find The Next Friends. It was also a time when mainstream (in the US, Network) TV was dying. It’s a death which is still going on, ever so slowly. In the decade since its launch TV services such as Netflix, Lovefilm, and Hulu have meant people don’t watch live, people downloading TV shows via Bit Torrent has eaten into revenues, and even at the base level, PVRs (like Sky+) mean that people skip adverts and ratings can’t be measured. Now no one can say what a hit show is. Something getting 5 million viewers on one channel is a disaster, while for another network 5 million is an unbelievable hit. Up is down. Dogs are living with cats.
So HIMYM could never become Friends. It could never conquer the globe in the same way. Equally, it was too smart to be Friends. And I’m not down on Friends, there were some seasons of that show that are among the funniest I have seen, but it was always playing to the widest audience possible. That’s not a criticism. Things can have a wide audience and also be good. See also Cheers, Seinfeld, Sherlock and many others.
But Friends was always a joke delivery device. It was an efficient machine. Sure, it delivered some dramatic moments, but it was never about the story, it was about the laughs. It was a sitcom, that was its raison d’être. From the very beginning HIMYM set out its stall differently. It would be funny, but the point was that the show was telling a story.
More specifically, its nominal lead character, Ted, 20 years in the future is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. We see his tales spring to life. This was a sitcom where jokes were not the most important thing. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. In fact, I would argue that it made HIMYM a funnier show. Friends needed to cut to the chase. At the very least every other line had to be a zinger of some kind. Cutting to the chase like that meant the creativity had to be a little lacking. HIMYM could take detours, it could be different, inventive, and sure, maybe you didn’t get as many one-liners in your half hour as you did in Friends, but you got a lot more jokes you couldn’t see coming.
Here is a choice – you can:
A) Give someone a 5 on the laugh scale right now
B) Meander at laugh level 1 or 2 for 20 seconds and then slap them with an unexpected 8 or a 9.
Friends always took route A (though some of those laughs inevitably climbed higher) while HIMYM would regularly go down route B and deliver a Slapsgiving to remember.
But it’s not just about being a story. The fact that the story is being told 20 years hence means that linearity goes out the window. Friends was always told in the now. There might have been the odd flashback, but each story, generally, had to after last week’s story and before next week’s story. HIMYM would regularly flash forward or backward in time, overlapping with incidents past or future, with promises that “I’ll get to the story of the goat”. And this is where the true genius in the story-telling lay.
It’s quite a regular occurrence for a TV show (in America) to get greenlit on the basis of a concept but for the writers to have no idea where it is heading. Lost is the prime example. Every week the writers were making up more questions with no idea what the ultimate answer was. But HIMYM always seemed to know. When they promised to get to a story, the got to it. Things that were small details in one episode became the focus of another. There were never any contradictions, everything added up. And in doing so it became something more than a story, it became human. It allowed the audience to truly become invested because we knew these characters and their worlds added up.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle the show had was turning Barney Stinson – the pick-up artist breakout character played by Neil Patrick Harris (and played brilliantly, I might add) – into a real boy. When the show started he was one-dimensional. He cared about suits, sleeping with women and the bro-code. But as his popularity grew he earned more screen time and needed depth, and the show found it for him.
Ted, our ‘hero’, had been searching for love since day one. While the show was ostensibly about his search for The One, it actually became his journey through a lot of potentials who could never be The One. Barney was never looking for The One. He was looking for a different one every night. But the journey the writing team took him on to fall in love was perhaps their greatest triumph. They slowly filled in the details as to why he was the way he was, why he treated women the way he did. The show indulged him at times, but mostly it condemned his ways.
As funny as his sleeping around and trickery was, it was also always frowned upon, but as the show coloured in his background, Barney started to feel and slowly grew his extra dimensions. This was a big risk for the show. Stinson was the marquee character and by adding the shading they risked taking away the alcohol from Fun Bobby. The remarkable thing is that they didn’t. Barney was always Barney, even as he became more human in front of our eyes. Of course, this wasn’t all down to the writers, Patrick Harris is brilliant in the role, but the skill it took to pull off this manoeuvre is not to be sniffed at.
And then we come to perhaps the longest joke in television history. In season 2, episode 9, Barney has a bet with Marshall and the winner will be able to slap the other 5 times, at times of his discretion. A ‘Slap Bet’, if you will. I won’t go into it too much, but this was a joke which kept paying off right until the final episode of the show, and was regularly sitting as an idle threat in the background. It was a beautiful thing whenever the next slap was revealed, and the fact that one joke could run so perfectly for seven and a half seasons is a real credit to the show.
So that is why I fell in love with How I Met Your Mother, and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. Now I shall move on to what happened at the end of the relationship.
This is where the real SPOILERS kick in. I will literally talk about the very end of the show. Seriously – don’t wanna know, stop reading.
So episode one starts with a classic bait and switch. Ted starts telling his kids the story of how he met their mother and proceeds to tell the story of how he went on a date with their “aunt Robin”. Robin becomes the newest member of the group and, over time dates Ted, then Barney, and come the final season, is preparing to walk down the aisle with Barney.
In fact, the final season of HIMYM is one of the most daring things to be put on in a mainstream, popular show, up there with Seinfeld’s season 4 arc where Jerry and George are trying to sell a pilot to NBC. It came about because the show was due to end after season 8 but the network wanted to get one more season out of the producers and cast. Patrick Harris was still hot, Jason Segel was starting to hit in Hollywood (having written and starred in the Muppets revival movie), and they had nothing coming through to take its place. So what was going to happen in the last 3 weeks of season 8 instead became the whole of season 9.
That right there is a recipe for disaster. Stretching a few episodes to fill a 24 episode arc. More than that, the whole season would take place over the course of just one weekend. The weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This is a show that plays with time all the time, so there were plenty of flashforwards and flashbacks, but generally, we were watching the weekend. And for the first 22 episodes they pulled it off. It wasn’t perfect – Marshall (Segel) couldn’t join the cast for the first half of the season so was stuck in his own story line – but they did callbacks to so many great moments, they played with the emotions of all the characters, they resolved issues, and they got past the problems. Throughout we have the spectre of a love-lorn Ted still filled with feelings for Robin, the woman he met in episode 1, that he fell for, hard, that he mourned. That he was still mourning. He struggled to let he go. But while all that was going on, the most important thing is that we got to meet the mother, Tracy.
That’s right, throughout the season we followed the mother’s course to meeting Ted. We saw her side of numerous near-misses that called back to episodes we’d seen years ago – the yellow umbrella, Ted’s mistaken lecture, a meeting with Barney in a convenience store. We got to find out what type of person would fall in love with the douche (but loveable) Ted, and we got to find her as adorable as Ted did. We got to fall in love with her too. And that is why the ending hurt.
You see, the ending wasn’t really about how Ted met the kids’ mother. After they meet we skim forward and the story takes a melancholy tone. Ted and Tracy have some wonderful years together and they have a family, but then we find out that Tracy has passed away and Ted is alone again.
At the same time we are learning about the lives of the other characters and, especially, about the marriage and divorce of Barney and Robin. This is followed up with the kids asking him if the whole story was an excuse for him to ask them if they’d be ok with him asking ‘Aunt’ Robin out on a date…
The problem with this isn’t so much the story as the execution and the confounding of expectations. Coming into the last episode we have one expectation – that Ted will meet the mother, nothing else. We have seen the two orbit each other all season. We’ve seen how close they came to meeting in years gone by. We’ve seen how they perfectly match each other. In fact, the writers have done such a good job that we now know that Tracy is a far better match than Robin ever was. We get to see the pair on their first date. We get to see them on honeymoon and anniversaries. Time plays inwards to the point at which they met so we’re seeing before and after until eventually they converge, two halves of the same whole.
It’s beautiful story-telling and by the end of it we’ve not just fallen in love with Tracy, we’ve fallen in love with Tracy and Ted.
And then it is ripped from us.
Without the burden of an extra 24 episodes, without the decision to have the audience meet Tracy before Ted does, without the chance to fall for her, maybe this blow isn’t so crushing and maybe they get away with it.
Maybe there could have been some more hints. I mean, in retrospect maybe we should have guessed. Ted has been telling this long story to his kids since 2004 and he has never been interrupted by his wife; there has never been a reference to her in the present tense. Looking back, perhaps there were a few “Your mother was…” comments in the voiceover, but even if there were it wasn’t enough. This is nine years of build-up to a supposed meet-cute and happily ever after and then we’re told that happily ever after ended a few years past. There is no happily ever after.
Perhaps if Robin and Barney hadn’t got together so convincingly, perhaps if we hadn’t been sold so totally on the idea of them as a couple, we could still have wanted Ted and Robin together. Was this supposed to be fan service? Did the fans long for Ted and Robin to end up together? I spent the whole of season 9 wishing Ted to move on from Robin, to drop those thoughts and prepare himself for the love of his life to arrive.
The ultimate resolution felt like a stab in the heart. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that the season was written to push all of our hopes and desires and expectations in one direction and it was pulled out from under us. That’s not a bad thing – if you’re making Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Mad Men – but this isn’t those shows. This is a 9-year long romantic comedy and there are certain expectations that are part and parcel of that commitment. I, the viewer, do solemnly swear to fall in love with these characters and to will them together and you, the writers, do solemnly swear to put ample obstacles in their path but ultimately let them live together forever and ever in our hearts and minds. Nowhere in your side of the contract does it say that you will kill her off and replace her with the biggest obstacle that we have spent the past 11.5 hours (23 episodes of a half hour show) getting over and past.
As I said, there are ways this could work, and that make a degree of sense – Ted and his children are mourning the passing of beloved wife and mother and so Ted tells the story of all that he loved about her and how they came to be – a way to ensure that his wife and his love can live on in eternity. But in this circumstance he’s too close to the tragedy for us a) to not know before we get there (a good thing in a story like this) or b) for him to be able to be contemplating dating Robin. So this approach would perhaps have changed the show beyond recognition, though it would have been able to confront mortality in a way that mainstream television is all too afraid to do. I doubt, however, that audiences would have watched for 9 years the moment they got an inkling that the mother was no longer with us.
If Tracy hadn’t been written so well as the yin to Ted’s yang, the slutty pumpkin to his hanging chad, then perhaps we could have been more accepting too, but then this would seem like bad writing. We might have been accepting of the Robin resolution but we never could have accepted Ted with someone who wasn’t the woman of his dreams. And beside’s how would that play to the kids? “Kids, I want to tell you the story of how I met the woman I mistakenly married when I should have been with your Aunt Robin all along” isn’t the best intro to a story.
Ultimately, the finale failed because HIMYM tried to have its cake and eat it. It wanted Ted to have the woman of his dreams and the woman he obsessed over for most of the previous 9 years, but failed to realise that to do so meant killing someone the audience had not only grown to love, but had fixated on, which isn’t bitter-sweet, it’s just bitter.
But does any of this matter? In the grand scheme of the universe, no, obviously. But neither should it in terms of television of the show. In a way, the finale reminds us that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. The destination is, for all of us, the ground, just as it was for Tracy.
What mattered for us wasn’t where we got to, it was the road we took to get there, and HIMYM gave us 8.95 seasons of brilliant television which managed to do things that no show has managed to do before and, it’s highly likely, no show will even attempt to do again. It gave us 5 great characters (of variable douchey-ness), it brought Neil Patrick Harris to the world’s collective consciousness (and if you’ve not seen any of his Tony or Emmy song-and-dance numbers you have been missing out), it gave us Robin Sparkles, it gave us Slap Bet, it gave us Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel’s love for the ages, and it gave us so many more wonderful memories that no matter where the story went in that final half hour, it went somewhere else for me.