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Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Retrospective on How I Met Your Mother

Binging on Friends and watching the series for the first time earlier this year whet my appetite for one of my all-time favorite sitcoms: How I Met Your Mother. After finishing Friends, I dove head first into HIMYM. Re-watching the first five seasons re-affirmed my love of the show and just how smart and funny it was, and dredging through seasons 6 and 7 (I just started 8 as of the writing of this post) made me realize how much Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the creators and showrunners of the show, ruined their own legacy. There is an obvious dichotomy of How I Met Your Mother, between its excellent first half and its subpar second half a la Full Metal Jacket. A lot of the problems of the show’s second half seemingly stemmed from the fact that Bays and Thomas took the title of their show way too seriously, and dragged out its lead character Ted Mosby’s (played by Josh Radnor) relationship and journey to meet the mother of his children far past its natural creative endpoint.

A common critique of the show as its latter seasons were airing was that Ted just needed to meet The Mother already and get it over with; have the show be a modern version of Friends with The Mother becoming the sixth member of the gang. However, time has given me some perspective, and I can understand why Bays and Thomas waited so long to introduce The Mother. Todd VanDerWerff wrote an excellent piece forGrantland after the series finale about how the show itself was all about failure and disappointment and the realities of living in your late 20’s in the mid-to-late 2000’s and transitioning into your 30’s. That was the whole point of the show from the getgo ever since we learned from the pilot that Robin was not The Mother. So how can the audience demand a happy ending where we meet The Mother already when the whole purpose of the show is where we never actually get what we want? It’s easy to say the show should end up like Friends because on the surface HIMYM looks like Friends, but the two shows are fundamentally contrasted from each other.

The episodes that best exemplify Friends is their alternative reality episodes in season 6 entitled “The One That Could Have Been (Parts I and II)”. The six friends envision what their life would have been like if one thing had worked out differently (Rachel married Barry, Ross never gets a divorce, Monica never loses weight, Chandler quits his job like he said he would in Season 1, Joey never gets fired from Days of Our Lives, and Phoebe never turns down a job being a business executive). It’s a great episode because in the end, nothing changes from the gang’s current reality. Rachael and Ross inevitably still split from their significant others for the same reason as they initially did, Chandler and Monica still end up together, Phoebe still becomes a guitar playing hippie, and Joey still ends up being successful on his soap opera (An example with the current reality had to catch up with the fictional one). While bad things still ended up happening to the characters on Friends (job loss, break up), the characters always end up back in the happy place they should be. That was part of the escapist appeal of Friends.

Contrast those episodes to the season 7 episode of How I Met Your Mother entitled “Trilogy Time”. In the episode, Ted and Marshall vow to watch the original Star Wars trilogy every three years. The episode starts off with Ted and Marshall in their college dorm room imaging how great their lives will be three years from then when they next watch the trilogy. The episode cuts between how great these characters imagine their life being in future with how crappy and disappointed they are that they are not close to reaching those goals in the present. Every time these characters (Barney eventually joins in watching The Trilogy) begin to watch the Star Wars trilogy, they hope for a better future while realizing their previous hopes had been dashed. How I Met Your Mother was a show about losing, yet still having hope. And it was able to mine for comedy gold in this area for a really long time.

That is why it’s really not that easy to say that Ted should have met The Mother a lot earlier in the series. If Ted had met The Mother and eventually had her become one of the members of the gang, that would mean that Ted had gotten his ultimate happy ending. All he’s ever wanted was to find The One, and finding her would go against the fundamental principal of the show. And therein lies the conundrum with the show itself. How do you successfully create a show about unhappy endings where all the fans want is the exact opposite?

Bays and Thomas ending up sticking with their original conceit. While they did introduce Cristin Milioti as The Mother before the series finale (in fact they did so in the penultimate season finale), they most certainly took their time getting there. They ended up sticking with the unhappy ending angle, and in their defense, it was their show to do how they pleased and they told us right out of the gate what kind of show it would be. Yet it is hard to overlook the subpar quality the show gave us without The Mother (and even with her as well).

I think anything related to Ted’s relationship sans The Mother in the show’s later years certainly helped contribute to just how so-so the show was; however, it certainly was not HIMYM’s only issue. Its main issue was that it decided to get too cute with future teases. How I Met Your Mother was a show that loved to play with time and space and unreliable narrators, and it used them to great success throughout its first four or five seasons. It’s what gave us one of the greatest comedy pilots of all time with the fake out that Robin was not The Mother. Messing with time and space along with Ted being an unreliable narrator gave us great episodes like “Three Days of Snow” (the episode where Marshall gets a marching band to meet Lily at the airport), “The Pineapple Incident” (the episode where Ted gets black out drunk and hooks up with Danica McKellar and not Robin), and “Ted Mosby, Architect” (the episode where Robin and Lily think Ted is cheating on Robin one night when it’s actually Barney using Ted’s name as an alias). However, in the later seasons, that same formula ending up being a huge crutch and sometimes downright infuriating. Season 7’s “The Burning Beekeeper” has an interesting structure where Marshall and Lily host a dinner party and each act takes place in a different room in the house as we pull on the thread to see why the party unravels. However, ultimately, the episode doesn’t work because it’s not funny and the structure is too cute for its own good. Then we have Season 7’s “Symphony of Illumination” where Robin recounts to her future kids how she met their father, only to find out by the episode’s end that the kids are a figment of Robin’s imagination and that Robin can never have children. It’s a maddeningly infuriating reveal that not only undercut this huge emotional moment (heartbreaking emotional moments were something the show actually did well in its latter run), but was the personification of everything wrong with the show’s second half.

Additionally, the show loved to tease the future with funny events. Sometimes the writers knew what they wanted to do with the events, sometimes they didn’t. In the beginning, that sort of thing worked. Reveals like the goat in the apartment on one of Ted’s birthdays were cute and enjoyable. Then later we got to teases like Ted showing up at MacLaren’s in a green dress for no reason with a payoff that never felt like it was worth it.

Ultimately, the show’s downfall was its success. Like Lost, it became so popular that the network had no choice but to keep it on the air. That in turn forced the show’s writers to prolong the inevitable and create material outside of the natural storytelling process. We wanted to meet The Mother just because the show had gone on for so long that we felt that’s where the story dictated it go. We were never invested in any of Ted’s major relationships after Stella (Sarah Chalke) like Zooey (Jennifer Morrison), Robin for a second time, and Victoria (Ashley Williams) for that second go-around, because we knew they weren’t The Mother. There was no reason Future Ted would be telling his kids these stories since they were all dead ends. That is why I think the show could have introduced The Mother at the beginning of Season 6, and figured out ways to make that relationship as rocky as possible- or at least have that unhappy ending quality to it. I even believe that The Mother’s young and untimely death would have worked out better had she and Milioti been on the show since Season 6. It was frustrating to have HIMYM wait so long to have Ted and The Mother meet, only to kill her off a few episodes later. However, if the show used Seasons 6 through 9 to properly introduce Ted and The Mother, and then properly let The Mother’s death breathe and have Ted eventually end up with Robin would have felt more in line with what Bays and Thomas wanted to do while also giving the audience emotional satisfaction.

Or maybe there was nothing Bays and Thomas could have done to make How I Met Your Mother have latter seasons come even close to its former ones. Maybe the contradiction of an unhappy ending is just too incongruous with 9 seasons. The show could have stopped teasing us with future events that ultimately had unsatisfying payoffs and could have given us a show where The Mother was just another character on the show, but then that would lose the essence of what How I Met Your Mother actually was. On the other hand, maybe the show needed to lose its essence to gain a successful second wind. Writing comedies are hard, and the vast majority of them have a shelf life. Even great comedies like 30 Rock, The Office, and Seinfeld sputtered towards the end. It’s rare that you can have a sitcom like Friends that lasts for 10 seasons and have all of them be (relatively) good. Then again, it’s a lot easier to write a blue skies, traditional sitcom like Friends



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