Why How I Met Your Mother will be missed

Feature Mark Harrison
7 Apr 2014 - 07:00

Now that it's left our screens, Mark details what How I Met Your Mother did right...

This article contains major spoilers for How I Met Your Mother, especially the finale - if you're watching at E4 pace, you'll probably want to come back later in the year.

Last year, we made the case for CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother's geek credentials, and came to the conclusion that while the leads are all cool, good-looking people in that sitcom way, they also have geeky interests in common as they grow into their thirties together.

For people who don't watch the series, or have maybe seen an episode or a clip while channel-hopping past E4, this show is essentially Friends warmed up. Whenever you hear that comparison, it never seems to come across in a flattering way, but that's reductive to both Friends, (which is, at worst, an effective ten-season comedy machine) and to How I Met Your Mother.

The title, and the loose conceit at the centre, refers to the story that Ted Mosby is telling his two teenage children in the year 2030 about his social life and dating history in New York City between 2005 and 2013. If that enigma code about the mother's identity, and the circumstances of her meeting Ted, were all that sustained the show for nine years, it would have been very thinly spread indeed.

Instead, HIMYM often plays like an American version of Coupling, the Steven Moffat-penned BBC sitcom, which explored the politics of relationships and frequently used high concept storytelling and unreliable narration to bring the laughs. There actually was a US remake of Coupling, written by Moffat, which never got past the pilot stage, but Bays and Thomas have been more fluent in translating the appeal of that format for an American audience.

Over a longer run, they also developed more running gags throughout the series than its British forebear ever had. The slap bet, Robin Sparkles, Barney's playbook, doppelgangers and Lily's inability to keep a secret all became story arcs as much as recurring jokes. And all of these together form only one aspect of the unique language and intertextuality that Bays and Thomas constructed.

Its mix between single-camera and multi-camera sitcom formats, seamlessly using both extensive location shooting and scenes shot in front of a live audience, makes it look like it's part of a bigger world than most laugh-tracked sitcoms. The first major reason (everybody salute and shout “Major Reason!”) we'll miss the show is that it never settled into a rut.

CBS is the network that airs the series in the States, and its sitcom output has been the butt of some jokes by trendier comedians and tweeting viewers over the years. People expect Two And A Half Men and 2 Broke Girls from CBS, but HIMYM managed to be consistently more thoughtful than most shows of its ilk. A big part of that is in how it balances optimism and cynicism.

Since it aired, people have been criticising the finale of the series, for the revelation that the titular mother is dead by the time Ted is telling the story, and his ex-girlfriend and one-time love-of-his-life Robin Scherbatsky probably features in his story so much because he's considering asking her out again now that he's a widower.

But as mentioned, the series was always more than its title. The two-part finale had some problems - it was a bit of a slap in the face to spend forty-five minutes on some enormous developments when the whole final season had gone to staggering lengths to document one wedding weekend. In the first ten minutes of the finale, the just-married couple, Robin and Barney, have gotten divorced.

Plus, the abbreviated window of time in which all of the plot revelations transpired meant that we had less time with Cristin Milioti's Tracy, who was a universally loved series regular in the final season, and turned out to be a very satisfactory answer to that “who's going to be the mother?” rigmarole that some fans clung onto for almost a decade.

She was showcased earlier in the run, in the 200th episode, How Your Mother Met Me, which adopted the format of revisiting situations from a different perspective that works so well within earlier episodes, and applies it on an epic scale, neatly elaborating on Tracy's life over the last nine years.

This episode set about contextualising her history with what we've seen, in such grand fashion that it's occasionally reminiscent of the ending of Back To The Future Part II, in which Marty McFly has to move through events without being seen by his past self. She has a bunch of near-misses with her future husband and his friends, while filling in the sometimes-funny, sometimes-tragic blanks in her story, and it's plainly one of the best ever episodes of the series, if not the best.

And why's that? Undoubtedly, it's because Cristin Milioti is perfectly cast. It's long been established that the mother shares many of Ted's dorkier qualities, but she has the same optimistic outlook too, and as the show's first new regular in nine years, she was universally well received. At least part of the backlash to the finale has to be down to the relatively short time we spend with her.

But after the initial knee-jerk disappointment (of which I was also personally guilty), that feeling of being cheated resonates with the viewer because it resonates with the characters. We feel like we didn't get to spend enough time with her because Ted feels like he didn't get to spend enough time with her.

Ted's entire story, and the entire series is revealed to be about near-misses with the woman of his dreams, happening simultaneously alongside his romantic misadventures and general emotional immaturity. He might have met Tracy years earlier if things had gone differently, but he didn't. And the ability with which the writers can deliver emotional gut-punches like this one, without slipping into “very special episode” territory, is the second major reason (salutes) why we'll miss this series.

The show can only sustain the more emotional stuff because the characters are so well rounded. Barney Stinson's player politics and sociopathic attitudes towards women were unironically lionised by bro viewers in much the same way as screen “heroes” such as Tony Montana, Tyler Durden and Jordan Belfort, but they've been laying the groundwork to distance him from his own toxic exterior for a long time.

It's not as simple as “but he's a nice guy beneath it all”. Back in season one, we were told that a sensitive young Barney became his monstrous self after a suit-wearing womaniser stole his childhood sweetheart away from him, and he resolved to man-up in much the same way as he had.

In the final season, this is revealed (or retconned) to be an Edmond Dantes-level revenge plot against said womaniser, who is now his boss. A few weeks after getting married to Robin, he goes to the authorities and gives them information, gleaned from years of providing legal exculpation for his boss' illegal activities. His bro incarnation is basically the Count of Monte Cristo, (perhaps with one less letter than “Count”) and his outlook is all that a sensitive young man's idea of a womanising cad would be.

He's damaged enough by the whole process that he lapses back into that whenever he's going through an emotional rough patch, and the series makes no excuses for his behaviour- he finally resembles something like an emotionally mature male when he becomes a father in the finale, in a scene that Neil Patrick Harris knocks out of the park, despite being very reminiscent of a scene from the very end of Coupling.

The same follows for the other characters. Ted is more complex than he appears, and Josh Radnor's central performance is highly underrated. Jason Segel's Marshall and Alyson Hannigan's Lily have basically left a gulf in the representation of relationships on telly - they have a rapport that's sometimes mistaken for an absence of conflict, but the development of their relationship has always been both interesting and adorable.

I could probably write a whole other article about Robin Scherbatsky. The series is bookended by looking out of her window at Ted holding a blue French horn, but just by comparing the character when that first happens to how much we know about her when we see her last, she's the most developed character in the whole series.

Although she starts as a beauty for Ted to project his relationship fantasies onto, Cobie Smulders adapted and refined every facet of Robin's personality as she moved forward - the tomboy childhood in an arcane, mystical version of Canada, the brief and hilarious spell as a teenage pop star, the fear of having kids, and the discovery that she actually couldn't have them if she wanted to. You've seen Smulders' comic timing and aptitude for pathos develop right there on screen, to where she became the MVP of the whole show, and I'm dying to see what she does next.

The cast and the characters would be the third and fourth major reasons (salutes) that the show will be missed. But it's unfair to the show, (and especially unfair to Radnor) that there's a buzz of “everyone in the show is too good for it, except for the main guy” about certain discussions of the show, when the material had to be there for the cast to run with it in the first place.

It doesn't matter if he's almost considered a national treasure now - if you had cast Neil Patrick Harris in, say, the role that Ashton Kutcher got after Charlie Sheen left Two And A Half Men, you wouldn't get nearly as interesting a character as Barney. Just as Chevy Chase was the star name that got some people curious about Community back when it started, the much-loved cast is only part of the attraction with this show.

The final season is probably the weakest, between the staggered wedding weekend structure, the reliance on slightly more obvious gags and callbacks, and controversy about a Shaw Brothers homage that came off a little more 'extremely racist' than intended.

But even in that regard, there have still been more cracking moments and character beats than many shows manage in their whole run, most hilariously with the inclusion of William Zabka (best known for playing antagonist Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid) as a semi-regular character who has spent the best part of the last three decades being booed by strangers, and his mum.

On top of that, the previous eight seasons are peppered with classic moments of comedy and pathos that may actually look better on repeat viewings, now that the poignant conceit of Ted's pre-Tracy life has been realised. When he goes back to Robin's old apartment with that blue horn in the year 2030, it doesn't feel like a trite happy ending.

While it might have had more impact if we hadn't seen so many near-misses between them over the years, and if we hadn't spent a whole season marrying her to Barney, it still feels like the two of them have earned their togetherness. Hell, Bays and Thomas filmed the scenes where Ted's kids told him that he wanted to date Robin again all the way back in the first season, so it kind of had to be earned when they had those scenes in the can for nine years.

We've got this far without even mentioning slap bets, the cockamouse, Patrice, the musical numbers or 500 Miles, because the traditional sitcom conceits are what unfolded alongside the major thread of taking the perpetually optimistic and romantic Ted's naivete away from him, without leaving him so cynical that he can't eventually find love.

This allowed the show keep the jokes coming while exploring a whole central conceit over the course of nine years, and it's tough to think of another sitcom that's anything like it. Bays and Thomas are working on a spin-off with new characters, called How I Met Your Dad, but it remains to be seen if fans will take to that in the same way. But we should all miss Ted, Robin, Marshall, Lily, Barney and Tracy, whatever the general consensus. General Consensus! (salutes).

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