Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story. It’s the story of how I got hooked on How I Met Your Mother, including the controversial finale episode.
You should know that this story contains some major spoilers (Major Spoilers!), but what do you care? I’m not letting you leave until you hear the whole story anyway, so get comfy and be sure to watch the embedded videos throughout — everything will make a lot more sense.
The year was 2008. I actually wasn’t familiar with the show at all until I happened to catch an episode from Season 4 called “Do I Know You?” I remember distinctly how I thought it had a whole different feel and rhythm to it than anything I had ever seen on television before. Before this guy Ted (Josh Radnor) could marry a woman named Stella (Sarah Chalke, whom I recognized from her days on Roseanne and Scrubs), he had to be sure that she liked Star Wars…because she said she had never seen it before, and it was his favorite movie. Meanwhile his buddy Marshall (Jason Segel) hid behind the couch trying to gauge her reactions to the movie to be certain if she would be an acceptable wife for him.
Here’s a sample:
It was a funny bit, no doubt. But that could have just as easily been from an episode of Friends…which was a funny show if not always imaginative. My mother, who had admittedly not seen much of the series, later told me that she thought How I Met Your Mother was a copycat of Friends…the group sitting around a booth at an establishment where beverages are served, young, single people trading partners, etc.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a moment a little later on in that episode that encapsulated what made the show so different. Stella tells Ted (dishonestly) that she loved the movie.
Even without one of the show’s signature flashbacks from Old Ted (the voice of Bob Saget), present-day Ted had a flashback to his youth.
It was a long time before I saw another episode of How I Met Your Mother. Considering the first one I saw was from Season 4, I was already behind. Fortunately, thanks to DVDs and, later, Netflix streaming, I was able to catch up and watch the series in order.
After I saw the pilot episode, I began to understand what made How I Met Your Mother so different from Friends and all the other sitcoms out there. If I were Marshall, I’d have a few charts to illustrate, but I’ll settle for a few paragraphs.
Flashbacks (and flash forwards) as a central plot device. Of course, a lot of shows had used flashbacks in the past. This wasn’t a new idea. What was new was that the entire show was a flashback: It was after all, a father telling his kids about things that happened decades earlier. He even forgot some details (like Blah Blah’s name) and sanitized others (sandwiches as a euphemism for marijuana) like a real father would when telling stories to his kids. it felt like traveling in a time machine operated by someone with ADHD. Although you hear laughter on the show from an audience, there were very few scenes actually shot in front of an audience because the producers knew that it would be impossible for them to keep up or get most of the jokes due to all the jumping around. As any fan of Arrested Development can attest, having a narrator makes all of this a lot easier.
Not that all of the format-bending fun involved the narrator…
Storytelling and themed episodes. One of the advantages of using so many flashbacks and a narrator was how it facilitated the show’s unique sense of storytelling. Whether it was Old Ted telling his kids the story of getting beaten up by a girl who knew Krav Maga, Barney illustrating why he shouldn’t date his doctor Stella based on “The Platinum Rule,” or Marshall spending an entire episode telling stories in rhyme in order to keep his baby son asleep, the characters on How I Met Your Mother knew how to spin a good yarn.
Of course, there are other funny ways for sitcom characters to tell stories — sometimes it’s funniest when they just tell them.
The show’s refusal to be constrained by any format — including its own — also led to “How Your Mother Met Me,” a truly inspired and touching idea that added another perspective to all of Ted’s near misses in meeting the mother. Through Season 9, Tracy McConnell’s (Cristin Milioti) own story was revealed. She became a realistic, flawed character instead of an abstract ideal of “the perfect woman.” She even met all of the other main characters before she met Ted. We actually got to know the mother, which was not what I had expected during earlier seasons.
Absurdist bits with pop culture homages. I’m a big fan of absurdist humor…things that could never, ever really happen. The fact that writers come up with these impossible scenarios is a testament to their broad imaginations. The later episodes of Seinfeld had a definite absurdist tone to them that was not present in the earlier episodes of the series. And much like Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), How I Met Your Mother had Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) to do a lot of inspired physical comedy and sell patently silly lines with great conviction. The combination of absurdism and storytelling/flashbacks enabled the show to create a sort of sketch comedy within its broader narrative. That ’70s Show was also famous for this.
Absurdism, like whisky for Barney and Marshall, turns subtext into text. In a strange way, this sort of comedy allows the characters to be more honest and reveal deeper truths about the real world.
Old Ted’s narration as well as Barney’s intricate rules were really just a variation of Woody Allen breaking the fourth wall.
But it’s not like the show’s writers tried to hide their influences.
Extremely elaborate, recurring jokes. One of the more transformative moments for How I Met Your Mother came in Season 2 with an episode called “Slap Bet.” This episode was very important to the rest of the series because of two recurring jokes that were woven into future episodes and extended beyond the show and onto the Internet. In this episode, Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) tells the group (quite angrily), “I don’t go to malls!” But she refuses to explain why. Barney hypothesizes that the reason is somehow related to pornography, and Marshall thinks it’s because Robin got married in a mall during her younger days in Canada. They make a bet about who is right — more specifically, they make a slap bet. The winner of the bet gets to slap the loser. Marshall’s bride-to-be Lily (Alyson Hannigan) is named Slap Bet Commissioner and gets to referee the bet.
It turned out they were both wrong — the real reason Robin never goes to malls is that she used to be a teen pop star during her younger days in Canada under the stage name Robin Sparkles, and her big hit song was called “Let’s Go to the Mall.” The music video for the song was shot, naturally, in a mall.
Even though they were both wrong, Barney was more wrong for slapping Marshall without having been proven right (“premature slapulation”). So, as Slap Bet Commissioner, Lily ruled that Marshall could slap Barney five times at any point from that day forward, not necessarily all at once.
The show milked the slap bet and Robin’s Canadian pop star career for years to come. Viewers learned that Robin Sparkles had made two other music videos as well as an educational children’s show. Her life was clearly written as a parody of Tiffany’s and Alanis Morrissette’s.
Unlike How I Met Your Mother, Friends usually retained some semblance of believability, but its most inspired bit of comedy was Phoebe’s bizarre folk song “Smelly Cat” — which took on an absurdist life of its own throughout the series.
Sometimes How I Met Your Mother would extend the jokes onto the Internet or into DVD extras that never aired. Who thinks of making a music video of a song that was supposedly written by a fictional character…and then in a later season invites Boyz II Men to perform it? Who thinks of making a “Behind the Scenes” reel for a different music video that was fake to begin with? The writers of How I Met Your Mother, that’s who.
Real emotional depth and character development. Despite the similarities to those absurdist shows of the past, How I Met Your Mother was not afraid to make you pull out your box of facial tissues. (Kleenex® is a brand!)
In Season 6, Marshall’s father Marvin (Bill Fagerbakke from Coach) passed away unexpectedly, and Marshall was left to deal with the fact that, while his last words to everyone else in the family were expressions of love, the last call he got from his father was a pocket dial voice mail. Jason Segel’s gutwrenching delivery as a grieving son searching for answers from God blurred the line between comedy and drama. It also showed that the show wasn’t afraid to deal with death.
The characters also showed real growth throughout the series, especially Barney. His sociopathic behavior toward women with “daddy issues,” which was the comedic gift that just kept on giving, was later revealed to be a symptom of his own painful separation from his father (John Lithgow from 3rd Rock from the Sun). Neil Patrick Harris showed himself to be one of the most versatile actors on the planet just with his wide-ranging portrayal of this one complicated character.
Oh, and he’s one hell of a singer.
Beginning with the end in mind. One of the inherent challenges of writing a television series that is based on a father telling stories to his children is that the actors playing those children will grow up. This was not lost on the creators of the show (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas). Even though the show’s finale aired in 2014, the ending scenes involving the children Luke and Penny (David Henrie and Lyndsy Fonseca, who are not children anymore) were shot back in 2006. (Unlike the insincere Stella, Tracy sincerely liked Star Wars enough to let Ted name their children Luke and Leia.)
And yet, despite knowing that Tracy was going to pass away and Ted would end up running back to Robin just as he did in the pilot episode, the show’s creators did their damnedest to throw viewers off the scent. Consider just how far the show veered away from Ted and Robin getting together:
- In the pilot episode, Old Ted referred to Robin as “Aunt Robin” and kept on referring to her that way throughout the series.
- Ted proposed to two other women: Stella and Victoria (Ashley Williams)
- Robin discovered that she was infertile. She told her fiancee-for-a-moment Kevin (Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar fame) that not only could she not have biological children, she didn’t want to adopt either. Barring some medical breakthrough or a huge change of heart about adoption, this made it impossible for her to be the mother.
- Ted asked Robin if she loved him, and she said, “No.”
- Robin married Barney, with Ted going out of his way to make sure that she went through with it instead of running away from it with him.
- Ted met Tracy on the day of their wedding.
- Tracy was revealed at the end of Season 8 to be the mother. She proved herself to be an ideal match for Ted…from her tendency to tell long stories right down to the Gore-Lieberman shirt to go with his hanging chad Halloween costume. Ted and Tracy got married.
Still, no matter how tightly the door was closed, the show propped the door open for Ted and Robin just a little bit…especially with Marshall’s continued refusal to pay up on his long-term bet with Lily about them ending up together (or not).
The show also foreshadowed Tracy’s death on multiple occasions. We should have seen it coming.
Despite being a situation comedy, How I Met Your Mother broke a lot of sitcom conventions, and that’s what made it great. The show’s creators took a lot of creative risks — some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. Despite what many casual fans and even critics think, I believe the show’s biggest risk (the mother’s untimely death) was exactly the right creative choice and one that the show foreshadowed in earlier episodes. The long, sobering scene when Marshall mourned the death of his father and yelled at God should have prepared fans for the possibility that nothing was off-limits, not even death.
Dealing with death is a part of life, and doesn’t it make sense that a father telling his children such a long story like that (without the mother ever interrupting or correcting the facts) might be trying to help his children to connect with a woman they were not old enough to know well? Ted didn’t do such a great job at this — his daughter noticed that the mother was barely in the story and that he was obviously still hung up on Robin. But we do know that he loved Tracy, and I was pleased that we learned as much about her as we did in that final season. If you think about it, it’s the best explanation of all for a romantic comedy whose central character is a man, not a woman.
There were a few occasions when I wondered exactly where this show was going and if it had lost its way. There were some throwaway episodes here and there, but the finale was a giant payoff for the show’s more ‘invested’ fans who had watched Ted meander through this tale for nine years. It included a lot of running gags — the mother’s name (Ted once met a stripper who said her name was Tracy, and Old Ted sarcastically told the kids that she was the mother), the cockamouse, the perfect week/month, Ted’s hanging chad Halloween costume, and especially the blue French horn at the end.
Note: After the finale episode aired, Alyson Hannigan talked about some important scenes that were filmed but ultimately ended up on the cutting-room floor. One of those scenes involved Tracy’s funeral and Ted mourning her death. Another involved Lily paying Marshall for losing the long-term bet. I’m looking forward to seeing the deleted scenes when the final season of DVDs is released, and I hope that those scenes will make the ending a little less jarring without fundamentally changing it.