COLUMN: The ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Dilemma
Published: Monday, December 9, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 09:12
I met How I Met Your Mother on lazy afternoons from 4 to 5 p.m. on FX. Later, I moved operations to Netflix and watched it whenever I pleased, which happened to be every waking moment. But in its final season, all I can say is that I miss my friends—my fictional friends who just happen inside a television show.
If television can teach you anything, it’s that the good times always end, and that the end is rarely as good as its beginning.
Too often, I see a show burst through the gate of mediocrity only to lumber its way to a dull conclusion, Dexter being only the latest offender in the longstanding tradition. The reasons that a show might lose momentum and falter are easy enough to grasp—it’s tough to maintain any sort of consistency with an ever-changing staff of writers. One can imagine that after five or so years of working on a particular project, show runners and producers discover that their creative juices just don’t flow like they used to.
So the slow, painful death of How I Met Your Mother shouldn’t be that surprising—that’s what happens to shows after they run for nine years. Ted Mosby can only date so many bimbos before the audience can’t help but wonder, “Where is the freaking mother?”
But watching CBS reanimate this corpse every Monday night has proven exceptionally painful. Why is that? It’s not that How I Met Your Mother was such a great show that an eventual letdown seemed impossible. Maybe watching the show on Netflix, as many of us have, gave the show’s narrative a much quicker pace than it originally had in the traditional format—that’s part of the answer. But what first made How I Met Your Mother such a good show was that its eventual ending was tied into the premise. Even now, I think: The ending has to be good, or else what was the point?
The audience already knows how this story will end—Ted meets the mother. And while the show was often hilarious because of its great characters, it was the show’s momentum toward the mother that gave the show its heart. Sure, Marshall (Jason Siegel) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) usually got the laughs, but it was those moments when everything seemed stacked against Ted, when Bob Saget (the voice of the older, narrating Ted) would tell us that despite it all everything will be all right, that made the show more than the average sitcom.
The average sitcom fires punchline after punch line, hoping it’s clever enough to hold your attention for a season or two. How I Met Your Mother has its punchlines—its jokes contingent on Marshall being goofy, Ted being girly, Robin being manly, Barney being delightfully evil, and even Lily as the manipulative hen of the group. Presumptively, How I Met Your Mother’s real punch line, however, has always been the eventual reveal of the mother. And it’s the anticipation (nearly a decade of anticipation) for this punch line that made the show mean more than the typical sitcom.
That’s why the past two seasons of How I Met Your Mother have left me wondering how things went so wrong. The anticipation wore off over the first six seasons. It’s great that Barney has become a functioning member of society these last few years, but this is done at the expense of the show’s overarching narrative: meeting the mother.
How I Met Your Mother could have ended like Breaking Bad, as the endings of these shows are seemingly implicit in the story. Walter White has advanced cancer. He is going to die, and he’s going to die soon. Breaking Bad could never run for nine seasons, because we’d never believe that Walter could linger on for nine seasons. Breaking Bad ended at just the right time. But due to corporate concerns, How I Met Your Mother’s charm has been dragging through the mud, with the rightful ending, seemingly lost.
What makes How I Met Your Mother’s final chapter so disappointing is that this particular end should have been as good—and maybe even better—than its beginning. The show should have ended three years ago, and while I’ve enjoyed the past three years with my fictional friends, I wanted that ending for them—and, well, us too.