“A Love Story in Reverse.” For those who haven’t followed How I Met Your Mother religiously since the first season, this was the show’s original tagline. It was an ingenious idea; what person hasn’t wondered, “How did my parents meet and what did they used to be like?” It was such a simple idea, but it launched what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest sitcoms of my generation.
The show’s premise is pretty simple: an older, married Ted Mosby in the year 2030—voiced inexplicably by Bob Saget, prompting us all to wonder why Younger Ted, played by Josh Radnor, gradually morphs into Danny Tanner during middle age—tells his teenage daughter and son the story of how he met their mother “in excruciating detail.” However, he can’t just explain to them a simple boy-meets-girl story. He wants to tell them everything (which we find out in a later season is because his communication with his divorced parents is collectively abysmal). So, they need to know who he was before their mother came along.
Bingo. The show had such an effortless foundation, despite the narrative style being something that hadn’t really been managed effectively as a sitcom before. When Friends went off the air in 2004, network television became a rat race to see who would put out “the next Friends.” With HIMYM revolving around Ted and his eccentric group of close friends, it effectively became the answer to that question, going on-air only a year after Friends departed. Though they aren’t mirror images, the two shows are eerily similar next to each other. Both shows feature: a sardonic, intelligent, white-collar-professional-cum-professor straight man at its center (Ted/Ross); a will-they-or-won’t-they love interest (Ted & Robin/Ross & Rachel); a character with a mysterious and often picked on past (Robin’s Canadian-ness and teen pop star status/Monica’s obesity); a free-spirited artist (Lily/Phoebe); a Mother Hen whose work high jinks provide constant laughs (Lily as a kindergarten teacher/Monica as a chef); a narcissistic, wild card lothario capable of anything (Barney/Joey); and a romantic, funny sidekick with a soul-sucking career path (Marshall as a lawyer/Chandler as a statistical analyst).
The story that Older Ted tells begins with his younger self at the center of the plot as a late-twenties, Ohio-born-and-bred, single architect living in New York City. In the pilot, his best friend and roommate, Marshall (Jason Segel), proposes to his long-time girlfriend Lily (Alyson Hannigan), which causes Ted to realize how far he is from finding “The One.” Ted is a hopeless romantic, and his best friend getting engaged throws him into a quarter-life crisis, prompting him to search for his future wife. In response, Ted goes out to drink with egomaniac philanderer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris, in the role of a lifetime) who is constantly “teaching him how to live.” Ted sees a beautiful girl across the bar and falls in love, and inner monologue-Older Ted (i.e. what makes HIMYM so intriguing) thinks of telling Barney that he will marry her one day. Barney says of the girl, “Oh yeah, you just know she likes it dirty.” Ted neurotically tries to plan a way to casually strike up a conversation with her, before Barney taps her on the shoulder and—in the offhand fashion that eventually becomes a mainstay bar game of the show—asks her, “Have you met Ted?” The woman, a TV news reporter named Robin (Cobie Smulders), and Ted go on a date the following night, which abruptly ends when a breaking news story arises. Ted misses “the signal,” Robin giving him the okay for a goodnight kiss, but upon returning home still declares her “The Future Mrs. Ted Mosby” to Lily and Marshall. He returns to her apartment in the small hours of the morning, with Lily, Marshall, and Barney in tow, to give her a blue French horn that had been the running inside joke during their date. As Robin and Ted slow dance, Ted blurts out that he thinks he’s in love with her, a little more than a day after meeting her. Somehow, Ted bounces back (with the odd-blend of bleeding-heart romanticism and everyman self-deprecation of Radnor’s acting), and the chemistry between him and Robin is palpable; however, come the end of the episode, Older Ted admits to his children that what they just heard was the true story of how he met their Aunt Robin.
HIMYM is a show that I watch in sickness and in health, in happiness and sadness, a show that has gotten me through break-ups and even death. However, putting my love for the show aside and judging it as an impartial writer, I still believe that the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother is one of the best sitcom pilots of the 21st century. The role-reversal of Robin and Ted’s relationship is unparalleled for a sitcom: a late-twenties man, in the search of “The One,” blurts out on a first date that he’s in love with a woman, who ironically has no interest in dating but is as strikingly gorgeous as she is a bad-ass name-taker. Ted, though he feels awkward around Robin, still maintains for the rest of the series that he loves her, and his first date blunder wasn’t a mistake. In terms of the man being the one wearing his heart on his sleeve, of risking everything for love while the female love interest is career-driven and has no interest in settling down, this was a big deal for 2005—a departure from the accepted conventions of a sitcom (to put this in perspective, Grey’s Anatomy debuted less than four months before HIMYM). Robin was a real, layered character in a way that women in sitcoms weren’t at that time, and Ted was the sensitive, empathetic man that viewers both loved and identified with.
To describe what occurs over the rest of the series would take ages, but the show’s pacing up until Season 8 was spot-on and brilliant. Enough is revealed about The Mother throughout the years to not only satisfy viewers, but keep us intrigued. We see that Younger Ted is so close, so many times, to meeting her, but it seems fate keeps him from doing so: there’s her yellow umbrella Ted finds, a girl named Cindy that Ted dates who we learn is the roommate of the mother (though all we witness early on is her calf), the hint that when Ted starts to teach his first college class in the wrong classroom that his kids’ mother was in that mistaken class. The creators of HIMYM, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, have shown brilliant self-awareness of the show throughout the years, always tugging the viewer along but never so strenuous that we feel the pull. That is at least, as I mentioned, up until Season 8.
The tone of the show’s eighth season was all wrong. The allure of HIMYM all along was the idea that the viewer is a wallflower—we are present for everything, but never addressed. We are simply innocent bystanders, enjoying the world of the show as if floating above it. So in Season 8, when characters turned to the camera mid-show and addressed the audience, it was as if the invisible veil that separated us from the characters was not only acknowledged, but thrown off with a laugh. In conventional television comedy (with the exception of my other favorite show, the American The Office), the acknowledgment of the camera ruins the illusion. Though I don’t find that Season 8 was a catastrophe, it was certainly an indication of what was to come. The one saving grace was that we finally saw The Mother (Cristin Milioti).
That being said…I have a bone to pick. Season 9 has, so far, been downright unenjoyable. At one point, I found myself saying, “I honestly don’t care what happens this week.” It felt like I had slapped God. I have lived and breathed for Monday nights from the time I was fifteen. When CBS announced a month ago that they will produce a spin-off, called How I Met Your Dad with all new characters, I reached my breaking point. To quote Peter Finch in Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
So far, we are thirteen episodes into the final season, and every week has felt forced. HIMYM has spent precious time wrapping up storylines of characters that we don’t care about (though January 2014’s first episode, “Slapsgiving 3: Slappapointment in Slapmarra” is interesting). Do viewers really care about what happens to Barney’s father (John Lithgow)? Does it give us closure knowing that Barney and James’ (Wayne Brady) mother Loretta (Frances Conroy) gets back together with James’ father Sam (Ben Vereen)? Why spend so much time focusing on the unfunny shenanigans that occur when Marshall drives from Minnesota with Daphne (Sherri Shepherd)? Do we care at all about Ted’s father-in-law Clint (Harry Groener)? Though Billy Zapka playing a maligned version of himself is a humorous bit, is it imperative to dedicate an entire episode in the final season of one of the most beloved sitcoms of the present day to that character? The list goes on.
Time is precious, and How I Met Your Mother is wasting it. Worst of all, the scenes with Ted and The Mother have barely been intriguing. This is The Mother. This is it. We’ve dedicated nine years now to Ted’s story, to Ted’s pursuit of love, and now that it’s finally arrived, why does the pulse of the show seem to be flatlining?
Viewers appear to be agreeing with this assertion. Though it’s not a perfect representation of a show’s popularity, I decided to take a look at the HIMYM viewing audience for every season’s midseason break episode (with the exception of Season 3, which had no midseason break due to the writer’s strike of 2007-2008). It goes as follows:
Season 1: 10.36 million viewers
Season 2: 8.81 million viewers
Season 4: 11.4 million viewers
Season 5: 9.65 million viewers
Season 6: 9.7 million viewers
Season 7: 11.51 million viewers
Season 8: 8.7 million viewers
Season 9: 7.71 million viewers
It is interesting that three of the last six episodes of Season 8 had viewing audiences in the six millions. Up until Season 5, HIMYM had never had an episode with a viewing audience of less than seven million, and routinely pulled in audiences of 10 to 12 million viewers per episode. This season, How I Met Your Mother is projected to have its lowest viewing audience average yet. As exhibited in the numbers above, the midseason episode pulled in a full million viewers less than the subpar season before it. Compiling the numbers from Season 1 through Season 8 (again, obviously omitting Season 3), a How I Met Your Mother midseason break episode averaged 10.01 million viewers, meaning that this season’s episode fell a full 2.3 million viewers below that expectation.
Is it the fact that the mystery of the mother being resolved has taken away the intrigue of the show? Or is it the fact that the writers of the show seem to be stretching out the story arc with plotlines that are missing entirely?
Early on in the pilot, Ted’s son asks him, “Are we being punished for something?” when he realizes that he’s in for a long story. That question seems scarily ironic, taking into consideration the quality of this final season.
One thing is for sure: the How I Met Your Mother we have now isn’t the HIMYM of old. The tone of the show, even the delivery and quality of the one-liners, has changed, verging on unrecognizable in comparison with the early years. Speaking as not only a devout fan of the show, but of television comedy in general, I hope—whatever the issue may be—that they sort it out before we have to say goodbye to these beloved characters for good.
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