How I Met Your Mother and the failures of storytelling.

It’s been interesting to watch how, after a number of years having largely vanished from the radar, conversation about the long-running comedy HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER has picked up in recent weeks. This is, of course, entirely due to the fact that Hulu’s quasi-sequel, quasi-remake HOW I MET YOUR FATHER began airing, giving license to people who had wanted to talk about the original series but somehow hadn’t flet free to do so considering the absolute cratering the show’s concluding episodes had done to its reputation. And, in my way, I suppose I’m no different, as here I am pounding out a bunch of prose about this long-ago series. But like so many others, I found myself revisiting the earliest episodes of the show after consuming the first couple of episodes of FATHER, to see just how much my recollections held true and to start to figure out where, if anywhere, the new show was going wrong. I’ve got some important broad observations to make about the final season of MOTHER that I haven’t quite seen expressed anywhere else that I’ll get to as we go. (Also, for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with at least the basics of the series. So if you’re confused at all by what follows, hey, you’ve been warned.)

So, to start with, while FATHER isn’t a bad show per se, it really isn’t (at least yet) in the same league as MOTHER. And that really comes down to two big things: writing and the cast. The cast on FATHER is perfectly fine, a seasoned ensemble of performers. But it has to be said, the casting directors on MOTHER were incredibly good at their jobs. Pound for pound, the key five performers on MOTHER–Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan, Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris–are a murderer’s row when it comes to delivering on the promise of the series. It’s a killer ensemble. What’s also interesting is that series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had the kinks worked out of the show in jig time. it’s typical for any new series to take a few episodes to really find its voice and to steer into what makes it unique. MOTHER is there virtually from the first episode, which is a pretty remarkable achievement–and which makes what eventually happened here more of a mystery.

I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the manner in which MOTHER crashed and burned in its last season and especially its finale, destroying much of the good will it had built up over the preceding eight years and obliterating both the show’s reputation and its rewatchability. It’s taken almost a decade for the blowback from that finale to wear off to the point where people want to revisit the series. It’s an amazing wreck, especially given that the creators and the cast were so on track so early on. So what went wrong?

Well, the first thing that happened to foul things up was purely a practical consideration. The conceit of the series is that lead character Ted Mosby is relating the events of the series to his two teenaged children, telling them in excruciating detail the elaborate story of how he and their mother got together. In the earliest episodes, the kids are active participants in the tale, bantering back and forth with the off-screen voice of the late Bob Saget who was playing the older Ted. But as the series became successful and seemed as though it could wind up running for quite a few years, the producers realized that they had a fundamental problem that they needed to solve: the actors playing the kids were going to naturally age, and it wouldn’t be long before trying to pass them off as the same teenagers who started out listening to Ted’s long-winded story was going to be untenable. So, as the second season was wrapping up, Bays and Thomas hade a plan for their eventual finale, whenever it might happen, and they filmed it. Well, to be fair, they filmed portions of it–specifically, the footage of the two rapidly-aging kids.

Now, in my mind, having a plan and an endgame is typically a must. It’s astounding to me that works such as LOST or BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA or a thousand others could embark on a journey rife with mysterious clues and the promise of an ending that would bring all of the elements together, only to learn that the producers were making it all up on the fly as they went. That’s an affront to the audience as well, and when you fail to stick the landing, when you’ve built a bridge to nowhere and the whole construction falls down under its own weight, you only have yourselves to blame. But in this instance, having a plan and being locked into that plan proved to be an achilles heel. And I think that’s because the producers somehow lost sight of the promise of the premise of their show, and mistook what their audience wanted out of it.

In part, this is due to the fact that MOTHER, like many long-running series, probably lasted a few seasons more than was good for it. But success is success, and a successful money-making program is going to be courted to continue for as long as possible. While this isn’t a problem for all series, MOTHER, with its overarching plot and tightly-controlled timeline, began to naturally evolve along the way. The performances and the writing brought out avenues that hadn’t been expected when the show began. In other words, it evolved over time, with the characters growing as a result of their accumulated life experiences. And as this happened, and the number of seasons grew and grew, the producers were forced by circumstances to time and again illustrate the undeniably point that Ted and Robin, who was introduced in the first episode but was just as quickly revealed to be the kids’ Aunt, are not good together. As much as they are attracted to one another, they want different things out of life and they are incompatible long term. The show spends tons of time and tons of footage illustrating this to us. Which is, on the face of it, strange, given that Bays and Thomas, at least, know exactly how they plan to wrap up the series, In essence, they were driving nail after nail into their own coffins.

Still, all of that could have been overcome, I think. But the key fatal mistake was something that I mentioned earlier; somehow, Bays and Thomas lost sight of what the appeal of their show was to the audience. On the surface of things, the job of a sitcom is to be funny and not too demanding, to provide a welcome break from our hectic, stress-filled lives by visiting with a bunch of characters we’ve come to know and love. But MOTHER’s premise promises more than that. In effect, by framing the conversation the way the show does, especially given the overall romantic and emotional world in which it operates, the promise that Future Ted is giving to the audience, the lesson that the show is striving to impart, is that all of the trial-and-error and misadventure of youth is a necessary part of the process of getting to where you need to be, and that eventually, if you can just survive and stay in the game long enough, you’ll get your happy ending. MOTHER promises the viewers who’ve been following and rooting for Ted for nine seasons (despite some, let’s be honest here, outrageously horrible behavior along the way. It’s honestly amazing that Radnor was able to keep sympathy with him for the most part even while Ted was doing something loathsome) that in the end, he’ll have a win and everything will have been worth it.

Now, given all of this, the storytelling decisions that were made along the way in the final season are a bit puzzling–again, given that Bays and Thomas, at least, know what their ending is going to be. First off, they make the decision to set the entire season during the three-day weekend during which Robin and Barney are going to be married. This was a ballsy bit of construction, and I liked the conceit of it–but it’s almost self-defeating given what the creators know is coming next. I can totally buy on paper that Robin and Barney as a married couple isn’t going to be able to go the distance, that feels completely reasonable and realistic to me. But you really can’t pivot from having spent twenty-plus episodes on the three days uniting them in matrimony, reinforcing their commitment to one another (and, perhaps more importantly, reinforcing that Robin and Ted do not work together) and then pivot within the space of 15 minutes to them having broken up three years later. I can understand wanting to surprise the audience, but that had the effect of emotional whiplash on the audience, and it comes across in the final product as necessary story-brick-laying for the final beat: where Ted’s kids tell him that he’s obviously still in love with Robin and he should be with her. So the series ends the same way that the pilot did, with Ted showing up outside of Robin’s apartment with the blue French Horn he stole from the restaurant where they had their first date.

Here’s the important thing, though: all of those moves were storytelling decisions made in the moment. Some apologists for the finale like to point to the fact that bays and Thomas had shot the ending years earlier, but that’s only partially true. They had shot the footage of the kids, sure, but not anything else–the rest of those final sequences were shot as a part of that final show. And what that means is that, even if they were committed to using the shot footage of the kids, what happens thereafter and how it all plays out was still entirely within their control–as was what dominos were set up in the episodes leading up to that finale. In essence, the last episode plays as though, for the majority of the season, the team had no idea where the last episode was going to end up, and then in the final moments they opened a sealed envelope with the solution, and then had to swerve the storyline wildly in order to get there. Yes, they had a plan, but a plan can and should be modified to account for conditions in the field. I think it was entirely possible to satisfyingly get to the conclusion that the creators wanted, but to do so, it would have meant making changes and adjustments in the material for the rest of the season, so as to make that final outcome plausible. I can see why they wouldn’t have wanted to do that, wouldn’t have wanted to tip their hand at all. But that led them to breaking their larger compact with the viewership. Ted does meet the Mother, the girl of his dreams, and he’s happy and he marries her. But then, life goes on, and suddenly things aren’t quite so happy any more.

So unliked was the final episode that, on the DVD collection, the production team pulled together an alternate ending, one that stops its forward momentum at the moment when Ted and the titular Mother, played by the terrific Cristin Milioti, first meet. And it is exactly the payoff that everybody who had been watching the series wanted–without needing to know anything of what followed, how Milioti/Tracy would die of some unnamed disease, leaving Ted on his own with two teenaged kids to ponder the remainder of his life. You can see how Bays and Thomas came to the conclusion that the show had to end with the pairing of Ted and Robin, particularly at the end of only the second year. It’s isn’t a wrong impulse. What was wrong is that they didn’t permit the knowledge of their ending to guide them in what they did in subsequent seasons–or, if the moves they made were necessary, to adjust their endgame so that it flowed naturally from what came before.

And honestly, the biggest reason that the ending doesn’t work is that the audience understands that the moment at which the program fades out is arbitrary. The alternate DVD ending is satisfying because it delivers the emotional adrenaline that the audience desires, even though presumably all of the sad events that were to follow were still to come. Likewise, we’ve seen enough of Ted and Robin failing as a couple to understand instinctively at this point that, regardless of Tracy being dead or not, Ted and Robin aren’t any more likely to be able to make their relationship work this time any better than it had over the course of the nine previous seasons.

What it really points out is that the decision of where to put your ending is critical. Ultimately, if you follow the thread long enough, every story ever ends the same way: “And then, they died.” We all know this. Storytelling is artifice, selecting a specific period of time and relaying only the events contained within that span. And so, that decision is a critical one. If MOTHER had ended as the DVD Extra does, on the meeting between Ted and Tracy, the climax would have worked. Going beyond that in an attempt to take another stab at Ted and Robin, unfortunately, didn’t. It broke the compact with the viewers and cost the series much of the good will it had built up over the rest of its run. A cautionary tale, to be sure.

2 thoughts on “How I Met Your Mother and the failures of storytelling.

  1. Great analysis, Tom. I absolutely agree. The very title HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is essentially promising the viewers a happy ending, that all the hardship that Ted endures will ultimately be worth it. And then they gave us a bittersweet ending, one with marriages falling apart, friends drifting apart, the love of Ted’s life dying young, and Ted making another go of it with Robin, who the show showed us at least once a season was not a good match for Ted long term. It’s a shame, especially after they absolutely NAILED the casting of the Mother with Cristin Milioti.

    The show absolutely ran a few years longer than it should have, and the vamping became very obvious the last few seasons with things like the extension of the Slap Bet. Heck, the finale even screwed up the show’s own continuity a bit. In an early flashback to the events of the pilot, Robin says she doesn’t have any friends in New York. But in the actual pilot, Robin is at McLaren’s consoling a friend who just went through a breakup. She starts talking to Ted after she sees her friend making out with a random guy at their booth.

    I will give them credit for one very subtle bit of foreshadowing, though: They mention a few times in the first couple of seasons that Ted’s favorite book is LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA (Tellingly, Robin hats the book, another sign that she and Ted are not right for each other). Take a look at the summary of LITTOC’s plot and notice how it parallels HIMYM:


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