Plenty of television series have hung on longer than they should have, the dictates of commerce outweighing storytelling considerations at nearly every turn in the business of doing a show. But I don’t know if any long-running program so thoroughly demolished the goodwill it had built up as How I Met Your Mother did. The creation of former Late Show with David Letterman writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the sitcom was built on a novel, hooky premise. In the future, a father (voiced by Bob Saget) relays to his two children (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie, couch-bound and staring placidly with marginal interest for nine seasons) the story of his first encounter with his wife, the woman who birthed them. Conveniently, the long story unfolded in hijinks-filled, episodic adventures with the father’s cluster of distinctive friends in New York City in the early two-thousands.
In the present day, the father, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), was a struggling architect, living in a modest apartment with his old college roommate, aspiring lawyer Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and his fiancée, kindergarten teacher Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan). Their nights at the neighborhood bar are often commandeered by besuited Lothario Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris, in a crucial part of the professional journey that freed him from having to good-naturedly smile as people called him “Doogie”). Into the mix comes Robin Scherbatsky, a fledgling broadcast journalist with whom Ted falls for, but who, the viewer is informed early on, is not “the mother.”
Remarkably, for a show that lasted nearly a decade, How I Met Your Mother was never much of a hit, and accordingly it spent much of its run in a constant state of uncertainty. Most years, the announcement of its renewal came with a whisper of relief and surprise. And the size of its viewership never really changed over the years, until the final season when interest in closure put it into the Nielsen Top 40 for the first time. Instead, the business landscape for television changed all around it, and the show’s devoted viewers looked more and more appealing in a rapidly stratifying culture.
The bank accounts of the show creators and stars undoubtedly benefitted from the lengthy run of How I Met Your Mother, but the story it told was stretched unbearably thin as seasons mounted. The ingenuity of the program was the presence of a series-long through line built upon an internal mystery, increasingly a mandate for hour-long dramas at the point of the show’s premiere, in 2005, but still a rarity for sitcoms, which were supposed to be endlessly renewable to better suit syndication, then holding as the true jackpot of television production. Although How I Met Your Mother would rake in some chips thanks to reruns on superstations and cable networks, it was also one of the first shows to benefit from prime placement on Netflix, where excavations of its clues invited pinpoint repeat viewings. Looking at the overall structure of the full series, it probably would have benefitted from shorter seasons and fewer years, letting the elusiveness of the mother’s identity remain a clever gimmick rather than an unbearably coy tease. That quality alone is a major part of the reason the show’s strongest season was its second.
At its core, How I Met Your Mother was about growing up. Ted’s wounded puppy pining for true love was simply one expression of moving from carefree youth to the responsibilities of adulthood, often fulfilled by compromises to secure career progress or letting go of sentimental artifacts, like a first car with the same cassingle eternal trapped in the tape deck. Exploiting its retrospective structure, the show allowed itself to bounce back and forth in time, sometimes letting an individual episode’s plot spill out as jumbled fragments, the ruptured chronology allowing for a more complex and comedically satisfying punchlines.
And since it was about growing up, finding the characters still early in that trajectory was more satisfying. Back and forth fretting meant to prolong conflicts necessary for drama hadn’t yet become tiresome, and there was no need yet to overly indulge in the constant shuffling of relationships required to inject something new into the series. The need to keep circling Ted into new romances, each one meant to tantalize that it could finally payoff the promise of the title, was particularly problematic. Well before the series drew to its conclusion, he seemed less like a hopeful romantic and more like a fickle basket case so saddled with issues that he repelled potential partners.
None of those issues weighed on How I Met Your Mother in the second season, but it had also overcome its natural growing pains. The writers and actors built characters so strong that the mere introduction of a comic premise could be effective because of how it fed into established personality rhythms. Nothing exemplifies that better than the second season episode “Slap Bet,” which remarkably introduced the show’s two very best recurring bits: a wager that allowed Marshall to deliver five surprise physical assaults to Barney, as well as the Robin’s secret shame as Canadian teen pop sensation Robin Sparkles.
The strong and satisfying second season found its complete opposite in the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother. It foolishly spread twenty-four episodes across the weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding, in part to further delay Ted’s first encounter with the mother, who was revealed — in the form of actress Cristin Millioti — in the prior season’s finale. The voice of the series was already growing weak and raspy. In the ninth season, it completely gave out. The tone became shrill, and the pace was frenetic in individual episodes and yet glacial in the season-long arc. Putting a dreadful punctuation mark on the whole series, Bays and Carter insisted on sticking with the overall ending they’d originally conceived, though by that point they had spun so many contradicting side tales that it was now emotionally unworkable.
Dogged in my completionist tendencies, I stuck with How I Met Your Mother to the extra-bitter end. Kids, I should have stopped when I could still keep all the memories happy.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three
—Treme, Season One