Kids, did I ever tell you the story of how HIMYM went off the rails?
A story of too much creative control, and not enough.
My college years could best be described as "rocky." I didn't know yet that I had depression or an eating disorder. I was blessed with the world's greatest roommate but had trouble making any other friends. I stayed in a terrible long-distance relationship with my high school boyfriend until senior year. Through it all, God forgive me, I watched How I Met Your Mother.
College life was horrific, but the sitcom was my escape. Freshman year, my roommate and I hung out with some girls I'd gone to high school with. We hadn't been close in high school, but then college happened and we all felt lost so we became friends, and they lent us their DVD copies of the first few seasons of HIMYM. Later, when we started to actually make new friends, we found that they also watched the show, and its many in-jokes became common references in our friend group. It was such a shared love that we procrastinated on studying for our finals senior year by recreating the title sequence at our favorite bar (eight years ago to the day I'm writing this, I just realized.)
The year was 2013. It was hilarious to make jokes about Canada. I was about to graduate from college, was just starting to learn that feminism was a good thing, and still proudly considered myself "not like other girls." It was such a different time. People thought this show was okay.
The obvious disclaimer is that HIMYM was wildly problematic. It was misogynistic, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and fatphobic, and I didn't realize any of that because I'd grown up in the disgusting wasteland that was 90s and 00s pop culture. That's not the point of this essay; it's common knowledge by now. The point is that the long-in-development reboot, How I Met Your Father, is finally off the ground, with my girl Hilary Duff set to star!!
I'm cautiously optimistic. Hilary Duff is wildly likable, the exact kind of star you want to imagine as your friend as you unwind with a goofy sitcom at the end of the day. She called the entire Lizzie McGuire reboot off because Disney wouldn't let Lizzie fuck, which is icon behavior, and now she'll have the artistic freedom as an actress to inhabit a character who presumably fucks a lot, until she finds the father of her children, and I love that for her.
Plus, this is an opportunity to redo the show's many, many mistakes. Of course the "edgy," shitty jokes should stay in the past. But HIMYM failed on a bigger, structural level. This show is probably the most (dare I say it?) legendary example of poor planning and disastrous network intervention, a combination of factors that clashed so spectacularly that its much-despised finale managed to cancel out the entire concept of the show. Let's get into it!!
I will spoil this show, shut up, don't worry about it. If you want to watch several seasons of a slightly problematic but charming sitcom, binge New Girl.
Part One: An Unreliable Narrator
HIMYM, created by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, premiered in 2005. Its premise sounds like a sure-fire smash: a group of quirky white people find love, laughs, and lessons about life navigating New York City together. They relax in their enormous apartments or meet up in their favorite spot. Some of them even hook up with each other a few times. If that sounds familiar, it's because of how I'm blatantly describing the premise of Friends. But HIMYM had a twist, right there in the title. The framing device was a father at some point in the future, telling his kids about the foibles and adventures that led him to his wife.
This hook made a promise to the audience: stick with me, and you'll see how the story unfolds. This was not just a ragtag group of friends engaging in willy-nilly sitcom hijinks – it was a love story told piece by piece, week by week, long-winded but ultimately working up to something.
We were betrayed.
The pilot tells the story of how protagonist Ted Mosby met the beautiful, vivacious Robin Scherbatsky, whom he reveals at the end of the episode to be the kids' "Aunt Robin," his old pal. The twist sets up the ethos of the show: this wasn't your average romantic comedy, and this story would be a complicated, epic journey.
It felt fresh because it was so high-concept. It was something that hadn't been done before. There's a reason for that. Television is an episodic medium, and it's hard to sustain long story arcs while maintaining the same basic sitcom premise. (In recent years, high-concept sitcoms like The Good Place and Archer have drastically altered the confines of their shows' worlds across seasons to make their stories work.)
By their own design, Bays and Thomas were constrained by a few elements established right in the pilot: Robin wasn't the mother, Future Ted was narrating to his children, and the kids were exasperated by his storytelling. But they were also subject to the whims of the network.
Part Two: Where It All Went Wrong
CBS originally ordered 13 episodes of HIMYM, as was common for new shows, with the plan that they would extend the season by nine more episodes if it did well. Bays and Thomas had a contingency plan, the introduction of a sweet baker named Victoria, to be introduced in episode 13 and revealed to be the mother if the series didn't get the back nine. When the show did get the extra episodes and the creators felt confident that they'd be getting a second season, they established that Victoria was a red herring, wrapped up her plotline, and had Ted start dating Robin.
Ted and Robin were intended to be a subversion of the will-they-won't-they trope: a they-might-but-not-forever. The audience understood that Ted's feelings for Robin, however intense, are clearly misguided. Unknown actors Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders, cast after bigger names Jason Biggs and Jennifer Love Hewitt turned down the roles, ended up having incredible chemistry. The show's small but devoted early fanbase loved them together, as did the showrunners.
Bays and Thomas had plotted out a larger series arc, but they knew that there was always the possibility that the show might not be renewed. Audiences were invested in Ted and Robin by the second season, and an early cancellation could mean that the showrunners wouldn't have enough time to introduce a new relationship that audiences liked as much. Further complicating the planning process, the two kid actors hired for exasperated interjections in their father's story were soon going to age noticeably, as teens are wont to do.
So Bays and Thomas decided to gamble on another subversion of expectations. The twist in the pilot had been that Robin wasn't the mother. The twist in the finale would be that the show wasn't about meeting the mother at all. The mother meet-cute was a Macguffin, they'd reveal, because she'd died long before the events of Future Ted's story. They filmed a scene with Ted's kids calling Future Ted on his obvious bias. "You made us sit down and listen to the story of how you met Mom, and yet Mom was hardly in the story!" says his daughter. "No. This is a story about how you're totally in love with Aunt Robin. And you're thinking of asking her out, and you wanna know if we're okay with it."
So that's how the show would conclude, with another season of Robin and Ted failing to make it work and a finale revealing that they could try again after all these years. But then Britney Spears shaved her head. And that changed the course of HIMYM's history.
Part Three: It's Britney, Bitch
Britney Spears was hospitalized twice in early 2008 after a troubled year documented by relentless paparazzi. Her first job after this was a two-episode guest run on How I Met Your Mother. The stunt casting gave the show its highest ratings ever, bringing in so many new viewers that it was never in danger of being cancelled again. In a Reddit AMA, Bays said, "She put our show on the map. It can't be overstated. Britney Spears rescued us from ever being on the bubble again."
Part Four: Gimme More
The network was confident in the show's future, so Bays and Thomas now had the space to draw their story out. Ted got engaged, then left at the altar. Ted and Robin start sleeping together again, but then they're just friends. Barney and Robin got together. Barney and Robin broke up. Barney dated a stripper named Quinn. Ted got back with his ex Victoria right before her wedding. Barney proposed to Quinn. Barney and Quinn broke up. Barney proposed to Robin.
I'm not mentioning Marshall and Lily, even though they're also characters on this show, because their arcs don't impact the pre-planned finale. That's really the problem here. The audience had years to form strong opinions about the love lives of Ted, Robin, and Barney, and many fans got invested in Robin and Barney together. And even after all that, Bays and Thomas decided to stick to their pre-recorded finale. They planned to wrap things up in the eighth season, showing Robin and Barney's wedding but then revealing that things didn't work out between them to wind their plot back towards their endpoint. And then things changed, yet again.
The show was too much of a hit. HIMYM got renewed for 24-episode ninth season, after they'd started wrapping up the storyline.
Part Five: To Make A Long Story Even Longer
So Bays and Thomas decided to go high-concept once again. The first 22 episodes would cover just the events of Barney and Robin's wedding weekend. And the show would introduce the mother as an actual character, played by Cristin Milioti, who would weave in and out of the character's lives and appear in flash-forwards revealing her life with Ted.
Season Nine is a disaster. The gimmick of drawing out one weekend over 22 episodes means that there are some really fucking useless episodes, including one where characters compete to see who can cook the best eggs. It also means that Robin and Barney's marriage felt imbued with a lot more weight. Zany hijinks threaten the wedding, and the couple might fear cold feet, but the gang pushes through to overcome all obstacles and make sure Barney and Robin get married. And Ted accepts that Robin isn't his one true love. (There's a whole episode of him letting her go, culminating with the bizarre and cringe-inducing visual metaphor of Robin flying away like a balloon.)
And that's fine, because the audience has finally met the mother, Tracy, and she's perfect. Cristin Milioti is warm and charming and funny, and Bays and Thomas even used their extra season to give her a backstory episode that made us root for her even more. She'd lost her boyfriend in a car accident and had been afraid to love again. When she finally met someone else, it didn't feel quite right.
Because she's meant to be with Ted!! All nine seasons have been leading up to this moment! And then she just fucking dies!!!
Part Six: The Terrible Conclusion
The one-hour finale of HIMYM could have been a good episode of television. It could have been a great season of television. Because after 22 episodes wasted on the minutiae of one weekend, the finale covers 15 years.
We learn over the course of one episode that the gang was never the same after Barney and Robin's wedding. Ted and Tracy move to the suburbs and have kids. Barney and Robin's marriage fell apart after three difficult years and Barney goes back to being a womanizer. Robin drifts away from the group after the divorce. Barney becomes a father of a daughter, which teaches him that he should respect women. Marshall and Lily struggle to raise a family when he hates his job and they're confined to a tiny apartment. And Tracy gets a terminal illness and dies.
A better gimmick for the final season, I'd think, would be to shift forward in time and explore these changes. The whole show was all about the crazy, insane things you do in your 20s and early 30s to get your shit together, and it was a brave and emotionally resonant choice to show how slowly, year after year, the bonds you form when you're young break and change as life goes on. I wish that they hadn't killed Tracy, someone who already had a tragic backstory, but even that could have worked IF THEY DIDN'T TACK ON THE FUCKING PRE-RECORDED SCENE WITH TED'S KIDS.
Why! Why!!!! Why did they do this!!! Why stick to that horribly awkward pre-recorded footage! Why not abandon that idea when it was clear that the show wasn't going to be cancelled right away! Why bother making Tracy's death so emotionally resonant if the kids were just gonna tell Ted "Mom's dead in the ground, go bone Aunt Robin!"
I will be mad forever and also I will be tuning in to How I Met Your Father. Showrunners tend to have more creative control these days, so hopefully this show won't be confused by constant threat of cancellation or extension. They certainly have a blueprint of how not to structure their story.
More like this:
"Cast Tim Robinson as Willy Wonka, you cowards"
"I have so many questions about Elon Musk's sister's adaptation of a Twilight fanfic"