For eight years, Theodore Evelyn Mosby has held us captivated—and held his children hostage—with the story of how he met his wife. To the inattentive viewer, very little of that story has pertained to the actual circumstances of their meeting. But, just as Ted keeps insisting, it all ties together.
How I Met Your Mother stands out from other sitcoms thanks to the subtle nuances of its otherwise stock premise: it’s about a man and his four friends living in New York [banal, retreaded]; wait, no, it’s an ensemble show about how each of those characters’ lives impacts the others in increasingly wacky/dramatic ways [Seinfeld?]; no, actually, it’s a show about these characters telling each other stories about how their wacky dramatics have impacted each others lives in ways they hadn’t yet guessed, all within the framing device of a man telling his children a story decades later.
What sets HIMYM apart is its brilliant use of temporality. Few other sitcoms—few other television shows, period—take such great pains to call attention to the subtlest points of continuity. Flashbacks are a regular part of this show, calling back not only to events that take place before the show’s chronology began, but to any previous episode. All of the characters’ pasts and futures are free game, weaving together in each episode to tell a story in the present. The show is not shy of rewarding longtime viewers with callbacks. You can slap-bet on that.
That temporality doesn’t just apply to plot, though. HIMYM allows each of its characters to grow. Marshall, who has matured and become the legal professional he dreamed of being, who’s dealt with the pain of losing his father and the challenge of becoming a father himself, has learned which parts of his good-natured goofiness he needed to shed and, more importantly, which of those parts he’s needed to keep. Lily, who always put her dreams on hold for her relationship and her comfort, is standing on the precipice of what might be her last big chance to realize her place in the art world. Robin worked unceasingly to achieve her dream of journalistic stardom, and somewhere along the way allowed herself to learn how to fall in love. And Barney Stinson, dark horse that he is, is all but unrecognizable from his Season 1 self, and is about to take the plunge he swore he never would.
Erstwhile protagonist Ted Mosby has suffered somewhat in the rich development of the ensemble. Fewer and fewer stories as the series progresses are purely about Ted, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Ted-centric stories that remain are sharper and deeper; we’ve watched him progress from a starry-eyed dreamer into something more down-to-earth, and in recent seasons a man who is beginning to lose hope in destiny. None of this is spur of the moment plot-convenience; we’ve watched his relationships with Robin, Victoria, Robin, Stella, Karen, Zoey, Jeannette, and Robin wear him down. And the most brilliant part is that we already know he wins. We’ve known from the end of the very first episode. Ted may be telling his kids a meet-cute story, but the real story, the one the audience sees, is that of Ted and his friends growing up to become the people they’re supposed to be.
The show is far from perfect. There have been rough patches where the premise has become worn and, in the case of Seasons 5 and 6, long stretches where the meta-plot of the series takes a backseat to more traditional sitcom fare. Elements like “Robots vs. Wrestlers” and “Doppelgangers” are good for a small chuckle, but they’re hard-pressed to carry an entire episode (or in the case of the latter, a whole season’s theme clumsily summated in Ted’s speech to Robin at the end of Season 5). Likewise the show has never really known what to do with Lily, who alternates between manic energy and traditional sitcom motherly nagging as the plot demands. Lily and Marshall entered an odd kind of stasis between getting married and deciding to have a child wherein the plot occasionally remembered them, but otherwise treated them as just along for the ride. Barney’s Playbook began as a charmingly ridiculous notion, but has since snowballed into being cartoonish, NPH’s charm notwithstanding. And Ted, however much the show wants us to root for him, is kind of a douche bag.
But all of these rough patches pale in comparison to the show’s heights, and when the show employs all of its gimmicks to full effect—most recently in “The Time Travelers,” where Ted imagines himself speaking with his future wife—it achieves levels of creativity and emotion that few sitcoms in the past have even approached. HIMYM is never afraid of putting its characters in a bad place and keeping them there, sometimes for seasons at a time. It makes the good moments, the sweet moments, that much more meaningful.
For its final season, HIMYM could have continued with its winning format and coasted across the finish line. Instead its decided to take a huge risk and push its chronology-twisting gimmick even harder, packing 20+ episodes into one relative weekend. Ultimately, that will be what makes this sitcom stand the test of time; it takes risks and embraces change. There’s no reset button, no retcon, just an ending that the show’s been building to for nine years. And just like Ted’s kids stuck on the couch, we can’t wait to see how it ends.
- Future reviews will (hopefully) be less rambling as I tackle one episode at a time.
- Favorite episode: Season 2’s “Showdown.” The flashbacks and flash-forwards, particularly the absence of the blue French horn in Robin’s apartment, make this episode a special treat in subsequent viewings. It also introduced one of the show’s best longest-running jokes—Barney’s famous “father.” And Alyson Hannigan crying around a mouthful of fudge cracks me up every time.
- Least Favorite Episode: Season 5’s “Zoo or False.” Its core conceit and cop-out ending felt too much like a particularly bad episode of a different sitcom.
- Favorite Doomed Relationship: Ted and Karen. Laura Prepon brings an arrogance to her role that makes consummate douche Ted appear banal by comparison, and the sheer loathing she elicits from Ted’s friends is delicious.
- If you’re ever wondering where a particular flashback falls in the show’s chronology, just watch for Lily’s hair. It’s more prominent in the early seasons, but Alyson Hannigan’s haircut can usually tell you about when the flashback takes place.