After 17 seasons on the air (What, it was only 9 seasons? It feels so much longer!) CBS’s venerable sitcom ‘How I Met Your Mother’ wrapped up its run this week, finally indeed revealing how Ted met his future wife and the mother of his children. Unfortunately, like too many other long-lived comedies, the series finale made the fatal mistake of trying to turn serious. Quite frankly, this was possibly the worst ending that the show could have had.
‘How I Met Your Mother’ didn’t fare too well with readers of our last Roundtable post, a couple of whom cited it as the worst TV series currently on the air. I don’t think that’s fair, personally. Back in its prime, the show used to be really funny. Like ‘Seinfeld’, it was the rare sort of sitcom that rewarded loyal viewers with running gags that would circle back around at unexpected times, sometimes seasons later. Admittedly, the show’s prime years were well behind it by the time of this final season. It just dragged on too long and ran out of ideas, forced to repeat many of the same jokes in countless variations, and reducing its characters to exaggerated caricatures of their former selves.
However, even at its lowest ebb, I don’t think the show was outright terrible, at least not very often. The final season had a few inspired moments and seemed to be heading towards a satisfying conclusion. One of my favorite (now retired) TV bloggers used to describe shows that slowly ran out of steam over time as like being in a relationship that has lost its spark. The intense love that you felt for the other person may not be as strong, but you still like the person and generally enjoy spending time in his or her company. That’s how I felt about ‘How I Met Your Mother’.
The gimmick behind Season 9 was that the entire season takes place in the few days and hours before the wedding of Robin and Barney. Theirs was a relationship that may have seemed untenable previously, but the last couple of seasons expended a great deal of effort maturing their characters and convincing us that they belong together.
That all gets thrown out the window in the finale, which announces early via a flash-forward that they’ll get divorced in three years. In short order, we see the disintegration of the group as friends drift apart, Robin gets obsessed with her career to the detriment of any personal attachments she ever had, Barney immediately reverts to being a pathetic cad, and Lily and Marshall are overburdened with too many children, which forces Marshall to get stuck in a terrible job that he hates. The only characters to wind up in a reasonably good place are Ted and his eventual wife Tracy (all of the other characters met her earlier, so this isn’t a spoiler), and even that’s going to end in tragedy. Basically, everybody lives unhappily ever after, and the hour-long episode spends a lot of time dwelling in their misery.
Ted finally finishes the story to his children with the revelation (to viewers – the kids obviously already know) that Tracy got sick and died. Oh, and he realizes that he’s still in love with Robin, and since she’s single now, he’s going to try to hook up with her again. The finale attempts to recontextualize the entire series at the last minute. The show, it turns out, was never really about how Ted met his wife, but about the great love affair between Ted and Robin… Robin, the character we’ve spent the last two seasons rooting to be with Barney.
Far from being a clever twist, I feel like this was a betrayal of all the characters and the basic premise of the series.
Apparently, this was the writers’ plan all along. The scenes where Ted’s kids talk back to him and encourage him to be with Robin were reportedly shot back in 2006 so that the young actors wouldn’t appear to have aged much since the beginning of the show. The producers sat on that footage for seven seasons, keeping it at the ready in case the series got canceled and they needed to wrap things up early.
I don’t know why so many sitcom writers feel the need to drop the comedy and strive for pathos at the last hour. Aside from ‘M*A*S*H’, that strategy almost never succeeds. It didn’t work for ‘Mad About You’, it didn’t work for ‘Will & Grace’, and it certainly doesn’t work at all here. What a disappointment.