How I Met Your Mother is ending tonight after 9 of the most polarizing seasons I can remember. Everyone I know is either obsessed with it or has called me a dork while popping a wheelie on their BMX bike. This is my attempt to figure out why so many people on both sides care so much.
I have this obsession with sitcoms–I don’t mean I love them, although I do–I mean I am compelled to watch them against my or anyone else’s better judgement. I watch great sitcoms (Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings, Suburgatory), but just as often, I watch those that don’t even have the potential for greatness. I have seen every episode of Guys With Kids. I can speak knowledgeably on TV Land series–which are worth your time (Hot in Cleveland, Retired at 35) and which are remaining afloat through negligible star power (The Exes). I’ve drunkenly recommended the alternately progressive and offensive John Goodman vehicle Normal, Ohio to just about anyone who’s set foot in a Chicago bar this year. For better or worse, I know sitcoms.
How I Met Your Mother occupies a confusing space in that spectrum. Plenty of people have written it off from the beginning or have been too annoyed by Ted to watch it regularly. Those who love it–at least among my urban, pop culture snob demographic–are usually too ashamed to talk about it. It’s an aggressively earnest, multi-camera sitcom on CBS; I understand why it doesn’t sound cool, but as with most things that are worthwhile, it’s more than the sum of its parts.
OK, yes, HIMYM is technically a multi-camera sitcom, and we’ve decided that those aren’t cool. They don’t film it in front of an audience though, so the actors aren’t mugging for a crowd and the episodes aren’t confined to a set number of locations or even timeframes. That’s one of the most important tools this show has. They use that freedom to tell richer, more interesting narratives by airing events out of order or cutting between the A story and the B story until they merge into one.
Sitcom conflicts frequently revolve around the viewers knowing something that one of the characters doesn’t–maybe the fat husband lied about playing golf, and we’re waiting for his hot wife to find out. Because HIMYM doesn’t constrain itself to a linear timeline, that device gets flipped around to maximize tension and create surprises (this show loves surprises.) We might see how a conflict ends, but we won’t see how it started until the end of the episode. Or they’ll trick us into thinking we’re being shown the end of a story, but as the episode plays out, there’s an even bigger reveal.
HIMYM works very hard to keep their fans engaged. Unlike most sitcoms of this type, doesn’t want you to reset after each episode. They’re not trying to tell interchangeable stories. They reward repeat viewers by packing the show with inside jokes and callbacks years in the making. People can and do get just as nerdy about the world of HIMYM as they did about Lost or Breaking Bad.
The other biggest complaint I’ve heard about the show revolves around people taking the framing device too seriously. They don’t understand why Ted is telling his kids a 9-year story, they’re frustrated that it took so long to introduce the mother or that the show is continuing after we’ve met her, they find Ted annoying. Here’s the thing: the mother story is just a framing device. I’d rather watch something fun every Monday than worry that a show isn’t following enough rules. And is Ted kind of annoying? Sure, the show agrees with you. He’s also not really the lead. It’s an ensemble show and he’s the narrator. The other characters get just as much screen time and better stories.
I’ve never been one to speculate on what will happen in a show–I like going along for the ride. That being said, I do have one thought about Ted as the show closes out his story. I think he was made to be ridiculous as more than just a character trait. He’s been kind of a manic pixie dream boy throughout the series, and as we see him dust himself off after every failed relationship, or interact with his future wife, the show has become the story of Ted becoming a whole man. He’s learned that you can’t force yourself to love someone just because they’re great. He’s learned repeatedly that you can’t force someone to love you no matter how well you’ve treated them. He’s messed up a lot.
Love is messy and hard and a little magical, but not that magical. He and his wife had a lot of near misses before they finally met and fell for each other. Until this season, the show set those up as little markers of faith. Then, it introduced the mother as a woman who got so scarred by the death of her boyfriend that it took her years to open herself to the possibility of loving again. She allows herself to move on the same day that Ted allows himself to move on from his long-term unrequited love, Robin. The coincidences that led up to their meeting were cute, and they have a lot in common, but ultimately, they work as a couple because they’re truly ready for it.
That kind of honesty does not exist in sitcoms. Networks don’t want to sell love as something you have to work for, but HIMYM slowly snuck that in, and I’ll miss the hell out of it. Here’s to hoping they’ll give me one more chance to cry tonight with a big reveal and an indie rock soundtrack.