I’ve never been a fan of TV sitcoms, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. My favorite sitcom, up until I became acquainted with How I Met Your Mother, was Seinfeld. It was the perfect show for me when I was seventeen or so – funny, but dominated by nihilism – and I devoured it. I was not alone. But as for me and sitcoms, that was the extent of it. I’ve never really watched Cheers or Frasier. Same goes for Will & Grace and The King of Queens. I’ve never seen a single episode of Friends. I’m not really qualified to speak about How I Met Your Mother in terms of comedic lineage. But there’s something this show did, and did continuously, which made it magical – and that’s what I’m going to talk about.
Or at least until they stumbled at the finish line.
So fittingly, we gotta start with end.
Ted and Robin. Ted and Robin, Ted and Robin, Ted and Robin. This was the one thing the show couldn’t do, and it’s exactly what it did. Not because it promised us from the onset that this wouldn’t happen, but because it’s wrong. From a character and a thematic standpoint, it’s just wrong. You can’t have your cake and eat it too; likewise, you can’t tell us a story about meeting the love of your life, “The One”, and then box her out hastily in the final moments, reducing her to little more than a footnote in her own story in favor of a main character who just 20 minutes ago got divorced because her career was too much a strain on her marriage. When Ted held up that blue french horn at the end, he effectively bent the narrative arc of the show back on itself, and now instead of a linear journey, it’s a cyclical one. Which means that everything must inevitably repeat itself, especially since we only have a few moments to go on in the present, and nine seasons worth of the past for reference. But there’s larger implications, too: that french horn means that no one ever really grows in the show. For a show that’s all about growing into the person you have to be before you find the love of your life, that’s quite a backpedal. Say what you will about season nine, at least it suggested that new things were on the horizon for these people. With its conclusion, we’re oddly left back at the start. For lack of a better term, the show’s now a Mosbius strip. I recall Battlestar Galactica:
All of this has happened before, and will happen again.
I didn’t feel joy at the end of the show; I didn’t really feel anything. But I wanted to feel joy. It just wasn’t there.
I said above that the ending was wrong. It is. It’s wrong because, more than anything else, it’s cynical. And How I Met Your Mother was beautiful because it was so steadfastly not cynical.
I started watching How I Met Your Mother when I was 27 – if you’ll recall, Ted turns 28 in season one. The show had been on for ages at that point, and while I knew the name, I knew little else. The show’s central conceit I thought was just that – a conceit. A gimmick. One which could be mined endlessly for comedy, or drama, or whatever else you can think of. Everything that I just said about the show is (basically) true, and if you’re a cynic, it’d be easy to just write the show off at that, and walk away. But like I said, How I Met Your Mother isn’t a show for cynics. It’s a show for optimists. And just as the nihilism of Seinfeld appealed to the teenage sulker that I once was, so too did How I Met Your Mother appeal to the optimist that I had become.
I’m going to tell you a story.
It’s 1997. I’m in middle school, doing whatever it is that middle-schoolers do (I don’t really remember, although I’m fairly certain it was carefree). Seinfeld has about a year left before it expires. I didn’t really watch it when it is on, because my father didn’t like it. And as with all things comedy, I copied him. None of that network comedy stuff. PBS is where the good stuff’s at; reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, The Red Green Show. I loved those shows. I still do. I can hear my father’s laugh rise out of him during a good part, the first syllable shorter in length, and higher in pitch, the second syllable lower and longer, accented, as though the zinger got funnier mid-laugh (ha-HA!).
I come home one day after school, and my Mom is sitting at the kitchen table, looking worried. Something was wrong. Dad was in a car accident. The car’s horribly damaged, but he’s miraculously okay. He’s at the hospital getting some tests done, just in case (Mom insisted; there’s no point resisting if Mom insists).
Dad was driving, when all of a sudden, the driver in front of him who was exiting the freeway swerved back onto the interstate, right into my father’s lane, and came screeching to a dead stop. Dad didn’t have enough time to blink, let alone react. He smashed into their car with such force that he bent the steering wheel down at an angle, his knuckles making contact with the dashboard, knocking some chunks of it out. Fortunately, he had his seatbelt on. He was okay. But Mom was worried he might have pulled a muscle in his heart, so he was at the hospital. Just In Case.
His heart was fine. But they found something in his right lung.
Four years later, he was gone. Lung cancer. Never smoked a day in his life, but he got it just the same. I was fishing with some friends in Canada when it happened. Dad was going in for a second surgery, as the cancer had come back, but neither him nor my Mom wanted me or my brother to pause our lives, so they let me go. One night early on in the trip, I stirred restlessly at night; something was off, but I didn’t know what. The next morning, I saw a seaplane out in the distance. And I knew. I don’t know how, but I knew somehow that that plane meant that he was gone. The plane got closer, landed. I was right.
The next few days were a blur. As were the next few months. And one of the things that helped take the edge off was Seinfeld. I couldn’t go back to those PBS shows at that time. I just couldn’t. The wounds were too fresh. But Seinfeld fulfilled a purpose in me. While it’s a very funny show, it’s got a dark undercurrent to it; it suggests, deep down, that were all just animals clawing at each other in the dark. Our struggle is meaningless. We’re piss in a void, and then we’re gone. That’s what I responded to. No wonder George was my favorite.
That’s the lens I had when I watched Seinfeld as a teen. But as an adult, ten years on, that’s not the lens I have anymore. We are here. We are here and we can make glorious, wonderful things happen while we’re here. We wake up every day and have the opportunity to be good and kind to everyone we see. We can make the lives of everyone around us better. We can make ourselves better. And that’s the greatest thing of all. To quote Shunryu Suzuki:
Each one of you is perfect as you are. And you could all use a little bit of improvement
This doesn’t mean that we have to conform to anyone’s ideas about who we’re supposed to be, or how we’re supposed to be it. It just means that we can grow, every day, and through that growth, we become more ourselves. I am not the same man I was ten years ago. I am not the same man I was yesterday. Tomorrow, I will be another man altogether. This is why I gravitated to strongly to How I Met Your Mother. That outlook is the essence of the show. And it’s rooted in optimism.
But here’s the key: How I Met Your Mother wasn’t just *about* optimism. It’s a show that *rewards* optimism. There’s not a constant foil to quash optimism in every episode, like there is in Parks and Recreation. There’s no formula in which optimism is merely a component to tragedy as in The Walking Dead. Nothing of the sort. Until the last episode.
See, nothing less than Ted’s complete and utterly perfect “happily ever after” would have sufficed as an ending to this show. Nothing. No depressing reveal about Alzheimer’s. Nothing like that would work. I already wrote about why having the Mother being dead wasn’t in the cards for the ending; I was wrong. But I was wrong about why I was wrong. There can be no sadness, I reasoned. We didn’t stick it out with this Ted guy for nine years just to be smacked in the face with a sadhammer at the show’s conclusion. After all, what makes How I Met Your Mother a great show above all else isn’t its format or the characters, but the idea that every thing you do, no matter how little or seemingly inconsequential it may be, will ultimately put you right where you belong at just the right time. Ted frets and worries a great deal about meeting “The One”, but that’s only because he doesn’t know he’s on the road to meeting her – and he also doesn’t know that this worrying and fretting is (in part) guiding him on that road. It’s all part of the plan.
The show itself recognizes this in one of its best episodes, Right Place, Right Time. It’s an episode that comes near the end of season four, and in it, Future Ted tell his kids (and us) the following:
Kids, I’ve been telling you the story of how I met your mother, and while there’s many things to learn from this story, this may be the biggest: the great moments of your life won’t necessarily be the things you do, they’ll also be the things that happen to you. Now, I’m not saying you can’t take action to affect the outcome of your life, you have to take action, and you will. But never forget that on any day, you can step out the front door and your whole life can change forever. You see, the universe has a plan kids, and that plan is always in motion. A butterfly flaps its wings, and it starts to rain. It’s a scary thought but it’s also kind of wonderful. All these little parts of the machine constantly working, making sure that you end up exactly where you’re supposed to be, exactly when you’re supposed to be there. The right place at the right time.
That sentiment right there is the beauty of the show. It’s also incredibly unrealistic and naive, but that only makes it more beautiful. Cynicism and negativity conquer so many aspects of our lives, and this idea – that everything will work out just the way it’s supposed to in the end – is a lovely, even noble pursuit for something like a TV sitcom to dedicate itself to. We root for Ted because the show makes a promise to us at the beginning that it’s all going to work out fine for him; that we stay in his corner, and remain invested in both him and his circle of friends, in spite of this, is the show’s crowning achievement. Our prescience about Ted’s future isn’t diminished by watching that future unfold, but strengthened by it. Through each relationship (and the occasional fling) Ted embarks on, we see him grow more into the person that will eventually meet “The One.” Sometimes, this growth is poignant, sometimes humorous, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking, as in The Time Travelers, a season eight episode wherein Ted’s loneliness is repeatedly prodded during an elaborate reverie, and he winds up at The Mother’s doorstep to confess the following:
Retrospectively, a lot of people took this as a portent of doom, that Ted’s days with The Mother will have run out by the time 2030 arrives. Those people should have been wrong, because that’s the cynical way of looking at things. Yes, while Future Ted never did come out and say that he and The Mother are both alive and healthy today, the nature of his part of the story doesn’t suggest anything but. For lack of a better metaphor, why derail that train as it’s pulling into the station? It would be cruelty. It would be cynical. And no amount of silver lining bright-sidery could make it better.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and compare that scene to a similar scene in the 2003 film Love Actually. You know, this one:
Now I love Love Actually. I always have. And I’ve honestly lost track of whether it’s trendy or not to love it now. But here’s the thing: I love Love Actually in the same way that I love Shoot ‘Em Up. Or, for that matter, Running Scared. This isn’t to say that I love the film ironically, because that would imply that the film is blind to its own sincerity (or lack thereof), and nothing could be further from the truth. This is a film that invokes 9/11 (and did so a mere two years after it happened) in the name of love less than 60 seconds in. Seriously, you can time it out yourself here if you’re interested; the line in question happens around the 50 second mark. The message is that this is not a film that’s going to pluck your heartstrings soothingly; it’s going to delicately snap them, one by one. And to the film’s credit, it does. It does so with expert precision. What comes of this is messy, but ultimately moving.
But those cue cards, while borne out of the same yearning that Ted succumbs to in his fantasy confessional, don’t carry the same weight because the Love Actually scene’s function is to snip another heartstring with a well-placed accent. Ventricular staccato. But Ted’s not doing that; he’s performing defibrillation on himself. He doesn’t feel like he can make it those 45 days, and he doesn’t want to. But he must, and he will, though it won’t be easy. And in doing so, he’s reinforcing the show’s promise to us: you will be where you need to be when you need to be there, but you can’t rush it. It just doesn’t work like that. But it will be worth it. Deep down, at the core of his being, Ted knows this. And so do we. But the show failed to see it through.
You’ll notice I keep calling The Mother, “The Mother”, and not Tracy McConnell, her revealed name in the series finale. That’s because the show robbed her of her identity at the end. She was a tough character to being with; she was in constant danger of being little more than an elaborate MPDG since the show’s inception, and the things that are fed to us about her did little to waylay this. In the show’s 100th episode, Girls Versus Suits, we’re told the following about the titular Mother:
-she owns a copy of the lone album by The Unicorns, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, as well as a copy of T.C. Boyle’s novel, World’s End
-she makes paintings of robots playing sports
-she routinely has performs showtunes with breakfast foods
and of course
-she plays (or at least owns), a bass guitar; specifically, a Fender Mustang Bass.
If that sounds to you like it’s wading a little to closely into the “Natalie Portman in Garden State” waters, you’re not along in thinking so. The Mother is completely defined by Ted, and I mean that literally, since he’s the one telling this story. It’s easy to get cynical about her, about who she is. But to the show’s credit, while the ninth season didn’t ease up on her quirkiness, it did well in making her come alive as an actual person, and not just as the female version of Ted. Season nine was definitely the weakest the show’s been, and the scenes with The Mother were consistently the season’s high points. The series’ 200th episode, How Your Mother Met Me, is arguably the season’s best episode – and as the name implies, it centers almost completely on The Mother.
But it turns out, it was never her story. Or rather, the story was never about her, even though you can draw no other conclusion from the title of How I Met Your Mother. It was about Ted and Robin. This wouldn’t have been so bad if there was just a little more *time* spent on this. If you’re going to call an audible at the end of things, and love is now not just around the corner, but in front of you the whole time, well, you gotta finesse that a bit. Ted can’t just suddenly flick a switch and become again the man with the blue french horn, because he *told* us that man was gone. And we *watched* that man fade away. Ted will always be a hopeless romantic, a sad sap in love, but he can’t be that for Robin anymore. It just doesn’t make any sense. In The End of the Aisle, Ted tells Robin:
I don’t love you like that anymore. And you don’t love me. You love Barney. And if you think I’d ever be part of ever screwing that up like that then maybe you don’t know me at all.
Tolstoy said there are as many loves as there are hearts, and that’s true. But there are some loves that, when you find them, just make other loves..reconfigure somehow. They change. No matter how much dominion they once held. This was supposed to be what happened with Ted and Robin. Tracy comes in, and that “platon-ish” between Ted and Robin becomes “platonic.”
I’ve had the end of this series on my mind now for a great long while. It’s kept me up at night more than once. And as it’s drawn closer, there’s been a song, one song, that I haven’t been able to shake from associating with the show’s inevitable conclusion – and in its final moments, this song summarizes everything perfectly, even now:
We end up together