The most recent episode of How I Met Your Mother, “The Autumn of Breakups” should confirm what any longtime follower of the show already knows: the show is on life-support. When I studied abroad, in a country that had limited American programming, the show was the only thing 25 strangers could agree on. For the shows creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the sitcom has stood well above the fray of cable mediocrity for nearly seven seasons. Yet, the success of the show stands as a paradox to the shows premise. Given it’s ratings and popularity, there is no reason, at least from the standpoint of CBS, that the show should go off the air.
The show centers around 26-year-old Ted Mosby and chronicles his eight year odyssey before finally meeting his wife. The shows intrigue, as well as it’s problem, is that Ted has struggled while waiting for fate to intervene in the form of a character we haven’t even met yet. All the while the show's characters that have been developed with the perfect mix of humor, depth (as much as you can in a sitcom) and emotion, are stuck and being recycled with the same brand of humor that seems to effectively engage audiences on a week-to-week basis.
Executives at CBS have hinted at possible future seasons, and it is easy to understand why. Long gone are the days when shows like Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends were must-see TV appointments. Instead dramas such as 24, Lost, and soon to be syndicated Mad Men, have all set a bar to heights that popular shows such as NCIS, The Mentalist, and CSI have failed to reach (The Good Wife being a possible exception). Given that the show anchors the networks comedy line-up, it is easy to see why How I Met Your Mother has been suspended in creative limbo.
In earlier seasons, the shows relationships used to carry real emotional weight that resonated outside the confines of a typical sitcom. Arc’s such as the success and failure of Ted’s relationship with Robin, Ted’s rushing into a failed engagement, the painful duality of Barney Stinson’s persona, and the real life problems of the seemingly perfect Erikson/Aldrin couple.
Bays and Thomas spent seasons developing points, ideas and themes that these characters had to deal with over the course of episodes, seasons, and even years. The characters themselves (while based on experiences from the writers’ time in New York) served as metaphor and bridge to how many young people living in cities live, feel, and act.
The shows greatest hook also remained it’s great problem. The mystery surrounding Ted’s future wife always brought viewers back for more, because after six years of really good writing, stories, and characters, fans needed to know how it was going to end.
As the seasons wore on however, not knowing the mother weakened not only Ted’s slew of philanthropic quests, but the rest of the cast's adventures. The show was at it’s best when Marshall and Lilly were free to lord over the single lives of Robin, Barney, and Ted, whose personal ticks, deep insecurities, and even shallowness seemed never-ending.
Yet, how do you bridge the gap between married parents, and slowly desperate singles, two of whom (Barney and Robin) cannot seem to get over each other. With Robin and Barney’s future becoming more apparent, Ted’s future certain, and the addition of Marshall and Lilly’s parenthood, a clear divide has formed that seems to separate the characters from one another. Thus eliminating the interconnectedness that once was the driving force behind both the humor and emotional impact of the show.
Guest characters’ now seem rushed, and talented actors such as Kal Penn, Becki Newton, and eventually Michael Trucco will be remembered for guest appearances that could’ve further enhanced the quality of the show. Instead, they, along with the coming guest sports were simply jettisoned into mediocrity by the limitations of the plot.
Even conceptual elements vital to the show's success have struggled to retain originality. Gags such as the group’s responses to Marshall’s boss (seen on the episode "The Chain of Screaming"); or the glass shattering everyone’s ignored idiosyncrasies of one another (seen on "Spoiler Alert"); or Barney’s outrageous use of pick-up cons (from "The Playbook"), all served as clever tools to emphasize intricacies of human behavior.
Compare these with the moronically redundant game show in last week’s episode, the failed replay of Ted’s date with the slutty pumpkin (complete with inner monologue), and the drunken trip to Atlantic City during Lily’s pregnancy, and it is easy to see how far the show has fallen.
In its best years, How I Met Your Mother was not just a very good sitcom, but a very good television show. The show would never be able to transcend comedy like Seinfeld, or grip viewers like Lost. Yet, the show's characters allowed for a comedic consistency that is hard to create and maintain. It had a breakout character in Barney, an entertainingly grounded couple at it’s foundation, a lead you wanted to root for, and a dysfunctional couple that would end up together, Robin and Barney.
Bays and Thomas were incredibly successful at taking a simple formula (the Friends format), and inputting their own unique twists in order to differentiate it from other shows. Given that they set a high bar for themselves and the show's viewers, it is difficult for fans to grasp how the show has lost its way.
Each year the creators tweaked, edited and re-imagined ways in which they could present a new angle to a simple idea. The frustration fans feel is not limited to the secret of who the mother is. Instead, fans should feel frustration with the fact that Bays and Thomas should have been able to come up with a more effective solution to the show's problems. The two have seemingly always known what the constraints of the plot would be, and given that they have had so much success in evolving the show, the show's fans, myself included, expected that they would continue to do so.
The problem is they haven't figured out how to deal with the show's problems and limitations, therefore the program is heading down the road already traveled by so many sitcoms. Few shows have produced a truly satisfying conclusion, and what’s even more troubling is that some finales (Seinfeld, The Sopranos) have failed in such a way that many fans remain bitter.
The direction of, what will likely be, the final season of How I Met Your Mother has already been written, planned, and is just months away from its actual conclusion. There is still a small chance the series conclusion could satisfy fans and critics alike, but if the last seven episodes are any indication, the show will have fallen entirely too short of what it could have been.