Nine years ago, when How I Met Your Mother first premiered on CBS, I refused to miss an episode. Tonight marks the one-hour series finale of the series. I have dinner plans; I'm busy all day Tuesday and Wednesday, as well. I'll probably watch it online Thursday, unless something else pops up, in which case I'll watch it whenever I remember to.
For those not in the know, the premise of HIMYM is as follows: The year is 2030 and Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor, narrated by Bob Saget) sits his two kids down to tell them the story of how he met their mother. He begins the story in 2005 and takes near literally a decade to get to the point. However, though the point of Ted's story might be how he met his kids' mother, that is not the point of the show. HIMYM would more aptly be titled The Mistakes I Had to Make, the People I Had to Meet and the Version of Myself I Had to Become in Order to Meet Your Mother. Not quite as mellifluous, but definitely more on point.
Though it was never going to be highbrow television, HIMYM's first season quickly proved to be something stranger and less focused than the live studio audience sitcoms that came before it (save for Seinfeld, which remains a breed of its own). Somehow this show, with its clunky title and gimmicky premise, worked. Critics loved it and it gained a solid, loyal fan base. It wasn't groundbreaking television, but it was a sweet show with a lot of heart and some really excellent performers.
Admittedly, HIMYM has struggled with the limits of being a studio audience sitcom since day one. First off, there's a laugh track, and then there's the fact that the show takes place in New York, but is clearly shot on a backlot somewhere in greater Los Angeles. As far as the humor goes, a lot of it was funny, but, yes, at times it was broad to the point of being out of date, even for 2005. Perhaps the biggest, most-indicative-of-lowbrow-comedy element was Barney Stinson, Ted's best friend and a ribald businessman who says things like "Lebanese girls are the new half-Asian girls." It's something of a television miracle that the impossibly affable Neil Patrick Harris was cast as Barney Stinson. Harris was able to weave in enough heart and humor into Barney's $2,000 suits to make an otherwise repugnant character amusing.
The rest of the supporting characters were perfectly cast, as well. A pre-Sarah Marshall Jason Segel and post-Buffy Alyson Hannigan had clear chemistry as the recently engaged Marshall Erickson and Lily Aldrin, Ted's roommates and best friends from college. Cobie Smulders played Canadian export Robin Scherbatsky, a woman Ted pines for throughout the better portion of the series. These five characters — the actors who played them, the ways in which they riffed off one another, the chemistry they created — were the ballast of the show, and the reason HIMYM once was, in more ways than it wasn't, a very original, adroit sitcom.
The show lost me, as well as many other former fanatics, in season six, when Ted started dating Zoey Pierson (Jennifer Morrison). It was a forced plot point that just didn't work. After that, the show became insincere, hollow and simply not very funny — a quick tip of the hat to the "Symphony of Illumination" and Becki Newton, though — and now that it's in its ninth and final season, many fans, myself included, can't even enjoin themselves to care.
So what happened? When I set out to write this article, I actually thought I would be able to put my finger on whatever thing made HIMYM crash so hard. I poured over Neilsen ratings and read years and years of reviews, not just of HIMYM, but of other sitcoms, as well. Did they all go wrong in the same place? Is episode 101 some magic episode where everything turns to shit? Do jokes become stale as soon as the networks gives you the green light for season seven?
I found that, no matter how many charts and reviews I pinned to my bedroom wall (I looked a bit like a stalker, only one that stalks sitcoms, not people), I could not find a cut and dry formula for when a show exhausts itself. Cheers ran for 11 seasons and was great until the very end, while Friends, like HIMYM, jumped the gun in season eight, when Joey developed feelings for Rachel. Steve Carell left The Office after season seven, and many argue that should have been the ending of the series. Curb Your Enthusiasm's eighth season remains one of its strongest yet. So, though no formula for when a show becomes bad came forth in my late-night, borderline-insane-person hunts, one thing did become clear: Networks and creators need to know when its time to let their show die.
The impetus for keeping these shows on the air is clear: Networks are making money, and, well, that's the job of a network. Still, it's a shame that networks remain more interested in appeasing advertisers than the lasting reputation of the shows it airs. Nielsen ratings hardly matter once a show ends, but a devoted fan base can help turn a show into a cult classic. Part of the beauty of the sitcom is that it's a simple formula, but that's often its downfall, as well. A simple formula (six young friends navigate their life in Manhattan, a man recounts his 20s by telling his children the story of how he met their mother, a look into the life of workers at a paper company) can exhaust itself quickly and become an uninspired, stale version of what it once was.
It’s worth noting that a large part of HIMYM's disintegration had nothing to do with the actual show and everything to do with the way television has changed in the nine years the show was on the air. Since 2005, we've been given some remarkable, truly original comedies, inventive in everything from form, to characters, to dialogue, to what they were calling comedy. From 30 Rock, to Parks and Recreation, to Archer, to Louie, to Girls, the landscape of sitcoms has become far more experimental than what it was in 2005. J. J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost, Alias and Felicity, explained this change in television in a segment on NPR's “This American Life.” Abrams argued that because network television audiences are steadily decreasing, we have a situation where big networks are desperately trying to keep their audiences, allowing for a time of experimentation: "Networks realize in the increasing, desperate need to grab an audience, that they need to do things that stand out, that are unique, that are different, stories and series that will generate discussion." HIMYM, amusing and sweet as it is, was never going to be the kind of show that created the same kind of discourse as, say, Louie or Girls.
I recently rewatched all eight complete seasons of HIMYM, which was, well, not an arduous task, but it did take quite a bit of time and wound up overlapping with a a long weekend that I spent home in South Florida. In between crying (Still! After all these years!) when Robin and Ted break up in the season two finale and reliving the joys of episodes like “Swarley,” I met up for lunch with an old boyfriend from high school. It wound up being a pretty big bummer, not because there was any love still there, but because there so clearly wasn’t. I left as soon as we got the check, citing some half-developed lie about my mom needing the car. It was boring and sad, and I was briefly overcome with the wish to see him the way that I first did, 16 and charismatic. I felt a similar sensation again later that night, deep into season five of HIMYM. It was still amusing, but I felt I had outgrown it and I was embarrassed — not just disappointed, but actually embarrassed that it was still on, that it had lost its heart and become the mawkish, boring drag it is now.
There are so many reasons why HIMYM is no longer the show it once was — the changing landscape of television, the exhaustion of a simple formula, Neil Patrick Harris really wanting to do Broadway and not bringing himself to put his energy into Barney Stinson anymore — but more than that, the show ran out of steam and lost its heart. The premise of HIMYM was always a bit corny, the fact that it was a studio audience television was always a bit lame, but the kinetic energy between the five friends whose story it was telling made fans fall in love. Once that energy burned up, fans fell out of love just as swiftly as they had fallen into it, turning their attention to more innovative, original options.
I suspect I'll miss HIMYM in the same way I miss my high school boyfriend. While there were things I loved about him and things I genuinely do miss about him, I accept that I have outgrown those things. All there’s left to do is carry on and hope that the next thing I love meets its ending before its exhausted its welcome.