How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother should not be a successful television show. Let’s start with the basics. First, the series premiered in 2005, at a time when the three-camera sitcom had pretty much died. Scrubs, Arrested Development and The Office had shown us the subtler side of comedy, unaided by laugh tracks and unfettered by unrealistic sets on sound stages. Sitcoms got smart. Viewers had to be quick and often clever to catch every joke.
Second, unlike 30 Rock (Alec Baldwin), Arrested Development (Jason Bateman), Two and a Half Men (Charlie Sheen), or many other sitcoms airing at the time, How I Met Your Mother had a cast of unknowns, save for Alyson Hannigan, who was not the star.
Lastly, we were still dealing with Friends backlash. The legendary NBC franchise had ended its ten-year run just fifteen months prior, and another New York City-based sitcom about well-off white twenty-something yuppies was definitely overkill.
But unlike Friends, the creators of How I Met Your Mother had a sharp vision about what to change—it wasn’t the concept of Friends that was tired and old, it was the execution. How I Met Your Mother kept the three-camera setup but dispensed with the laugh track. Its writers knew New York (see Ted’s rant about New Jersey from the second episode of season three), whereas the Friends writers only seemed to know some hyper-stylized, L.A. version of New York City.
Perhaps most important, the Friends characters were known for their negative traits. Joey was dumb, Monica was controlling, etc. The How I Met Your Mother writers play up their characters’ positive traits, making them more likable. Even traits that could be considered negative are depicted as good things. Ted (Josh Radnor) is a hopeless romantic, but his aspirations to marry are something the writers celebrate rather than deride. Marshall’s (Jason Segal) list of sexual conquests (one, for the record, and it’s his wife) seem paltry next to Barney’s (Neil Patrick Harris) escapades. Yet he never longs for anything more than the relationship he and Lily (Hannigan) have had since college. How I Met Your Mother’s characters have flaws, but they never apologize for them. Perhaps that’s why we don’t grow weary of them the way we did of Ross and Rachel.
So CBS ended up with a sitcom that worked in spite of some bold choices by the creators, the riskiest of those being that they have withheld the answer to the main mystery: who is Ted’s wife? There have been several arcs throughout the previous five seasons—Ted and Robin’s (Cobie Smulders) relationship, Lily and Marshal’s breakup—but the main arc has lasted five seasons and is still building. Ted is still working his way to his wife. For that reason, the show has not, and I would submit it cannot, jump the shark. In fact, the element that kills most television shows, getting the two lead characters together, was dispensed with in the first two seasons. Ted went after Robin. They dated. They broke up. And the show goes on. The writers seemed to be telling us, “If you’re thinking Ross and Rachel, you’re thinking too small.”
Thus, How I Met Your Mother has been able to explore side issues, some poignant, some utterly hysterical, without growing old. The only low point is that we know it must end, at the very least, in 2030. Until that time, join us for a weekly recap of the show here on Uinterview. The sixth season is three episodes in, and next week we will begin looking at a show that has continued to hit high notes at a point when many others fizzle.