Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Will "How I Met Your Mother" "Last Forever"? [Spoiler levels: High]

"How I Met Your Mother" ended its nine-year run this week, but could its finale hold up to the nine previous years?

"How I Met Your Mother" may have often been in the shadow of the more successful Chuck Lorre sitcoms "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory", but it has garnered its own decently sized fan base due a lot to it being part of a very rare breed. A sitcom with a goal. Most sitcoms don't have goals, they tend to just come in at a moment in someone's life and exit at another. "How I Met Your Mother" had a goal from the first time you even heard of it, it's the story of how Ted, the narrator, met his kids' mother. This has lead to the show becoming a mix of soap opera and situation comedy, because we know there is going to be some emotional endpoint of a character finding his future children's mother, the viewer is invited to dive deeper into the everyday interactions of the characters and speculate on what might happen next, and who everyone will turn out to be. This whole effect is magnified by the fact that this is all a story told by the main character. When you realise that this is all just a story told by a man you start to question everything. Why would he say this thing? Why would he share that with his kids? The fact it is shown time and time again that Ted's memory isn't top-notch (and who can blame him, he's telling stories of his everyday life that happened 25-16 years ago) tells us that even though one thing is said, it doesn't necessarily make it true. This has all made the show a casual watercooler. Unlike shows like "LOST" where there's a giant new mystery every week to be discussed, "How I Met Your Mother" offers weekly tidbits with evidence of a grander mystery sprinkled in.

The characters on the show also undergo somewhat more significant changes than most sitcom characters these days do. Lily and Marshall start out as a young, fanatically in love couple who can't wait to get married, and end up as an oldish married couple who everyone looks to for advice. Barney starts off as a womanizing forever-bachelor, and by the end he's proven that he can be in a committed relationship and give up on his old ways. Robin starts as a woman ready to see the world, and too busy to look for anyone to see it with, she ends up getting married. They aren't huge, unpredictable changes, but it's more changes than "Seinfeld", "Two and a Half Men" or "The King of Queens" can offer. It shows life actually happening. It isn't trapped in some undefined year in a familiar time period, it evolves quite organically and you find yourself changing with them. This is perhaps the main reason I am so unhappy with the series finale.

We spend 22 episodes going through almost every minute of Barney and Robin's wedding weekend. We are taught again and again that Ted has let go of Robin, and that Robin and Barney are a really great couple that deserves to be together. It's smashed into our heads as we're been spoon fed how great Ted and the Mother's relationship is going to be once they meet. It seems as though the entire season is leading up to a fantastic wedding reception, and we'll finally get the pay-offs we've been waiting for so long. Not only are Barney and Robin getting married, Ted is going to meet the love of his life. And what happens? Five minutes into episode number 23 we learn that Barney and Robin divorces three years into the future. We're told over the next fifteen minutes the story of how the gang slowly drifted apart, how the divorce tore the group apart, and how amazing Ted and the Mother are together. Barney has completely reverted to his old self. He's deep into his 40s and he's sleeping with girls half his age, drinking every night, and still talking about how legendary everything is. Robin is almost never seen again. Her job as a reporter takes her around the world, and when she's in town she finds it to difficult to be around Barney and Ted. Marshall and Lily are really the only anchor to what the show was about.

I get it, life changes, friends don't stay friends forever. But when you build up an entire season around the wedding of two characters, it's kind of a weird move to tear that entire season apart in its last episode. It is a perfectly legit outcome, however, we've even seen it happen before in the show. Barney and Robin just aren't good for each other, but the execution leaves everything to be desired.
The thing that both makes the most sense, and is the most annoying, is that Ted and Robin end up together. The Mother (whose name is Tracy, if you care) gets some illness and dies in some off-camera scene. The kids, after Ted finally finishing the story, notes how little the story was about their mom, and how much it was about Robin. They encourage their dad to ask "aunt Robin" out. "Come on, Dad. Mom's been dead for six years. Just call her." Again, perfectly fine outcome, horrible execution. We've just spent an entire show learning that Ted and Robin aren't right for each other, the entire last season is about Ted letting go of Robin, and then they suddenly end up together at the end? I know there is a 16-year gap between the wedding, and Ted and Robin getting back together, but they told those 16 years in a little over 40 minutes.

In the end we're left with the knowledge that nothing really changes. Lily and Marshal are a couple in love. Barney is a womanizing forever-bachelor (oh, but he's got a kid now). Ted is hopelessly in love with Robin. And Robin, she's finally ready to settle down with Ted. It leaves so much to be desired, and I think the main reason is the very reason that makes this show stand out from the rest. We've been following a goal for nine seasons. Nine years we've been waiting for the last episode. The episode when he finally meets the Mother. Of course it's not going to live up to everyone expectations, everyone has developed different ideas and meanings around the show. What it means, what it's trying to achieve, what is going to happen. We know that this was always supposed to be the outcome. The kids filmed their final scene at the end of the first season, the creators wrote the first draft of the final episode during the first season, this was always meant to be. But I think they got carried away with what they had to put in the middle. The last season seems poorly thought out, and is constructed in a way so you can't notice until the very last episode. It's as if they've spent an entire season trying to set us up for a different ending just so that the "twist" is more effective, and unfortunately it just didn't work. I watched an older episode of "How I Met Your Mother" a few hours after the finale. Knowing how it was going to end actually made me enjoy the episode less. I knew that there were going to be multiple seasons of misdirection and intrigue that would end flatly in a mess of a finale. It felt tainted.

So back to the titular question. Will "How I Met Your Mother" last forever? Will it last at all? I don't think so. I think the show is too defined by its finale. By its goal. We still talk about "Friends" and "Seinfeld" because they don't complicate things with giant story arcs. They're just slices of life that begin at one point in someone's lives, and end at another. Much like "LOST", I think, "How I Met Your Mother" will be tried copied for a few years, talked about every fall when the new sitcoms come, but eventually, just die off. Probably a lot quicker than we'd think. Maybe at some point in the future, some of our kids or grandkids will happen to catch a rerun on some beat-up old cable network. Maybe we'll sit down and reminisce, but it will never be quite the same. It will never be quite our show again.