I love good storytelling. I'm drawn to it like a wayward moth toward a candle piercing the evening darkness . . . . . . and stuff.
Since 2005, the wife and I have enjoyed watching the CBS sit-com How I Met Your Mother on Monday evenings. Hoisting the baton left to them by NBC's Friends, the show's diverse cast of characters and witty writing made for good television; even when HIMYM wasn't at it's best, it was still great entertainment. So in light of my commitment, forgive me if I decided to spend part of my evening writing about last night's series finale.
Perhaps what made the show work best was the premise of the entire series: a father explaining to his teenage children how he and their mother got together. In the midst of the comedy, there was an underlying narrative—a continual guessing game if each woman that Ted (the storyteller) pursued could eventually be the mom.* This thread made the show a more compelling sit-com. Additionally, the writers brilliantly developed the other characters throughout the series. Robin, the original love-interest from the pilot, was immediately labeled the non-mother, but became a central character of the show. The relationship between couple Marshall and Lilly blossomed from their time dating, to getting engaged, to both marriage and family; their path of love was far from ideal, a relationship that wasn't perfect but still persevered. By the way, while this is the last I'll speak about Marshall and Lilly in this critique, it should be noted that theirs is one of TV's great relationships.
Yet the main comic relief of HIMYM is Barney. Cast after his role in the movie Harold and Kumer Goes to White Castle, he was the Über-womanizer, always dropping double entendres and getting caught in ridiculous situations. But the writers always unveiled that calloused façade of Barney with continual visions of his caring nature. Barney became the ultimate redemption story, most evident in his decision to marry Robin.
This is very interesting storytelling.
As the series lead, Ted is the anti-Barney, a virtuous character. Robin was Ted's ideal woman. The HIMYM writers played this whole Ross/Rachel relationship throughout the series but ultimately decided (inexplicably really) that it just shouldn't work out; again, they made it clear from the first episode that she was not the mother. Enter Barney: in no world should Barney and Robin be together. In order to win Robin, Barney would have to become virtuous. He could no longer be the promiscuous man that he prided himself on being. In their first go-round together, Barney suppressed his libido to date Robin, but it changes him negatively (as it did Robin), so they broke up. Yet in the last couple of seasons, the writers decided that this relationship should work out. Gradually, Barney changes. He's completely faithful to Robin and becomes a better man in the progress. The entire last season showed the week of their wedding.
SIDENOTE: And since last fall, this made me SO angry. A whole season covering a few days is just maddening. If I wanted to watch that, I'd get Jack Bauer on Netflicks. Still, the writers revealed the mother (well, actually, they did this at the end of the previous season) and through flashbacks and flashforwards, we get to see tidbits of Ted and the mother's relationship. So even though it was painful at times, the underlying hook of discovering how the two met kept the show interesting.
Anyway, throughout this final season, all the characters worked through their differences (including Ted and Robin working through any of their old emotions), and the two wed. Finally, after a whole season of drawing out a singular event, the wedding took place in the second to last episode, leaving the finale to wrap up the actual meeting of Ted and the mother of his children.
Here, in one hour of television, the writers of the show ruined nine years of shows.
A two-paragraph synopsis of the finale: as the relationship between Ted and the mother developed, Robin and Barney's marriage begins to disintegrate. Robin's job as a global-traveling news reporter leaves Barney in tow. As a result, Barney is restless, they're both miserable and, within three years of getting married, they're divorced. Even though it's an amicable split, there is implied blame on Robin; it's her career that ultimately ended their relationship. And just like that, Barney reverted to his promiscuous lifestyle. As Robin becomes more distant, Barney continues in sexual conquest until accidentally fathering a child. Confident that nothing will change him, his life instantaneously transforms upon seeing his daughter's face. As a result, Barney is a changed man, criticizing ladies at the bar for trying to hook-up with guys.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ted and the mother are shown having an amazing relationship. Still, they wait for five years and have two kids before getting married. At the end of the episode, as Ted describes their amazing life together, we learn that the mother was sick and died young (this was so predictable earlier in the season). Apparently, Ted's teenage kids see through their father's storytelling. They insist that the story he was telling them (throughout the whole series) had little to do with their mother, but was a guise for his affinity for their "Aunt Robin." They give him their blessing to date Robin and the series ends where it begins, with Ted wooing Robin.
Now I won't even argue that they messed up the ending. Having Ted and Robin end up together was totally acceptable for me. But in order to accomplish this, the writers chose to destroy nearly a decade of amazing character development.
ROBIN came off as unlikable in the finale. She was dehumanized and reverted. Throughout the series, Robin was presented as a man-like lady, with masculine proclivities. Her character flaw was that she was TOO independent, not believing that she needed anyone. It was her immersion into this group that changed who Robin was. In the finale, however, all the progress that Robin made over nine years was immediately dismissed. She became obsessed with herself and her career, even though she had previously conquered those temptations. In the end, she was plain unlikable. In fact, it wasn't until the end of the show that Ted's kids speak well of Robin, even though we never see it.
Compare that to TED and you get the complete opposite. Ted is shown as completely lovable in the finale. He meets the Mom. He becomes a dad. You almost have to wonder why he would want anything to do with the Robin of today. Still, I completely missed something else about Ted in this episode that Kelly said bothered here from the finale: Ted waits five years after getting engaged to actually get married to the mother. This is just not like Ted at all. Throughout the series, he was a true romantic. It made absolutely no sense in relation to anything else in the show for Ted to do this. It's as if the writers forgot who they were writing about.
But it was the actions of BARNEY in the finale that will grate on me whenever I watch reruns of the show again. His character trajectory was one of redemption. His past flaws were humorous, but he could still have been an interesting character without defaulting to a sleeze. But after years of growth, and an entire season where he seriously commits himself to a lifelong relationship with Robin, they send him back to the sewer. Even Lilly offers that what might have been cool when he was younger was just pathetic in his 40's. Sure, the writers try to turn it on a dime when he first views his newborn baby, but by then it's just ridiculous. What they developed over years, they ended in minutes. There was little reward for longtime viewers.
My theory on this is the real life persona of Neil Patrick Harris permitted the writers to write Barney like this. Harris was a child actor (loved me some Doogie Howser M.D.) who didn't have much of an adult acting career. His faux-role as himself in Harold and Kumar was humorous because he portrayed himself as a massive jerk. As his fame grew while in HIMYM, he took on the flattering role in Doctor Horrible's Sing Along Blog. Before long, he was hosting the Tony and Emmy Awards. NPH has emerged as one of the most likeable actors in Hollywood, making his role as Barney even more humorous. My opinion is that it was his immense likability that permitted the writers to treat Barney like that in the final episode. In the end, they figured that regardless of what he did, you'd still love Barney. But I just didn't. Any redemption they showed him claim in the last few seasons was stripped away in the final episode. His passionate pursuit of Robin meant nothing. In the end, I cared nothing for Barney.
The sad thing is that the writers still could have accomplished all they wanted without jettisoning the character development of the past nine years. They still could have given us a final episode with twists, turns, and surprises. With all of their old material and running gags, they could have stuffed the finale full of tributes to long-time fans. Even if they wanted to get Barney and Robin divorced, there were other ways it could have happened. But instead, they wanted to make their last episode something spectacular and they failed miserably. And even though they no longer need to care, they alienated their fanbase in the process.
As I look back at everything I've written here, even I find it insane that I've written this much about a series finale. But I'd suggest that this is the power of good storytelling. The HIMYM writers staff did so many things right over the years that they kept me coming back, even when they weren't at their best. The story was undeniably compelling. But it went so bad at the end, they deserve criticism. It shows that no matter how good your story is, it doesn't take much to ruin the entire thing.
*And by the way, why no reference to the Bob Saget narration at the end of the show? That reminds me: don't even get me started about the finale of Full House.