I’ve spent some time here at The Manofesto trashing the state of television in 21st century America, but I also feel as if I have given a fair amount of credit to what I consider to be great shows of both the past and the present. It’s just that there seems to be a lot less quality in the present, even though quantity is by far more voluminous than when I was growing up. Plus there are other things to do now, like spend time on The Internet and work for a living. Oh to be a child again. At any rate, one of the few fictional shows that I have enjoyed in the past decade was CBS’s Monday night juggernaut How I Met Your Mother, which recently aired its series finale after a 9 year run.
Series finales have always held a special place in my heart. I’m the sentimental type that hates saying goodbye, dislikes change, & embraces nostalgia with gusto. The television landscape has always been an unforgiving one, with shows coming & going faster than cars at a fast food drive thru. But that is why I learned to appreciate well written high caliber shows that stuck around for awhile. Due to my disability I didn’t get to do a lot of the things other kids did, so though I didn’t realize it at the time my childhood was a bit more isolated and solitary. Television was a good friend to that lonesome kid in the wheelchair sitting at home while others my age were out riding bikes & playing sandlot baseball, and to the teenager whose contemporaries were sneaking out to drink, smoke, & chase girls. So when a show I loved was ending and the finale came on it was a “moment” for me.
Even though I didn’t really care for M*A*S*H as a child I still remember the buzz around its finale in 1983…still one of the most watched television shows in history. The scene where Hawkeye Pierce is flying away in a helicopter while BJ Honeycutt spells out the word “goodbye” with rocks is iconic. I get a bit misty thinking about Joanie & Chachi getting married (and Mr. C’s toast) in the last episode of Happy Days in 1984. Probably the best finale of all time is the 1990 swan song for Newhart, which found Bob waking up in his old digs from the original 1970’s Bob Newhart Show beside former TV wife Suzanne Pleshette and realizing that all that Vermont country inn business with Larry, Darryl, & Darryl was just a dream. The 1993 finale of Cheers is probably more memorable for the cast’s live drunken appearance on The Tonight Show afterward. Nighttime soap Dallas ended its 13 year run in 1991 with a classic cliffhanger, this time leaving us wondering if JR Ewing shot himself. CBS cancelled soap opera Guiding Light in 2009 after a 70+ year run that preceded television, and even though the show had run out of gas years earlier the last episode was sweet & tasteful. So too was the end of 80’s powerhouse sitcom The Cosby Show in 1992, which ended with Cliff & Claire Huxtable literally dancing off the stage. The 1998 finale for Seinfeld was somewhat unsatisfactory, but in hindsight seems appropriate for the characters. Two of my all-time favorite finales are the final voyage of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1994 and the “death” of HBO’s Six Feet Under in 2005, both of which had their profound thought-provoking moments. One would be hard pressed to find a couple of hours of better television. And then there was the pleasant & tidy 1994 Friends finale, which basically saw each of the 6 main characters find a happy ending. Unrealistic?? Probably. But it left us with a smile on our face even though a show we loved was departing.
I use Friends as a segue on purpose. I’ve always thought that How I Met Your Mother shared a certain kinship with Friends. Both had a group of young adults hanging out together in New York. Friends had Monica’s loft, HIMYM had Lily & Marshall’s apartment. Friends had Central Perk, HIMYM had McClaren’s. Friends had Ross & Rachel, HIMYM had Barney & Robin…or so we thought. HIMYM never had the pop culture cache of Friends, and its cast never became quite the cultural phenomenon. However, HIMYM did things that Friends never even dreamed of. The non-linear storytelling, awash in flashbacks & flash forwards, with a framing device of a dad telling his children how he’d met their mother many years before, all pointing toward a specific end that the writers crafted before the pilot was even broadcast was daring, unique, and well done. That is until the finale.
It is at this point that I will be discussing specifics about the HIMYM finale, so if for some reason you DVRed it and haven’t had a chance to watch yet you may want to leave and come back later.
I’ve spent some time on Twitter and elsewhere online gauging reaction to the HIMYM finale, and the reaction seems to be about 60% negative. I guess that means that it wasn’t completely horrible. But it could have been so much better.
For starters, how dare the writers wait until the last season to introduce us to the mother and then so flippantly kill her off in the blink of an eye. Death in a sitcom is always tricky and should be used sparingly. HIMYM itself killed off Marshall’s father in season 6, but at that point it was a creative spark that spawned important growth in a main character. Some might argue that The Mother (her name is Tracy McConnell) wasn’t a main character but I’d disagree. We spent nearly a decade waiting for her only to find out she died?? Unacceptable. Part of the problem also is that the casting of Cristin Milioti as Tracy was so perfect that the audience fell in love with her instantly just like Ted Mosby. She was the perfect gal for Ted to find his happily-ever-after with…and then all the sudden she’s dead.
Secondly, HIMYM spent the entire final season showing us the 48 hours leading up to Barney & Robin’s wedding. Heck, they spent the last 2 or 3 years of the series building up the Barney-Robin romance (sort of a rough & tumble knockoff of Ross & Rachel). And then in the finale we see one fight three years into the marriage and POOF…they’re divorced. It was…just like the death of the mother…treated all too dismissively.
After the divorce it took Barney about 2 seconds to revert back to his smarmy womanizing ways, culminating with a “perfect month” in which he slept with 31 women. Classy. But then he finds out that “Number 31” is pregnant. Even in the hospital waiting room while the baby momma is giving birth Barney is hoping & praying that the child isn’t his. Even classier. All that gross insensitivity however supposedly goes away the moment Barney holds his newborn daughter. Neil Patrick Harris is a great actor, and that was a good scene, but for me it was too little too late. Seeing Barney’s character development in the past few years just tossed aside in the blink of an eye was disheartening.
I knew the moment that Tracy died that Ted was going to end up with Robin, and as mad as I was about The Mother’s death I still might have got on board with that if they would have gotten there in a different way. But to find out that the point of the whole framing device wasn’t a father telling his kids how he met their mother but rather a widower asking his kids if they’d be cool with him reuniting with his old girlfriend…well…it was a real kick in the nads. Total bait & switch. Unforgiveable.
Look, I kind of understand what the writers were going for. People get divorced. Parents die. Friends drift apart. And life moves forward. I get it. It’s not that I am completely against poignant moments or deep ponderations on life within the framework of a TV show. HIMYM had its share of such moments over the course of 9 years. I enjoy good writing that dives below the typical superficiality we see on most fictional shows. But the series finale is not the time for such seismic shifts in the landscape. A finale’s storyline shouldn’t be heartbreaking. Fans are sad enough that the show itself is leaving the air. We want…expect…to see happy endings for the characters. Some may argue that Marshall, Lily, Ted, Barney, & Robin got their happy endings. Maybe so. But they got them in such twisted & shambolic ways. Yes…life is messy. Real life. We watch television to escape reality…not to see it mirrored.
The HIMYM ending that the writers pre-conceived from the very beginning might have worked if they’d just done it slightly differently. If Barney & Robin would have wed by the end of season 8 (instead of spending the entire last season on the wedding weekend) and all the events we barely saw in the finale…Barney & Robin’s divorce, Ted & Tracy’s relationship, Barney’s new fatherhood, the gradual demise of “the gang”, Tracy’s sickness & death, Ted’s mourning & eventual need to move on, Ted & Robin reuniting…would have played out over two dozen episodes instead of a single hour then maybe…maybe…it would have made more sense. As written & produced though it left me and over half of the audience with a bitter taste in our mouths.
The creators of How I Met Your Mother have come up with a “spinoff” of sorts, called How I Met Your Dad. Just a few days ago I was all geared up for another fun ride. Not now. After the sucker punch perpetrated by these charlatans I will not waste my time with their “sequel”. Fool me once, yada yada yada. I have been lamenting the death of television for many years, but just when I think that maybe there is hope for this great medium and give my time, attention, & affection to what I feel is an above average show something like the HIMYM finale happens. It seems as though the powers-that-be had a trick up their sleeves that we didn’t see coming. It turns out that the fans lost our own slap bet, and the final smack in the face is going to leave a mark for awhile.