Many critics and fans felt cheated by twist in How I Met Your Mother finale. They should feel grateful.
There are three types of TV viewers: the surfers, the passive, and the devotees.
Surfers flip channels and watch anything that catches their attention. Passive viewers want comfort food: dramas that thrill them and sitcoms full of belly laughs. Devotees ask all that surfers and passive viewers want and more. Devotees also ask that those same shows are logical, well shot, acted, written and directed, all the while being original. Those same viewers, increasingly and unrealistically, ask fictional television to reflect and comment on reality. Few hours of television have done all that as well as the much scrutinized and often panned How I Met Your Mother finale.
Every show has a dogmatic core. Most dogma grows from each show’s investment in its apparent premise, and most shows don’t take it too seriously. In an era with many disposable sitcoms, How I Met Your Mother attempted to serve its premise; lead character Ted Mosby’s nine year long tale of his life up to the moment that he met hi children’s mother. It’s a tale of twenty-something ups, downs, laughs and heartbreaks. It’s also one of the more ambitious premises in the history of television.
In its early seasons How I Met Your Mother focused on its premise. Its highs were as high or higher than other sitcoms of its era. Even when it stretched its own logic it remained a solid show with a core full of relationships that remained emotionally real even when its storylines didn’t. That core, fused with the show’s devotion to its grand premise, earned HIMYM a likely spinoff and a devoted fan base that uncharacteristically grew as the finale neared.
That finale angered many critics and devotees. The critical consensus is that How I Met Your Mother discarded its devotion to its premise in favor of a surprising new path. Many devotees agree. Much like some critics, they took the show’s title at face value. They argued that the show was building toward a different conclusion. Both groups are mistaking poetry for prose.
In its finale HIMYM did what the best shows do: find realism in its dogma. The show embraced a truth that we often deny: all relationships are messy and imperfect, even those with happy endings. As promised, Ted met the mother of his children, but there’s a reason why he didn’t meet her until the show’s 208th episode, halfway through its hour-long finale. How I Met Your Mother was always about the journey, not meeting the mother of your children. It’s the decisions, the circumstances, the beliefs and the relationships minted along the way that matter. Change happens, friendships strain, hearts break, marriages end, people die, kids are born and many of us love more than one person and it’s OK.
The search for the mother was an excuse to shepherd viewers through Ted’s life and those within it, not a Disney tale with a happy ever after. And that’s about as real as a sitcom can get.