For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
Television shows, like the babies born to casual acquaintances, attract intense scrutiny at their inception and in their early development. We make pronouncements on how they resemble their parents, cheer their precociousness, assess their promise. Then they turn into children, and we stop traveling in their circles. Before you know it, it’s nine years down the road, you catch a glimpse of a network promo, and the utterly unoriginal yet inevitable reflex reaction occurs: “I had no idea that was even still on. Remember when it was a big deal?”
No doubt some pop culture lovers had that reaction this month, as they reacquainted themselves with CBS for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and heard Verne Lundquist read some copy about how many How I Met Your Mother episodes are left while a picture of Neil Patrick Harris obscured the court. While HIMYM has anchored CBS’ Monday schedule for almost a decade and viewership overall peaked in the show’s seventh season, NBC’s slate of more adventurous (and less profitable) sitcoms elbowed it out of the critical conversation after its first few seasons. Those viewers must feel like anyone who caught ads for ER during the early season of The Office: “I haven’t heard anyone talk about it in years. Wait, is that Maura Tierney?”
That reaction has everything to do with the trend line of what’s hip and what’s now, and CBS is neither. Among folks who make distinctions between networks, it’s the old folks’ home. When CBS isn’t feeding the Murder, She Wrote demographic with its daily and indistinguishable tray of acronym-heavy procedurals, it’s pandering to a lowest-common-denominator audience with broad vaudeville acts like The Big Bang Theory and The Millers. Becoming a hit on CBS is almost a badge of shame, a sign that your show appeals to the pablum-and-formula set. And while allowances can be made for prestige dramas like The Good Wife and Elementary to flourish on the network, no such leeway exists for a sitcom. Anything that draws eyeballs between Two And A Half Men and 2 Broke Girls is tainted by association.
In a January 2014 post on UPROXX, Josh Kurp offers some advice to Parks And Recreation following the preliminary announcement of its seventh-season renewal: “Be more like Cheers, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and 30 Rock, and less like How I Met Your Mother, The Office, Scrubs, and Roseanne.” Caring about the characters more than the comedy is Kurp’s prescription for avoiding a drastic drop in quality. Parks And Rec continues to excel “because the writers have taken the Cheers model to heart, and rarely betrayed their characters. Michael Schur & Co. won’t sell out everything we know about April for a cheap joke… Parks is first and foremost about the characters, then the gag.” He identifies the decision to couple Barney and Robin as HIMYM’s fatal flaw: “For many, Robin and Barney getting together was the beginning of the end of How I Met; there’s the dreaded love-triangle factor, of course, but it also resembles what Friends did, with Joey, Ross, and Rachel.”
At its outset, no one could talk about HIMYM without talking about Friends. The connection is obvious: single young adults hanging out in New York City. Alan Sepinwall, writing about the show a few episodes into the first season, called it “the best Friends knock-off ever made, but it’s still a Friends knock-off.” The A.V. Club summed up its debut with the hope that it could endure: “Even though Friends has only been off the air for a year, TV could use another show like it.” And James Poniewozik echoed: “I can’t pretend this is anything but a well-executed Friends ripoff. But I’ll be there for them anyway.”
As Kurp’s post proves, the comparison is still alive in 2014. HIMYM, maybe more than any other sitcom that has gotten to nine seasons and 200 episodes, has never been allowed to be compared to itself. It’s Friends with single-camera elements; it’s Arrested Development that panders to the masses; it’s Seinfeld with a premise; it’s Lost with studio-audience laughter. Everyone, and critics especially, need to pigeonhole creative works in order to figure out what standards to apply to them. But it does make one wonder whether the distinctiveness of the show, the fusion of elements that makes it unique, disappears in the discussion, buried under a wave of expectations about what people think it should be.
As the show sailed past its originally planned eight seasons into a ninth, criticisms of its perceived decline—and the creative and business decisions perceived to be responsible—abounded. Many of these criticisms cluster around Kurp’s point: Ensemble comedies start to run out of ways to have the characters interact if they go on too long, and wind up, in desperation, nakedly ringing the changes on the available conflicts and romantic entanglements. If you see Barney and Robin as the only available regular cast members who could engage in on-again off-again couplehood culminating in a big wedding—the tried-and-true sitcom special event ratings grabber!—then their romance is a clear signal for the show’s creative bankruptcy. More damning still, this turn of events comes about because of creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas and their presumed weakness in the face of CBS’ desire to squeeze more money out of the franchise.
Is this an accurate view of How I Met Your Mother? The show differs from any of Kurp’s sitcom comparison points, because of its intense, labyrinthine serialization; surely that makes some difference when criticizing major plot arcs. As the last season has unfolded, borne on the wings of an accelerating wind of callbacks and resolutions, it seems increasingly unlikely that the central organizing principle of Barney and Robin’s wedding originated out of creative bankruptcy. Instead, it seems perfectly designed to force the protagonist—who kicked off the entire show by romancing Robin, and whom Barney counts as his best friend—to confront the hopes and fears that cut most deeply. The wedding is where the gang’s youthful possibilities irrevocably merge into the lanes of adulthood.
Heavily serialized shows, more than episodic ones, suffer from a posted check-out time. If a serialized drama makes plot or character decisions that anger or alienate fans to a degree that they feel betrayed, they aren’t likely to stick it out and hope for better; they’ll pull up stakes and depart, perhaps never to return. That’s because plot and character decisions play out over multi-episode arcs, at the very least. By the time viewers have a chance to see them and react, the next several episodes that continue to play out the consequences of those decisions are already fixed and unalterable. You can’t tune back in next week and hope that the creative team has forgotten all about Kalinda’s ex-husband or Landry’s foray into manslaughter. You’re going to have to decide if you can live with it, for as long as the arc lasts, or maybe for as long as the show lasts (if it’s something not easily reversed, shelved, or forgotten). Attempting that level of risk with the sitcom, which as a genre is designed for far more ephemeral pleasures, surely sets the few shows that have tried it into a class of their own.
In particular, the closed-endedness of How I Met Your Mother, its fixed termination point toward which the plot steadily must unfold, makes it unique even among the few heavily serialized comedies. Depending on your point of view, this is either a promise to the audience—one that the creative team has always understood to be in danger of violating—or a crushing weight under which the show labors, a burden both the audience and the show’s personnel long to be rid of. It’s fascinating to go back and read Sepinwall’s quick, blog-style reviews of the first season of HIMYM. (Back in those long-ago days of 2005, he was almost alone in doing episodic takes on a relatively wide range of current shows.) His consistent assumption is that the creators erred spectacularly in specifying in the pilot episode that Robin wasn’t the mother, and that the only way to redeem themselves is to put that blunder in the rearview as quickly as possible:
I think the creators are making a big mistake being so definitive that Robin isn’t Ted’s future wife. Ted is a lot more interesting and likable when he’s with her than he’s been with any other woman, but barring some real Houdini writing, they’re destined to stay apart.
By the end of the season, he’s hopeful that the team has taken his notes by making Robin one of the core group of friends, and that the promising elements of the show won’t be swamped by a premise that encourages writers to paint themselves into corners:
I like all the time cuts and use of music and other structural tweaks, and I obviously like all the people. So let’s see what the show becomes now that, hopefully, we can put the error at the end of the pilot behind us.
There’s the other aspect of the show that was readily perceptible right from the start: The stylistic mix between traditional multi-camera framing and pacing, and single-camera freedom. Scenes were often grounded in a familiar set (the booth at McLaren’s, the sofa in Ted’s apartment), but integrated rapid, multiple flashbacks that break through the “plausibly live” stage-play conventions of the multi-camera form, exhibiting the kind of cinematic structure (especially with regard to smash-cut editing) associated with more ambitious comedies that had abandoned studio audiences and laugh tracks. That distinctive style, along with the distinguished supporting players in the ensemble (Alyson Hannigan from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Jason Segel from Freaks And Geeks, and former child star Neil Patrick Harris) attracted attention from critics, even if some felt that the adulterated, not-quite-single-camera style didn’t go far enough, that Ted was an uninteresting lead character, or that the supporting ensemble was going to waste.
But all these takes assume that the apparent closed-endedness of the show is a gimmick, not a mission statement. HIMYM arrived during a mini-trend of comedies with checklist-ticking premises: 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter, Worst Week, My Name Is Earl, Samantha Who? At the outset, the show’s premise circumscribed a fixed blank space, and people projecting its prospects perhaps understandably felt that the creators would fill it mostly with improvisation and experiment, rather than follow any long-range vision that could circle back to make sense of a choice in the pilot. That’s what leads to the view that “Aunt Robin” was a misstep that needed to be worked around, rather than a framework with the potential to shape that blank space and suggest meaning years in the future.
By the time Ted reached the middle of his story, around seasons four and five, the show’s long game had become much better understood by its audience. The ensemble was going to have adventures, together and separately. Hints would be doled out on a variable-reward schedule about the mother’s characteristics and whereabouts. Ted was going to have some flings and some more serious relationships, none of which resulted in him meeting the mother, because they violated one or more elements of the revealed profile. Those serious relationships, though, continued to be a thorn in the side of many fans and admirers. Now that it was clear that the Mother would remain in the future, anticipated but not seen, the week-to-week conversation about the show was dominated by frustration that the writers would bother hooking Ted up with anybody else. How could we be expected to invest any energy caring about a relationship that, by virtue of the entire premise of the show, was doomed? Isn’t imposing on our patience by pushing the eventual meeting of the mother farther and farther away—and having Ted muddle about aimlessly in the meantime—the height of cruelty and disdain for those patiently waiting for the payoff?
The “mythological” details of the show hardly dominated at this point, but it was obvious to all observers that there was no longer any chance the premise would fade into the background. An endgame was being promised, although the timing of its arrival obviously had more to do with networks and star contracts, and less with optimal flowcharting. Debate continued in the critical community about whether the prophecy of the mother was a feature or a bug, but it made no difference to either the business or creative proposition of a show now past 100 episodes and into bonus time. Dealing with that reality, for viewers and critics alike, meant coming to terms with what Jason Mittell calls “narrative complexity,” the aspect of serial television that tends to focus viewer attention on keeping track of something—time, events, characters. What happens when, to whom, and whether we’ll ever find out more about X: these are the questions that the show regularly raises, asking viewers to fit the pieces into the larger narrative. In a discussion about the relation of these narratively-complex serials to the soap-opera tradition, Mittell makes a point that’s surely central to the joy avid viewers found in a maturing HIMYM. His example is a moment in Lost’s fourth season when Claire meets her father, whose identity had been revealed in the previous year, but not mentioned since:
Because this hypothetical viewer (which mirrors my own experience, at least) is aware of this relationship but has forgotten it from working memory, the show allows for a moment of narrative pleasure unique to the serial form: the sense of being surprised by what you already know.
But the closed-endedness of HIMYM seems to make narrative complexity into a torture chamber, at least for some viewers. We know where we’re going, although we don’t know the details. Why should we care about the scenery along the way, if the destination is already set? Each carefully dropped clue that further constrained the mother’s identity seemed at once to get us closer to what the title promised, and to make it harder to muster up enthusiasm for it. Narrative complexity can be enjoyable for its own sake, certainly, but the determinism of HIMYM seems to undercut that—even deny it to the viewer.
Is this a design flaw? Only if a complete map of time, characters, and events is the goal of the narrative—and few narratives worthy of any regard would make this their goal. No, the plots themselves are supposed to serve more significant goals: eliciting emotion; wrestling with existential conflicts; revealing character; documenting growth and development; prompting identification, self-understanding, pity and awe. Midway through the show’s run, whether you saw anything deeper in HIMYM—underneath the Inception-esque obsession with nesting timelines, Urban Dictionary-esque enthusiasm for inventing jargon, and humor continuum ranging from screwball banter to slapstick slapping—depended on your assumptions. Some fans came for the jokes, some for the characters (by now old friends), some for the cartographic reward of keeping track of those narratively complex details.
But as the expiration date for Ted’s story drew near, many came for moments and meanings that resonated more deeply. The thematic possibilities of the premise came alive in episodes like season eight’s “The Time Travelers,” when the narrator, speaking from 17 years later, longs for an extra 45 days with the woman that his past self hasn’t met yet. The closer Ted’s story got to his stated point, the more the gap in knowledge between the Ted telling it in 2030 and the Ted living it in the viewer’s present day ached with poignancy. This character has been waiting for “the one” since the pilot, and as his friends all found their futures, he has grown more convinced that his chance for love has slipped away. He’s become a supporting character in his own tale, simmering with despair that can, at any moment, slide into desperation. And a desperate character is unpredictable. Who could have imagined that when the show’s timeline reached the very day of the titular event, viewers would still find their anticipation mixed with dread—because even though we know what’s going to happen, we don’t know how? The depth and emotional heft of those remaining possibilities arises from that oldest of all narrative devices: dramatic irony. We know what the character does not, so we watch in hope and fear as he plays out his role in a state of ignorance placing him in the path of dangers invisible to him, but obvious to us.
“A work is not about what it is about,” Ebert’s Law states. “It is about how it is about what it is about.” As the series draws to a close, the lines between plot, mythology, and character have begun to blur, merging into thematic pools into which the whole nine-season run now gazes in self-contemplation. And Ebert’s Law seems now to eclipse the interpretations and criticisms that dominated this show in its infancy and adolescence. How I Met Your Mother, contrary to its own title, is not about how Ted met their mother. It is about how it is about that. That bracketing “how” needs several descriptive dimensions. Stylistically, it plays with time and memory to conceal and reveal information. Structurally, it nests stories within stories within stories. And thematically, it returns over and over, and with increasing frequency as it nears the end, to a few human experiences. Maturity. Loss. Idealism. Despair. Compromise. Failure. Fate.
No one could have guessed that Ted’s torch for Robin, which she did her best to extinguish in the show’s first 22 minutes, would provide the real roadmap to the character’s development. Accepting that her role in his life wouldn’t be determined by his dreams, but by hers, is the crucial step into maturity that allows the end of the story to happen. Certainly this wasn’t all laid down in the original vision, at least not in the exact way it has unfolded. Yet that’s the real value of narrative complexity: not the fetishization and mapping of detail, but the attitude that all details have the potential to exist for a reason. It is up to the storyteller to remember them, recognize their promise, and retrieve them for their most fitting use. In retrospect, this is surely one of the singular characteristics of HIMYM: Few long-running shows, let alone comedies, see their pilot grow in importance from beginning to end. Typically, a pilot’s premise-setting and statements of purpose are eclipsed by later developments.
None of this matters if you are among the people who checked out when Ted made his subsequent plays for Robin, or when Barney and Robin became a thing, or when Zoe became Ted’s umpteenth not-Mother girlfriend. Serialization seems designed to make us care about such matters, and when the caring thus prompted isn’t rewarded with tangible fulfillment or perceptible forward movement, we can justifiably decide to cut our losses. But we can also decide that serialization, especially in a show that has committed itself to an endgame, isn’t just about the plot timeline; it’s about an opportunity to view that timeline from a perspective that gives it meaning. In the middle of the journey, we may know the guidebook description of the destination, but none of us can definitively say whether the guys driving the train are taking us somewhere we want to go. We nervously read the clues, recollect our past experience in their hands, and decide whether we trust that the destination is worthwhile. As the train pulls into the Farhampton station on How I Met Your Mother, those of us who are still on it have a chance at seeing something rare and beautiful. And to think we knew it when.
Next time: Erik Adams gets to know The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis.