Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote about how when anyone is on their deathbed—assuming they lived a long-enough life—they will start to see their life as a novel. Even those who don’t believe in a higher power will examine the story of their lives as if the ones they loved entered at just the right time, as if the high points and low points of a life conformed to some sort of Hollywood story structure. Yet in the moment, life rarely feels that way. It’s a collection of weird little blips that don’t seem to add up to much of anything. It’s in the process of re-conceiving those blips as a story, of reordering and editing information so it makes sense as a narrative structure, that we invent the tales we wish to represent ourselves. Life itself isn’t a story; the way we think about it is.
No TV series has ever understood this quite as well as How I Met Your Mother, which begins the final season of a long, mostly good run with an hour-long premiere that sets up the series’ most risky narrative gambit yet: The final season will take place over the course of one weekend, during which characters played by Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris may or may not get married. Even with two-and-a-half days of time to play with, there’s every possibility this could feel stilted and inorganic, particularly given how stretched out the last few seasons of the show have felt. Instead, it feels weirdly appropriate.
What viewers know and the characters don’t is that the series’ lead—played by Josh Radnor in the present and the voice of Bob Saget in the future (telling the titular story to his two kids)—is about to meet the woman the series has been building toward. She’s played by Cristin Milioti, and she was introduced in the eighth-season finale, almost singlehandedly saving a weak episode of television. In the stories we tell ourselves and each other about our lives, the moments of great importance—like, say, the moment when you met the love of your life—become like giant gravitational centers, sucking everything toward them and dilating the story until every second, every minute detail matters. That’s what’s happening here: The story is stretched so thin because it’s reaching its culmination.
Series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas (who write both halves of the premiere) have always flirted with this concept of time, with the way stories can dart in and out of each other, getting all tangled up in the process. The greatest fear about setting the entire final season at the wedding has been that the show would lose track of that quality within its DNA. Fortunately, Bays and Thomas have realized how un-Mother-like such a straightforward season might be. The premiere plays with time in ways that grow more brazen as it goes along, and the creators seem intent on making sure the series never loses track of its roots. There’s a lovely moment late in the first half-hour that explicitly plays off the gap in time between the fresh-faced kids of the show’s opening titles (unchanged since season one) and all of these actors nearly a decade later. Dealing with the passage of time can be a burden for a light, frothy sitcom, but Mother has always made it a virtue.
The series’ cast remains one of the better sitcom ensembles of the past decade. Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel, who’ve been left behind by some of the series’ latest seasons, step back into pivotal parts in these two episodes, while Smulders and Radnor are still capable of dancing between unlikable and just likable enough. Harris remains one of the great comedic forces of our time, even if his Barney Stinson feels increasingly like a collection of wheezy tropes. (There are gags here he puts over through sheer force of charisma.) The two episodes also make ample use of the series’ recurring guest cast and eye for fun day players. Roger Bart turns up in the second episode, and Wayne Brady is game for anything throughout.
It’s Milioti who’s the real revelation here, though. As the show’s writers have built her up, the Mother should be an impossible part to play, and there are moments when the script seems intent on making sure she’s the coolest, best woman Ted could ever meet. But Milioti is fantastic at undercutting each and every one of these beats. This could be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl extraordinaire, but Milioti makes her—at least for now—into a real woman while preserving the mystery at her center, the mystery that’s driven the whole series. For the series finale to have any punch whatsoever, the Mother has to be a character in her own right; Milioti goes a long way toward making that true all by herself.
In the end, this premiere shows the same traits as previous Mother successes. Though it can be wonderfully funny, it’s rarely the funniest show on TV, and though it can be cleverly written, that’s not its only claim to fame. Instead, Mother works best when it embraces the idea that this is a story, that it is heading somewhere, that there is something wonderful at its end. It’s easy to make jokes about how long Saget has been talking to those kids, or to turn the series’ premise into something dark and twisted, but the fact remains that this is a story about a man who was missing something, then found it all of a sudden on a rainy train platform on Long Island. It’s a story about hope, and in its final season premiere, it remembers that, over and over again.
Created by: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Starring: Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Cristin Milioti
Returning: Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Format: Multi-/single-camera half-hour sitcom
Two episodes watched for review