How I Met Your Mother | Britney Spears AKA Abby the Receptionist | Part 1

If the appearance had flopped, it’s hard to believe that it would have mattered much to the show. Sitcoms bring in special celebrity guests all the time, rarely because they’re talented actors. But Britney Spears the brand really needed the appearance to work. At a time when, fairly or not, Spears’ reputation was the lowest it ever had been, she had to prove that she could show up, hit her marks, and be professional. And Spears acquitted herself well enough to appear in a second episode in the series.


The five episodes that run between Spears’ two appearances—on March 24 and May 12, 2008—contain some of the series’ most beloved work: the beginning of Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin Scherbatsky’s (Cobie Smulders) romance, and the introduction of Will Forte’s Randy, the goat. There is also “The Bracket,” an episode in which Abby is a dynamic, off-screen force, and which indulges in the series’ worst impulse.

There are few characters in contemporary TV who have aged worse faster than Barney Stinson. As plenty of articles have pointed out since the series ended, at best, Barney’s actions are often incredibly misogynistic. At worst, they’re rape by deception. In “The Bracket,” one of the women who Barney has wronged (later revealed to be Abby) is on a revenge mission, sabotaging several of his attempts to bed more. At one point in the episode, Barney shows the gang a scrapbook full of photos he’s taken mid-coitus, photos at least most of the women don’t know exist. Later, Barney says he’s pretty sure he once “sold a woman.” As per usual, the gang laughs him off as “disgusting,” and the episode was received generally warmly—a contemporary review from The A.V. Club gave the episode a B and mainly complained that there “wasn’t enough Ted.”


The casually misogynistic culture that laughed off the behavior of Barneys in the ’00s is the same that laughed at Spears as her life fell apart. In “Everything Must Go,” Spears’ second and final on-camera appearance on the show, Abby and Barney briefly date (well, he pretends to) in a mutual effort to upset Ted. They sleep together, Barney feigns proposing, Abby thinks it’s real, and Barney gives her Ted’s address to get rid of her. Ultimately, Abby just becomes another disposable woman to Barney, and we never see her again.

How I Met Your Mother | Britney Spears AKA Abby the Receptionist | Part 2

In real life, these episodes are a crucial turning point in Spears’ comeback tour. Six months later, she landed her first number-one song in almost a decade with “Womanizer,” and it’s hard to imagine she’d have landed her Glee guest role or her judging gig on The X Factor had she not proven herself game on a show like HIMYM. The show benefitted too; Bays said in 2014: “By golly, she put our show on the map. It can’t be overstated. Britney Spears rescued us from ever being on the bubble again.” But watching these episodes back, it can’t help but feel like Spears ultimately lost more than she won.


As we learned during Spears’ more recent conservatorship battle, these years of her life sure sounded like a living hell. Even when her role was first announced in 2008, it was reported that Britney’s father and conservator Jamie Spears gave his 26-year-old daughter “permission” to appear on the show. It’s undeniable that Britney’s “breakdown” was some kind of mental health crisis, but, consciously or not, it was a moment when the icon rebelled against the expectations of her and a moment where she, destructively, exercised some control of her life. Maybe Spears was actually a fan of the show and maybe she really did want to do a guest role, but it certainly wasn’t her decision alone. “Ten Sessions,” an otherwise standard episode of television, may well have been the first in a long line of instances where Spears’ control was stripped from her.

Maybe Abby wasn’t the role Spears was born to play, but it might have been the perfect part for her at the moment. No, the manipulation of Abby is not some meta-commentary on the real-life manipulation of Spears. It’s barely even a coincidence. It was just a moment where the only role anyone could imagine Britney Spears playing was a woman who ultimately gets punished when she acts out of turn. And to hear the men involved tell it, it’s a role she really, really wanted to play.