CBS may have been looking for something like the former show: an ensemble series about a group of young people, which was a type of sitcom the network had never really figured out. It got that, without question — “HIMYM” ended up running almost as long as “Friends” did (nine seasons vs. 10), and though it was never near the massive hit “Friends” was, it was a reliable, consistent performer for CBS. And as the overall network audience shrank in the show’s nine years on the air, those once-marginal ratings ended up higher and higher on the Nielsen charts.
The real legacy of “How I Met Your Mother,” though, may be as the most successful “Lost” clone ever produced — for both good and ill, as the sharply divided (and deeply felt, on both sides of the argument) reactions to the series finale suggest.
Obviously, the stories “Lost” and “How I Met Your Mother” could scarcely be much different (give or take a Jorge Garcia guest appearance). “Lost” was a global-scale, sci fi-tinged drama that posed questions about the very nature of our existence and our purpose in life. “HIMYM” took place largely inside a bar and an apartment upstairs and was concerned with five people and their love lives.
But the way creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas constructed and told the story of “How I Met Your Mother” makes the show a direct descendant of “Lost,” whether intentional or not. The 2005-06 season featured three sci-fi shows greenlit in the wake of “Lost’s” success the previous season. None of them, including CBS’ “Threshold,” lasted longer than a season.
Tucked away between an aging “King of Queens” and “Two and a Half Men” on Monday nights, though, was a critically well-received comedy about Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), his friends and his search for the woman with whom he wanted to spend his life. It went largely uncommented on at the time, but “HIMYM” was employing a lot of the same tactics that helped “Lost” stand out — flashbacks and -forwards, a sometimes unreliable narrator and a stories that looped back on themselves. More than any live-action comedy in recent memory, it rewarded close viewing and sustained viewing with call-back stories and jokes, and it tied off most* of the dangling plot threads by the end of the show’s run.
(*Even here, there’s a parallel: “What about the pineapple?” is the “HIMYM” equivalent of “Lost’s” “Who was in the outrigger?,” although it’s implied there will be an answer to the pineapple question on the final-season DVD set.)
Sitcoms tend to be semi-serialized in that they acknowledge the passage of time and record the milestones in the lives of their characters — children grow up, people get married, they change jobs. But that’s more a byproduct of a multi-season run than something built into the structure of a show. “How I Met Your Mother,” though, owned its serialization from the start — and what’s more, Bays and Thomas said repeatedly in interviews, the show knew its endpoint fairly early on.
Well, we can see how that worked out. As HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall pointed out in his review of the “HIMYM” finale, part of the ire over “Lost” and some other finales stemmed from the fact that those shows’ creators admitted they were making things up as they went along and adapting to ideas and actors that weren’t there in the beginning. Those who didn’t enjoy the “HIMYM” finale now have a counter-argument: Becoming beholden to a plan you laid out when you thought your show might not last more than a couple of years can prove just as problematic when your show ends up growing and changing for seven more.
The lesson the “How I Met Your Mother” finale taught, and that “Lost” and “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” and countless others before it did, is that it’s really tough to end a TV series in a way that’s pleasing to everyone who watched, or even most of those people. The time in which we live, where we can instantly and loudly proclaim our satisfaction or dissatisfaction for anyone online to see, only serves to magnify what a difficult trick it is to leave things just right.
As I said in my initial review of the “HIMYM” finale, my adverse reaction won’t diminish my affection for the characters or my love of the show’s best episodes. Disappointment about a TV show ending goes away; “Let’s Go to the Mall” will be awesome for eternity.