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The How I Met Your Mother finale and how hard our craft is

April 11, 2014

Over the long course of this blog, I’ve used television shows to illustrate concepts in our craft. TV is often a medium that’s more shared than books. I could reference what Robert B. Parker did in Spenser but you probably haven’t read that. Or I could talk about what Mr. Grey did to Anastasia in 50 Shades of Grey, but I haven’t read that. And I can’t use YouTube clips of a book as a quick illustration.

Last month the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother ended after nine years. My son–a faithful watcher–hated the finale, with reason.

The series was supposed to be about how the main character–Ted Moseby–met his kids’ mom (duh). It starts with Ted being introduced to Robin–Aunt Robin. Ted falls in love with and dates Robin twice during the series. But Robin also dates Barney Stinson, a womanizing cad, twice in the series. And the last two seasons concentrate almost completely on how Barney casts aside his old ways and falls completely and truly for Robin. The last season is entirely based around Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend.

In addition, it took eight season to meet the mom. Her name winds up being Tracy, and she impacts everyone’s lives. It’s her who tells Barney to stop screwing around and be with the one he loves–which causes him to propose to Robin. She’s the one who Robin runs into–literally–when she has a last-minute set of jitters. She talks Robin down and the wedding happens.

After nine years of waiting, in the finale, Ted finally, finally meets the mother. And it was beautiful.

It was the perfect ending.

But it wasn’t the ending. The ending went beyond that. Robin and Barney got divorced. Barney went back to womanizing and wound up getting a woman (known only as #31) pregnant. Robin becomes terribly unhappy after the divorce and decides not to hang with her friends any more.

And worst of all, the mom gets sick and dies, leaving Ted alone.

And the ending winds up being Ted–with the blessing of his children–asking out Robin again.

When LOST ended, fans criticized the writers for not having a plan to end the show. This show’s runners had a plan. It was so well developed that they filmed the scene where the kids give Ted permission to date Robin in the show’s second year.

At the time, it was the right ending, but then a few things happened.

  • The characters of Barney and Robin (and the actors Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders) had chemistry that matched Ted and Robin’s. The writers capitalized on this and the on the rich characters they’d built to sell the new relationship, and they made us believe in that relationship.
  • They also built a rich character in the mom, Tracy McConnell (played by Cristin Milioti), that fans grew to very quickly like as a character, and like with Ted. And because the story was one of Ted’s long, faithful wait for the one, the fans were thrilled when they finally met. When the rumors and foreshadowing of her death started, fans were frustrated and annoyed.
  •  The show was good enough and popular enough that it ran far longer than the expected four or five seasons. After the fourth or fifth season, the story of Ted winding up with Robin would have worked. In the intervening seasons, the characters’ growth made that ending impossible. (Or as Barney might say possimbible.)

Even still, the ending was still just a few scenes from perfect. The first half of the finale dealt with the immediate aftermath of the wedding and drew us to the point where Ted and Tracy met in the rain at the train station. The second half dealt mostly with the future in which all the bad things happened. Within minutes, the payoffs of the last nine years–the happiness found by four of the six characters–was shattered. And the perfect ending was replaced with Ted repeating a scene from the series pilot when he tries to win Robin with  blue French horn.

Technically the ending was well-crafted. It tied the show in a knot and there were reasons for everything that happened. Except it didn’t work. It was 30 minutes too much. Over the space of more then 100 hours of content, this show was just half an hour off.

That’s still impressive, and it’s a testament to how hard our craft is.

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