Thoughts on How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) and the Idea of Fan Ownership

Note: 1 has my thoughts on How I Met Your Mother as a whole. Skip to 2 if you want to read my thoughts on the series finale and ending. Warning, there are massive spoilers (duh). Skip to 3 if you want to read about the problem with Fan Ownership.

1. I’m sitting here having just watched the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, enduring the very same long and pensive silence that usually follows flipping the last page of a book. It’s an odd mixture of feelings to have and one that I’m sure many people will understand. There’s the satisfaction of finality, at having an ending and having experienced the journey; yet there is also sadness at no longer having the opportunity to spend time with the characters and world created within the story. Though both books and television progress in series, books – much like the new viewing format Netflix is trying to create – are a user-controlled experience. Though I cannot speed the publishing process of the next book in a series, once I have it I can experience the story as fast as I can read. When people my age talk about binge-reading, they are usually referring to the Harry Potter series. Though I am not as fervent a fan of the boy wizard as some of my friends, do not think for a moment that I did not wait in line at the bookstore to get Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the day it came out and spend the following thirty-six hours reading it.

A television series is different. If you are fortunate, or unfortunate enough in some people’s opinion, to catch a show from the beginning, then the journey is long indeed. One episode a week for four or five months a year, depending on the show. That’s a big commitment and one that lends an odd sense of emotional weight the longer a show continues. When you get to the nine seasons that I spent watching How I Met Your Mother, that’s quite a meaningful amount of time.

Much like the Office, and to a far greater extent Lost, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to HIMYM pretty early on. I began watching the show in 2008 and have watched it ever since. Of course there were times when the show faded from the forefront of my mind, but I never abandoned it entirely. This is because HIMYM is an easy show to like. Though I could say that it’s the creative storytelling format, the likeable characters, or the running gags that make HIMYM so watchable, I’d be lying. Those are indeed parts of the equation, but I think the simple charm of HIMYM comes from its focus: love. Love is the foundation for the entirety of HIMYM.

Told almost entirely in flashback, HIMYM tells the story of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and his arduous quest to find “the one” (and subsequently to describe this experience in great detail to his children so they know all of the events that led to him meeting their mother). Yet no love story is told in a vacuum. Ted’s recounting of his long journey involves his experiences with a small, close-knit group of friends that defined many years of his life. These friends are the college sweethearts Marshal (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), the womanizing and eccentric Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), and the aspiring news reporter, Robin (Cobie Smulders).

Though some may say that throughout the show’s nine seasons character motivations were sometimes questionable and the story aimless, it is the strength of these five characters that kept people watching. The chemistry of the cast is apparent from the first episode and the performances throughout, though exaggerated when required, never seem disingenuous. Josh Radnor embodies the overly-romantic, everyman that is Ted Mosby, a man who is convinced that fate inexorably draws those meant for one another together.  Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel portray a young couple throughout the early years of their relationship. Though they have their fair share of silliness, the growth and maturation of the relationship between Lily and Marshall over the years is one of the great strengths of the show. Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson, often considered the highlight of the cast, is the most overtly comedic and ridiculous main character. However, such is the talent of Harris that Barney is also capable of displaying some heart and he is able to be serious and grounded when the story demands. Cobie Smulders portrays Robin, a complicated woman that is often confused about what she wants, but in a way that does not diminish her strength or intelligence as an individual. The constant romantic tension between her and Ted is a foundational pillar of the show and one that is thoroughly explored in interesting, yet believable ways.  

The plot inevitably strays from the main story over the course of the show’s nine seasons, but that is understandable given its 200+ episode run. Though some arcs are less important to the overall plot progression, there are a number of fun tangential stories that are both memorable and clever. As far as a three camera sitcom, HIMYM rises above the rest of the crop thanks to its inherently open-ended storytelling format. Complex layering and flashbacks within flashbacks lead to some unexpected plot twists and genuinely surprising laughs, with the writers taking full advantage of their unreliable narrators. This format is coupled with well-placed callbacks and recurring jokes; while they may not be as uproariously funny as those in Arrested Development (“I’m Mr. Manager.” “Well, just manager.”), they will no doubt make you smile nearly every time.

If you could not tell from the previous paragraphs, I love How I Met Your Mother. While it may not have been completely brilliant every episode, I think the appeal of HIMYM goes back to its main focus: love. Is Ted Mosby an overly-romantic idiot most of the time? Yes, but he is a good person, and so are his friends for the most part; their experiences as they struggle to find and hold onto love are relatable and the show makes sure that it doesn’t neglect reality when it comes to the most important points. Some people break up. Some people die. That’s life and that’s why I appreciate HIMYM.

2. Now I discuss the series finale. Fair warning, Massive SPOILERS ahead.

I was originally surprised when I read about the fan uproar over the HIMYM series finale. There were a number of Facebook and Twitter posts declaring that fans felt both “betrayed” and “slapped in the face” by the finale. Some claimed that the entire run has been tainted by the ending. To summarize: the Mother, played with a perfect balance of charm and intelligence by Cristin Milioti, after having two children with Ted and subsequently marrying him, dies some years later of an unknown illness. Ted, having told this long and winding tale to his children, is then convinced by them that the whole story proved how much he loved Robin and that he should go after her since she and Barney were now divorced. Ted does so in classic Ted fashion, making another grand romantic gesture, appearing outside her apartment with the one and only blue French horn, bringing the series full circle.

Fans have taken issue with this, saying that the story, rather than being about the Mother, somehow wound its way back, once again, to Robin. Though I must admit I have always been a fan of Ted and Robin, I feel that this ending makes sense for a number of reasons. The first is that the story, while being the namesake of the show, is not about the Mother. Using a bastardization of a tired expression, the show was about the journey, not the destination. The show was originally going to end with Ted meeting her at Farhampton train station at the end of season eight. In light of this, I think we’re fortunate that we had the time we did with Milioti’s ludicrously likeable Mother. It was brief, but telling of the great love that she and Ted had for one another. We jumped around in their relationship and saw all of the parts that fans had been yearning for since the beginning of the show. We saw how Ted and the Mother met, their first date, their first kiss, them with their children, and most importantly, them happy. This ties into the wedding, which led to their meeting.

Some have said that season nine was wasted upon Barney and Robin’s wedding because it was immediately invalidated by their divorce in the first part of the series finale. On this, much like the subject of the brevity of the Mother’s appearance, I think fan focus has been misdirected. Seeing the difficulties that Barney and Robin had in the days leading up to their wedding, including their problems and doubts centered on Ted, it was clear (as many have thought throughout the series) that Barney and Robin were not meant to be. This is not to say that they did not love one another, but rather that some relationships just don’t work.

Building on this, on the whole, I believe that the finale took a surprisingly realistic tone. Though Ted has lived in his stories (something that the Mother warned him against in a surprisingly touching bit of foreshadowing earlier in the season), life doesn’t happen like that. There is no arc for a real love story, no eternal happiness at the end. This goes for platonic love as well. The characters aged in the last two episodes, they grew apart as they had families and pursued careers. Some people changed, some stayed the same. For Barney, it took him having a child to love someone else more than he loved himself. For Lily and Marshall, compromise and communication was key to their relationship enduring. These are life events that came off as incredibly genuine for me because the show pulled no punches with the ending. People get divorced. People die. Life goes on.

Finally, the Mother dying did not strike me as a great betrayal because Ted himself said that he knew he had to love his wife as much as he could for as long as he could the moment he met her. It seems that people are missing that Ted moving on after her death in no way invalidates his great love for the Mother. Throughout life, people can love more than one person and there’s no doubt that Ted loved the Mother, he did, but he also loved Robin in a completely different way. This is the reason why I was not disappointed with the ending. Instead, I was surprised by the genuine heart that it showed. It did not give people a storybook ending, but rather an ending uncolored by fantasy.

3. Which brings us to the idea of Fan Ownership, a phrase which seemed the most appropriate for this type of backlash. I would describe fan ownership as the phenomenon in which fans of a narrative work of art feel ownership over the characters and stories within said work. Though they take no part in the creative process, they feel that the work, having been given their attention and emotional investment, must proceed in a way that satisfies them in order for its existence to be justified.

In relation to the finale of HIMYM, those who are fans of Game of Thrones will remember a similar backlash after the finale of season one of the HBO show, where a main character was unexpectedly killed. Understandably, people were rather upset at this turn of events and stated how they were surprised this character was not saved by some last minute plot contrivance and felt betrayed since the character had been featured heavily in promotional material and had been considered the main character of the series. In this way, it would seem that fan ownership is defined by expectation and fulfillment of storytelling conventions. When someone subverts these conventions (*shakes fist angrily at the sky, cursing George R.R. Martin*), people get not only upset, but often livid with anger.

I understand that being a part of a fandom is a special experience. I love The Lord of the Rings films. I love them so much I can pretty much quote all three from beginning to end. I love the Hobbit as well. Being a fan of these things, I feel that I am a part of a larger community, brought together by mutual appreciation and love. However, though I adore these films, I am not in position where I was able to affect the outcome of these adaptations. They do not represent my creative vision, but that of director Peter Jackson. I have no ownership over them, no matter how strong my feelings are towards the source material. I may be upset that something was not portrayed the way that I imagined, but I was not the one that nurtured this idea from concept, to script, to the big screen. That was someone else, a person who fulfilled their own creative vision the way in which they wanted.

People are understandably passionate about works of art that they enjoy. HIMYM is one of those works and though it may not have ended in the way some people desired, it ended in the way that the creators desired. Feelings of betrayal and indignation at the ending, from what I’ve gathered from others and my own experience having been upset by some endings myself, comes from a failure to meet an individual’s expectations. Does a person have a right to be upset? Of course. Is a book, show, or film required to meet a person’s expectations? I believe that the answer is no. As a writer and creator myself (albeit far less successful), I feel ownership over my characters and my stories because I made them. I bled them into the page with a great amount of time and effort. Those who read my work may like some parts and dislike others, but when the day is done, the work still represents my artistic vision, unencumbered by the expectations of those who may experience it. I own it, much like Carter Bays and Craig Thomas own How I Met Your Mother, and how George R.R. Martin owns the characters within A Song of Ice and Fire, the series upon which Game of Thrones is based. To be a fan is a great and wondrous thing, but it in no way entitles someone to accuse the creator of doing something the “wrong” way. There is bad writing. That is certain. Yet all decisions are a conscious choice by the creator. Being a fan is not an interactive experience. Being a fan means you’re just along for the ride and I think that realizing that goes a long way in remedying both old hurts and new annoyances.

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One thought on “Thoughts on How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) and the Idea of Fan Ownership

  1. I couldn’t agree more, I (creepily enough) actually predicted this ending. The love and tension that Ted and Robin share starts from the day they met and lasts through every relationship that either of them had, with the one exception being Ted’s relationship with the Mother (though that could partly be explained by Robin’s absence during that relationship). Like you said, people die, people get divorced. I admire the realistic turn that the show took, and I thought it was completely appropriate and in my view, not entirely surprising.

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