'How I Met Your Mother' Turns 200: Showrunners Talk Time Travel, Penning the Series Finale
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas look back on the nine-season run of their CBS comedy and sound off on stretching one weekend over 24 episodes and going into the future for the last episodes.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
How I Met Your Mother has bucked TV convention from the start. Ordered to series in 2005, the telling of one romantic's odyssey to find the woman of his dreams premiered on a schedule that had all but given up on the multicamera setup and canned laughter of traditional sitcoms. But the format allowed the CBS comedy, a modest ratings performer to start, to embrace a distinctive narrative flow of flashbacks, flash-forwards, blink-and-you-miss-them scenes and a carefully maintained canon -- more similar to a serial drama than any half-hour comedy.
"I think we just wrote the rhythm of the show that we wanted to see," says executive producer Craig Thomas, HIMYM's co-creator and co-showrunner alongside longtime friend Carter Bays. "We were never really the kind of writers who wrote big 15-page scenes. We think very cinematically and have been really influenced by guys like Quentin Tarantino. We wanted to see if we could take that aesthetic and put it on the multicam format."
Nearly a decade later, HIMYM's March curtain call comes at the end of a ninth and final season that's been even more aggressively unorthodox, telling the story of a three-day wedding weekend over the course of 24 episodes -- complete with a new castmember (Cristin Milioti) coming onboard as a regular after her 2013 introduction as the titular "Mother" who's been teased by the title and the story since day one. That whimsy comes to a head with the 200th episode on Jan. 28, told entirely from the perspective of the actress' unnamed character, who's only now meeting leads played by Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan, Josh Radnor, Jason Segel and Cobie Smulders.
"We'll call it half creative and half born of necessity," Thomas explains. "In the middle of season eight, we didn't know that we would even have a season nine -- so we were writing like it was the end. Sometimes you get more creative when you paint yourself into a corner. I think a lot of the playfulness of season nine has come out of that constraint of the three-day weekend."
CBS, studio 20th Century Fox, the producers and the cast ultimately settled on the ninth season being the series' final one after months-long negotiations ended last January with the decision that it was time to wrap up the story. Adds Bays: "It just grew in our heads to the tipping point where we had to do this [ninth] season. I think we would have cheated ourselves out of an amazing year if we had just ended it."
The ninth season, which will eventually culminate in Barney (Harris) and Robin (Smulders) tying the knot and Ted (Radnor) meeting the Mother, has still presented its share of structural obstacles. But Bays and Thomas are long accustomed to navigating the tricky chronology of the series' narrative that started simultaneously in 2005 and 2030. (Bob Saget, voicing the middle-aged iteration of Radnor's Ted, has narrated every episode to date.) "We always felt that if it got too claustrophobic, we had time travel as an escape hatch," says Thomas. "The 200th episode isn't confined to the three days. You see eight years of the Mother's life starting in 2005. We get to see her side of scenes that we've already shown the audience back in season three. There are a lot of callbacks to earlier in the series."
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The Milioti-centric episode comes after a handful of glimpses of the character, whose path has been crossing that of other characters -- all while Bays and Thomas have sparingly doled out flash-forwards to her life after meeting Ted. Upping Milioti to a regular, the first-ever cast addition for a show that's remained focused on the central five players from the start, had many speculating how much she would be used during the final season. "We didn't know for sure how much we wanted to use her, but we knew we needed her 'on call,' as it were," says Bays. "So we made her a regular. In hindsight, it took making the first half of the season to realize we weren't using her enough, but I think these last nine episodes correct that error nicely."
None of these changes, major or minor, seem to have turned off the show's loyal following. Averaging a 4.4 rating among adults 18-to-49 and 10.4 million viewers in its final season, HIMYM has actually improved 5 percent from last year -- as many broadcast contemporaries suffer double-digit drops. It will end its run as the No. 3 comedy on television, only outranked by heavyweights The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. It's also enjoying its a lucrative syndication, airing most nights on FXX.
"They know their series and their audience probably as well as any showrunners we've ever worked with. When they pitched the idea for season nine, it just seemed like another special form of storytelling," says 20th Century Fox TV's Gary Newman, who has overseen the series from the beginning alongside fellow chairman and CEO Dana Walden. She adds: "Ultimately, Gary and I both feel that Carter, Craig and [executive producer and director] Pam Fryman have earned the right to do almost anything they want to do with this show. They're very connected to their fans."
That kind of engagement is something that CBS brass is keen to keep going, even after the lights turn out on HIMYM. Entertainment chief Nina Tassler spoke about her affection for the show with reporters earlier in January. "It really broke the form in terms of having a comedy that had a mythology that ran the entire length of the series," says Tassler. "We feel that they've broken new ground, they introduced a new form, and that's why we're excited to talk about the spinoff."
Yes, a potential spinoff is indeed on the table. Bays and Thomas are working with Up All Night creator and former Saturday Night Live scribe Emily Spivey on a potential companion that adopts the premise with a new group of friends -- but it's not exactly the top priority for the guys, as they get ready to pen the one-hour series finale on the show that thus far has defined their careers.
"We're stalling writing it out of sheer nostalgia and fear that we'll be sobbing the whole time," Thomas says of the March 31 ender, "Last Forever." "In one episode, we're going to see 17 years in the lives of all our characters. We're going to catch the audience back up to the year 2030, when the story is being told by future Ted to his kids. It's a very big, ambitious hour. The big important things that will happen, a lot of those have remained true to our idea of how to finish the series that we've had basically since the pilot."
The long goodbye, bittersweet for some, has seemed to leave all on the show pleased with the year-and-a-half's notice they received in preparing for the end. It's a luxury afforded to a scant few TV series, particular comedies. "This really feels like a bonus season," says Harris, who will move back to New York shortly after the February wrap. "It's this wonderfully weird coda to our show."