When How I Met Your Mother premiered in 2005, some people thought it would be a good sitcom, but virtually no one thought it was going to be an important one. It seemed like another Friends-inspired show about young white people in New York, with a cute gimmick to set it apart: The story is told in flashback by the hero’s older self. But, as the CBS show nears its series finale, airing in Canada on City on March 31, it’s becoming clear that it was something more. The tale of Ted (Josh Radnor) and his search for the woman of his dreams, supported by his circle of friends (Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan, Neil Patrick Harris and Canadian actress Cobie Smulders) came along when sitcoms seemed dead, and it’s going out when there are still few popular ones. In between, How I Met Your Mother showed how to do new things with the traditional sitcom format—and to appeal to viewers who might never watch a sitcom otherwise.
The creators of the show, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, didn’t intend to shake up the sitcom format. They just wrote a pilot script that happened to have a lot of scenes in it— and, once they were finished, they realized there were simply too many scenes for the show to be shot in the time-honoured way, in front of an audience on a few standing sets. “Our scripts were simply too ambitious to shoot in one night in front of a crowd,” Bays says. Thomas estimated to writer Dylan Callaghan that they had more than 1,300 scenes in the first season and a half of the series alone.
The creators and the show’s director, Pamela Fryman, came up with a method that would allow them to have dozens of short scenes while still using the brightly lit, multiple-camera sitcom approach. They shot without an audience, but got actors to play as if the non-existent audience were there. The show that resulted was something new: a combination of the broad, hammy style of the audience sitcom and the subtler style of the more acclaimed—but less popular—single-camera sitcom. “We get to decide, on a scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment basis, whether we’re a broad comedy or a nuanced chamber piece,” Bays explains. “Also, when you have an audience, you start putting too many penis jokes in the show, because those always get the huge laughs. We do enough penis jokes already without an audience egging us on.”
Along with that shooting style came an approach to storytelling that had sometimes been seen on U.K. sitcoms (Bays cites Steven Moffat’s Coupling as an influence) but rarely in North America. Most sitcoms told linear stories; even Arrested Development mostly had straightforward plots with a few flashbacks mixed in. But because the action of How I Met Your Mother took place in Ted’s memory, the writers were able to play games with chronology that previous U.S. sitcoms had only done in gimmick episodes.
“We got really interested in trying to translate how you verbally tell a story into a visual experience,” Bays says. “When you tell a story, you throw in asides, you back up to correct a detail you got wrong, you remember halfway through that the real story behind the story was actually something that happened yesterday, etc.” As Ted told his story, sometimes a scene would turn out not to have happened at all, followed by another scene showing us what really happened. Most episodes featured multiple flashbacks or flash-forwards within flashbacks.
Not only did the creators try to attract an audience that could follow this type of storytelling; they also targeted the place where that audience lived: the Internet. Before comedy shows started scrambling to create viral videos, How I Met Your Mother spun off a YouTube hit in a music video, Let’s Go to the Mall, which purported to be a ’90s pop hit sung by Robin (Smulders) when she was a teen star in Canada. The video was only shown in part on the show, but the full version—including a cameo by an actor playing a dancing Brian Mulroney—was released online.
Later episodes spun off such web content as a trailer for a fake film called “The Wedding Bride,” a movie within the show based on Ted’s own life. When a character mentioned a site called TedMosbyIsAJerk.com, fans went to the web address and found an original 20-minute song called Ted Mosby Is a Jerk. Other TV shows saw new technology as a competitor; the Friends gang rarely used the Internet. How I Met Your Mother embraced technology; it built one episode around the premise that people can find out everything about each other on the Internet. And it used that technology to attract a connected audience.
But what may have given the show a particularly passionate following was that it catered to fans who paid attention. Bays and Thomas’s show came along in an era when sitcoms were no longer hot; TV fans were instead talking about serialized dramas such as Lost, with mysteries that unfolded over many years. “I think we were at least hazily aware, back in 2005, that the way people watch TV was changing,” Bays says. “Craig and I were big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. That was the first show I ‘binged’ on, since I came to it late and only had the DVDs. I think, even back then, we always had an eye on how our episodes flowed from one to the next, and were very consciously trying to not just make a good TV show, but also a good DVD set.”
How I Met Your Mother became a good binge-watching experience by paying more attention to continuity than any sitcom before it. A recent episode focused on the story of the mysterious mother (Cristin Milioti), who only became a character on the show during the final season: Entitled “How Your Mother Met Me,” the story showed the mother’s connection to many of the events that had taken place in previous episodes, restaging old scenes to demonstrate that the mother was there all along. Most sitcoms, even serialized sitcoms such as Friends, seemed to reset themselves after each episode. How I Met Your Mother gave the fans the feeling that the writers were creating a self-contained world.
Even while fans were noticing all the connections between episodes, they were arguing ferociously about the big mystery: Who was the mother, and how did Ted meet her? The show dropped a few clues every year as to where, when and how the meeting would take place, and fan theories abounded; when it was revealed that a yellow umbrella would play a role in the story’s resolution, that yellow umbrella became far more famous and argued over than the Yellow King from True Detective. Thomas told the Los Angeles Times that one of his favourite fan-drawn conclusions was “a theory that the future Ted voiced by Bob Saget is like an escaped mental patient. He’s just holding these two kids hostage in some house in the suburbs.”
All this interactivity, all these mysteries and time games, created a sense of emotional connection that no other sitcom’s fans seemed to have. When a recent episode ended by suggesting that something might be wrong with the mother, fans worried that the future Ted might be telling the story after her death. “Please don’t let the mom die on How I Met Your Mother,” pleaded Margaret Lyons at Vulture, and 103 commenters showed up to argue over whether the creators would dare to end the series that way. Milioti told the Hollywood Reporter that these “crazy conspiracy theories” made her “love the fans more.” The fact that a sitcom—and one with a laugh track, at that—could inspire this level of pondering would have seemed strange in 2005.
It may be too early to tell whether How I Met Your Mother will have an influence on the history of TV. Like most sitcoms, the show’s quality became more uneven in its later years, and critic Alyssa Rosenberg recently argued that “the elements of the show that seem most influential as How I Met Your Mother winds to a close are some of its worst ones,” such as its male characters’ tendency to view women as sex objects, or the fact that the characters spend way too much of their time in a bar. No show has managed to copy How I Met Your Mother’s combination of traditional and non-traditional sitcom, or its long-term storytelling audacity—but that may just be because not everyone noticed how unusual it was. Bays says they weren’t trying to do something revolutionary, but “we were definitely not interested in being bored. I think Craig and I watched so much TV growing up that our attention spans wouldn’t know what to do with a story that’s three scenes on three sets.” So they created an old-fashioned sitcom for a faster-paced, more experimental new world of television—and, in some ways, television still hasn’t caught up.