This article contains plot spoilers from an episode that is yet to air in the UK.
In the year 2030, a grey-flecked Ted Mosby sits behind a sturdy oak-panelled desk in a smart cable-knit jumper. Hands clasped before him, inclining his head towards the camera, he delivers perhaps the most preordained line in sitcom history: “And that, kids, is how I met your mother.” His two teenage children, who have, like the show’s long-suffering audience, been slouched on the proverbial sofa for nine seasons’ worth of meandering narrative in the hope of closure on their father’s incessant monogamies, share a shrug of exasperation. “That’s it?” “That’s it.”
How I Met Your Mother, which aired for the first time on CBS in 2005, was a lesson in the business of network television. It landed a weeknight spot on US TV just over a year after the demise of Friends, hoovering up an audience still in mourning for a particular brand of gentle, communal comedy. And it copied the Friends model to an audacious extent – a group of good-looking twentysomethings, grappling with economic and social realities while living in implausibly flash apartments and never, it seemed, actually going to work – but got away with it through a combination of nostalgia and Neil Patrick Harris.
A few nights ago in the US, the show finally wrapped. After nine seasons of slap-bets, ducky ties and casual anti-Canadian racism, the show that donated “The Naked Man”, “The Three Days Rule” and “The Perfect Week” to the lexicon of urban dating came to the mushy conclusion its audience had been rooting for. A show that had hung onto an unfashionable multi-camera set-up and a 1990s-style supply of canned laughter, that took place largely in an dank Irish bar, was unlikely to take a punt on a statement ending. It stuck, wisely, to its own formula, delivering on B-grade expectations.
But How I Met Your Mother tied off its loose ends with satisfying completeness, and between a series of jarringly depressing events (the inevitable divorce of Barney and Robin leaving a raw hollow in its usually buoyant account of romance) it allowed itself to breathe with the resurfacing of the series’ finest jokes. (Jason Segel’s Marshall, like David Schwimmer’s Ross, as the most educated of the group, bears an onslaught of teasing that only escalates the more he achieves. Now in the upper tiers of the New York legal profession he is given the moniker “Judge Fudge”).
Between self high-fives and “Haaave you met Ted?”s, the show resolves its many unknowns in a neat narrative loop that the makers of Lost would have done well to emulate. The Mother, the elusive engine upon which nine seasons have been predicated, is at last, in the final season, folded into the major characters’ circle. A chance meeting, it turns out, with a young woman on a remote railway platform, standing with the yellow umbrella that had cropped up in seasons past, was all that was required for Ted to find the one.
But of course, there isn’t just one. And in 2030, in the words of his weary children, six years after the premature death of their mother, the whole point of the story, really, was that he “totally, totally, totally has the hots for Aunt Robin.” Standing on a grey New York street corner, looking up at her silhouetted in the window above, a blue trombone in hand (pinched from a restaurant in an episode past), Ted shares a closing look with Robin – a look that says both, “We’ll be together forever,” and “We’ve nailed this ending.”
How I Met Your Mother was never a great show. It borrowed and contrived and clung like a barnacle to the received wisdom of how to satisfy a sleepy weeknight audience. But the criteria for what makes a sitcom good are not easy to define. Its role, primarily, is to pull a group of people, week-upon-week, into an environment in which they feel safe and happy, into the company of a group of fictional strangers who will grow to become fictional friends. And for 13 million Americans, this was the end of a beautiful friendship.