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The Mother of all Good-Byes

Kids, it was the fall of 2013, and a complex, delightfully outlandish sitcom called ”How I Met Your Mother” was about to enter its final season; did we ever tell you the story of how it went from prime-time afterthought to beloved comedy iconoclast? Settle in…

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Stage 22 on the Twentieth Century Fox lot has been the home of some horrific violence. This is where simians took over the earth in Planet of the Apes and again in a 1972 sequel. It’s also where Lee Majors and his rad two-tone truck nabbed the country’s worst felons on The Fall Guy. But all that brutality is tame compared with what’s occurring on a soundstage dressed up as a Long Island Rail Road train where two women — a redhead and a brunette — are rolling on the floor, locked in a vicious death match over…a cell phone.

The action breaks: ”She’s real, folks, she’s real!” exclaims Alyson Hannigan.

And that, kids, is how Lily met The Mother.

Yes, that Mother (Cristin Milioti) — the title character of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother and the woman we saw briefly in the train station at the end of season 8 holding the telltale yellow umbrella and asking for a ticket to Farhampton.

As with the best episodes of HIMYM (pronounced Him-Yim), let’s start with the end: By the series finale this spring, Ted will meet The Mother. She will have a real name, instead of being known by a word that is usually followed by Earth, Teresa, or Jones. We will discover whether Robin and Barney get married. The mystery of the pineapple from season 1 will be addressed. (”We managed to book the pineapple after some intense negotiations,” says co-creator Craig Thomas.) The final slaps will be doled out in a miraculous fashion. There will be plenty of jokes abooot Canada. The show might even birth a spin-off. In sum, it will be legen — wait five pages for it —

WHOOSH! It’s the fall of 2005. The biggest sitcoms on the air — Will & Grace, Malcolm in the Middle — are long in the tooth, and TV execs are searching for the next Lost or Apprentice (hey there, Martha Stewart!), not the next big comedy. ”We came along in an era where people were starting to question if the sitcom was even relevant anymore,” recalls Jason Segel. Starring two relative unknowns (Josh Radnor as Ted, the protagonist; Cobie Smulders as Robin, the object of Ted’s affection) and a trio of actors who were looking to expand beyond the roles that had defined them (Freaks and Geeks‘ Segel as Marshall, Ted’s best friend; Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Alyson Hannigan as his fiancée, Lily; and Doogie Howser‘s Neil Patrick Harris as Barney, a guy who never met an Italian suit or a C-cup he didn’t covet), the comedy looked like nothing else on the air. It was a multicamera show that didn’t shoot before a live audience. It crammed 50 to 60 scenes into an episode instead of the standard 15. And the pilot kind of spoiled the ending of the series when the narrator, Future Ted (voiced by Bob Saget), declared that Robin, the beauty we had watched Ted pine for, was not The Mother. It was as if The Sopranos had aired its final fade-to-black scene first and then asked you to watch the whole series.

People tried to pigeonhole the fledgling program: It stars quirky twentysomethings, so it’s a Friends rip-off! No, it’s Lost: The Sitcom because it’s about a group of people searching for their identities on an island. In reality, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, who met at Wesleyan University, wanted to write a semiautobiographical comedy about their friendship. Thomas was Marshall — the guy who met his future wife, Rebecca, in college. And Bays was Ted, perennially on a quest for ”the one.” Regardless, HIMYM finished its first season in a glorious blaze of mediocrity — just outside the Nielsen top 50 behind Skating With Celebrities and Medium. To the cast and crew, that was okay. ”Too much attention too early in the run of a show cripples its creativity,” says Harris. The freedom of starting slow, he adds, ”allows for some creative, strange things and more elbow room.”

And strange things did start to happen. The show found fodder in loopy catchphrases, ’90s nostalgia, elaborately structured time-jumping episodes, and a deep mythology that eats up hundreds of pages of Internet wikis. (Is the Slutty Pumpkin HIMYM‘s version of Lost‘s Smoke Monster? Discuss.) The characters became more complex as the creators infused them with the real-life qualities of their stars. ”I’m quite certain that Craig and Carter think I’m Robin. They made Robin Canadian halfway through the first season because of me,” says Smulders. ”They called it ‘exotic,’ which is stunning and incorrect. ‘It’s going to be great, Cobie,’ they said. ‘We’ll talk about the wonderful things in Canada like universal health care and gun control.’ I think I got to make one mini-speech about it. Otherwise it was all abooot the accent — and Canadians being dumb and simpleminded. People love it, though. And Canadians do love it. I wish I was a teen pop star, but that definitely wasn’t in my past.”

Unfortunately, not everyone could be Canadian. So Lily’s adorable sensitivity and ”pregnancy brain” came from Hannigan; Barney became more emotionally rich, thanks to Harris’ range as an actor — and a magician, thanks to his ability to shoot fire from his sleeves; Marshall’s childlike wonder flowed from Segel (this is the man who lovingly rebooted the Muppets franchise, after all); and Ted got Radnor’s brains. In fact, if you want to talk feminist theory and how it relates to HIMYM, Radnor’s your guy. ”I’ve thought a lot about How I Met Your Mother in terms of an English paper,” he says. ”Like the whole show’s a gender flip, so Marshall and Ted are kind of like these gooey romantics and the women are these tough-talking, cigar-chomping, gun-toting, unsentimental characters. And then you have Barney, who is this kind of interplanetary parody of hypermasculinity.” (We told you he was really smart.)

While HIMYM was far from CBS’ highest-rated comedy, the show was one of the network’s youngest-skewing, which was enough to get it renewed. ”Never did they say, ‘Howie Mandel’s money-in-the-suitcase show is beating you. Introduce The Mother sooner,”’ says Thomas. After the writers’ strike in 2008, the show was one of the first to return to the air, roaring back with some of its strongest episodes ever (”Ten Sessions,” which included the two-minute date) and high-profile guest stars like Britney Spears who helped grab new viewers. Remarkably, its popularity has continued to grow in later seasons, which the cast and crew attribute to a 2011 syndication deal with FX and a pact with Netflix that same year. ”For the first six or seven years, I would be on TV every Monday night and I would never get recognized or approached,” says Smulders. ”It’s only been in the last year and a half. Syndication and Netflix have been huge for us. I will meet people who will tell me, ‘I just finished all seven seasons last night. I can’t believe I’m staring at you.”’

In May the show finished its eighth season in 15th place among young adults, with an average of 9.2 million viewers. To drum up excitement for this final year, the cast attended July’s Comic-Con in San Diego for the first time, and — somewhat unexpectedly for a series that features no goblins and only the occasional cape — the show’s panel was the most popular of the entire convention, according to a study by EW and General Sentiment. (In your face, Game of Thrones!) ”Comic-Con reminded us how many people really love the show,” says Bays. ”And it would be a shame for the party to end next spring.”

How’s that for a cliff-hanger?

WHOOSH! It’s the spring of 2013. A ninth season of HIMYM has recently been locked down — much to the surprise of the creators. After all, the cast’s careers have exploded since the start of the series. Segel is a prolific film actor and screenwriter (up next: shooting Sex Tape with Cameron Diaz); Hannigan, who is eager to do another sitcom once HIMYM wraps, appeared in American Reunion and is busy with voice-over work; Smulders smolders as Maria Hill in the Avengers franchise and cameos in the upcoming Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot; Radnor is a respected indie-film director (Liberal Arts); and Harris, who’s heading to Broadway this spring in a remounting of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, has a lock on hosting pretty much any awards ceremony on earth.

”We really thought for a long time we’d meet The Mother in the last episode [of season 8],” says Thomas. ”If you had talked to us last winter, we still would have sworn that would be the plan. Getting a ninth season was a huge game changer, and we realized we needed to extend the story. I think finding a way of showing The Mother to the audience but not to Ted was a nice compromise and a way to reward the fans.”

Picking an actress who could outshine the parade of women who have marched through Ted’s life — Ashley Williams as the much-loved Victoria, Sarah Chalke as Stella — was daunting. The creators knew they didn’t want to stunt-cast an A-list celebrity. ”TV is about discovering new people,” says Thomas, wisely. ”When you write a show for eight years called How I Met Your Mother, you better cast that fifth word of the title right.”

”Right” came in the form of Cristin Milioti, the 28-year-old Tony-nominated star of the Broadway hit Once. Thomas, Radnor, and director Pam Fryman, the show’s den mother who has helmed all but a handful of the episodes, flew to New York City for a performance to scout her and fell in love — just as they hoped Ted would. ”I left there thinking, ‘We found The Mother,”’ says Fryman. ”She slipped into this family like she’s been here since day one. She’s who we’ve been waiting for.” Adds Radnor: ”I met her a few days [after I saw Once] when she read with me. I read with two other actresses, but it was clear the creators really wanted her and she was the best person. I felt there’s a difference between someone who is Ted’s girlfriend and someone who’s going to be Ted’s wife. She’s a perfect choice because she has this innate warmth and sweetness.”

The Mother (still nameless) uttered only a sentence in the season 8 finale, but her appearance was shrouded in the secrecy accorded the presidential nuclear codes, the recipe for Coca-Cola, and the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body. To film her pivotal scene, Milioti was shuffled around the Fox lot in a golf cart at night. There was no script, and the set was on lockdown; in fact, all the extras were cast members. Says Milioti of the high security, ”I got to feel what the Pope feels.”

WHOOSH! It’s July 2013. Stage 22. The pontiff is not working today. The action has moved from a Long Island Rail Road train to the interior of a plane. A different pair — Marshall and Daphne (Sherri Shepherd, playing the same character Sherri Shepherd usually plays on a sitcom) — are preparing for Cellphoneageddon 2. Marshall, who is on a flight from Minnesota back to New York with baby Marvin in tow, is screaming into his phone, begging his mom to take down a photo from Facebook that, if seen by Lily, will spark World War III. Problem is, the flight attendant has already told passengers to shut off their electronic devices. So his seatmate, Daphne, acting like the airline version of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, starts wrestling him for control of the phone. ”Give me the damn phone!” she screams, as Marshall tries to instruct his clueless mother to remove the photo. The TSA is having none of this, however, and soon they are both kicked off the plane.

You won’t see the entire cast together for at least the first couple of episodes; the producers insist this is a creative choice, not one born of necessity due to the cast’s increasingly busy outside schedules. In fact, the first outing (Sept. 23 at 8 p.m.) unfolds like The Cannonball Run, with each of the characters racing to get to Robin and Barney’s wedding in the fictional town of Farhampton, Long Island. Marshall is stuck in Minnesota; Ted is driving; Lily, fed up with Ted’s driving (and leather driving gloves), takes a train; and Robin and Barney are sharing a limo, ferried by the gang’s favorite driver, Ranjit (Marshall Manesh). Speaking of, he’s just one in a cavalcade of guest stars who’ll return for a final bow this season, including Wayne Brady as Barney’s gay half brother, James; John Lithgow and Frances Conroy as Barney’s parents; Ted’s stepdad, Clint (Harry Groener); Ellen D. ”Nobody asked you, Patrice!” Williams; and Tim Gunn as Barney’s tailor.

Although the entirety of season 9 is set over the wedding weekend, there will be plenty of scenes, and perhaps entire episodes, that jump backward and forward in time. The sets for Marshall and Lily’s apartment as well as MacLaren’s are still standing. And Thomas teases that viewers may get more than a moment of Ted and The Mother together. ”You’re going to see more of The Mother than you think…. When we flash-forward, who’s to say that you can’t see glimpses of [her and Ted’s] future together?”

The creators — devoted students of pop culture — promise that this final season will reward loyal viewers. ”We’re using this season as kind of like the greatest-hits medley at the end of a rock concert,” Bays says. With zero publicity, the slap-bet countdown clock at theslapbetcountdown.com has been reactivated, and if it’s accurate the next slap will take place Nov. 18. Regardless, the episode will be called ”Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmara.” Marshall’s and Lily’s competing job offers collide in a typically wonderful HIMYM fashion. The fate of Robin and Barney’s relationship will be revealed. Tellingly, in two separate flash-forwards — one from season 7 to 2015, the other from season 8 to 2025 — Harris and Smulders try to sit on their respective hands for most of the scene, but in each case — kind of a spoiler alert? — their ringless left hands are briefly visible. (Don’t trust us? Robin: season 8, episode 16, 11 minutes, 56 seconds; Barney: season 7, episode 20, 20 minutes, 33 seconds — brought to you courtesy of freeze-frame.) Responds Thomas, ”There are plenty of married dudes — and Barney might be one of them — who don’t wear it every day. But props for noticing.” In fact, the creators promise answers for all the series’ mysteries — almost. Teases Thomas, ”We’ve toyed around with creating a little Internet video to be released sometime after the series finale to sort of pay off one last thing.”

WHOOSH! It’s late summer 2013, and the biggest question surrounding How I Met Your Mother is ”Will its universe actually end?” The Internet is ablaze with reports of a spin-off — maybe Milioti starring on How I Met Your Father. (After all, she is pretty much the same age as Radnor and crew when they started.) Or perhaps a new set of characters altogether. Bays and Thomas, huge fans of Cheers, admire how that show begat Frasier and are also very conscious of avoiding the one-season train wreck that was The Tortellis. ”It’s something that we’re thinking about,” says Thomas. ”There’s a world where the universe of the show can keep existing in a way that feels coherent to what’s come before, but new enough to be worth watching.” Hannigan has her pitch: ”I’ve always said the show ends and I’d enter the room saying, ‘That’s not how it happened. God, Ted, you’re such a liar. First of all, we were much older…”’

Don’t count on a spin-off featuring Barney, if Harris has anything to say about it, because he’s got different dreams for his alter ego: ”I hope 15 years in the future Barney’s dead,” he says. ”I hope he doesn’t just get old and inconsequential. You want him to die in some freak bungee-jumping accident or something equally as awesome” — dary.

How the Show Won’t End, Part 1
”I wondered if science in the future would catch up and it would turn out that I was The Mother,” says Segel. ”I also had a pitch for the final episode: Ted finishes telling the story to the kids, and they open the windows and there’s a postapocalyptic wasteland with a robot war going on.”

How the Show Won’t End, Part 2
”I’m trying to convince Segel to do the spin-off,” says Hannigan. ”He said he’ll do it if it’s called Out by Lunch and we can get out by lunch every day, and we only work a couple days a week. I’m like, ‘I’m in!’ We can do it — we work really quickly together.”

How the Show Will End
In 2006, the creators realized that Ted’s future kids (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie) were maturing quickly, so they taped the last two minutes of the entire series — evidence, they say, that despite the late decision for a season 9, their endgame was planned all along.

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