In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t like sitcoms), last week saw the long-anticipated end of How I Met Your Mother’s nine-year run.
And it sucked. It blew major chunks. It bit monkey butt. It died kind of like—
Oh, wait. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want spoilers, STOP NOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. HERE BE SPOILERS FOR BOTH HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER AND FRIENDS. Though if you don’t want to be spoiled on a show that ended a decade ago, um, well, just go somewhere else.
So, HIMYM ended with the eponymous Mother dying (offscreen no less) and the show writers undoing nine years of character development for not one, not two, but THREE characters. What started out as a grand deconstruction of the sitcom ended up being a mockery of viewers’ expectations and a cliched perpetuation of the boy-meets-girl-and-traditional-moralities-win scenario.
The day after the finale, I promptly turned on Friends, which, as it turns out, is the last great sitcom. And here’s why:
1. The overall plot and character arcs remained fluid over the course of the show. The ultimate problem with HIMYM’s was the show runners’ commitment to an ending they wrote and filmed five years before the show actually ended. At the end of season 2, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided that the best, most desirable ending was for future-Ted to say, “Psych! This is the story of how I met your mom, she died pitifully, and I told you I wanted to hook up with your Aunt Robin.” While viewers might have been happy to hear that at the end of season 2, when we knew and loved Robin but hadn’t even learned a single damn thing about Tracy, the mother we would come to know and adore. On the other hand, Friends developed story arcs year by year, and, with the possible exception of the Ross-Rachel ending, cultivated endings that worked both for the characters and the audience. Which leads us to…
2. The writers worked to please the audience without compromising the show’s integrity. When Rachel and Joey finally kissed, fans hated it. HATED IT. So what did the writers do? They walked it back. The characters realize that the obstacles complicating their relationship (friendship, history, and lack of chemistry) make them better friends than romantic partners. By contrast, when Monica and Chandler hooked up, fans LOVED it… because that relationship worked and made sense. Although that relationship was intended to be short-term, the show kept that plotline because of the fan response. Generally fans ship or don’t ship for a reason, and when we hate a relationship, it’s because it either doesn’t work or it just isn’t believable. If, in season 2, HIMYM fans wanted Ted and Robin to end up together, we had seven more years to advocate for Robin and Barney, and Ted and “the mother,” a character the show made us love. Things change, and so do fan opinions.
3. Character development was gradual, believable, and sustainable. It takes Chandler six years to become a man who was willing and able to date a woman like Monica. Through a succession of gradually improving relationships, he matures into a stable man who not only wants a relationship, but also works to make it as good as he can. Unlike Barney, he never undergoes a lightning-bolt moment of change—and, on the other hand, when he ends up committing to Monica, the show never undoes it. Barney wasn’t, in the end, capable of sustaining a monogamous relationship, but HIMYM didn’t prepare us for that U-turn. The end of Robin and Barney’s marriage was, perhaps, inevitable and realistic, but we had no reason to believe that in the build-up to the end. The divorce came like a slap in the face, and all to serve the writers’ desired ending.
4. Rather than marginalizing “supporting” characters, the show built up and eventually equalized the treatment of the entire cast. While the network pushed for a “primary” plot line with two characters, and some viewers might argue that the Ross-Rachel story is the most important, most fans will argue (alongside the producers and the cast) that the show is a true ensemble. Late in the show’s run, the actors even entered collective negotiations on contracts to ensure that the “lesser” characters’ actors were receiving the same amount of pay and prestige as the “primary” actors. Joey and Phoebe ended up getting as much air time and as serious stories as the rest of the cast. HIMYM, however, had to rush to wrap up the secondary plots in the finale: Robin’s success in her career was marginalized by her sadness over losing Ted, and we never even see the mother of Barney’s child.
5. Characters were challenged but not undermined. Monica and Chandler can’t have children. Career-woman Rachel gets pregnant. Offbeat Phoebe realizes she wants to get married and breaks up with the man she loves who doesn’t want marriage. While, ultimately, this is a sitcom and everything ends happily, characters face realistic challenges along the road to reaching their individual happy ending. While HIMYM did a fantastic job with this at times (Robin’s infertility, Lily’s lack of fulfillment with motherhood and teaching, the death of Marshall’s father), in the end, the things the characters stood for ended up not mattering that much. Ted’s years-long battle to get over Robin? Apparently never happened. Robin’s desire to not be a mom? Doesn’t matter, if they’re not her kids. Barney’s gradual realization that monogamy is pretty okay? Goes away as soon as he and Robin get divorced. Why build up a character’s needs, wants, and desires if you’re just going to undo that growth in the season finale?
6. Although the show does perpetuate a few more traditional stories (hetero-romances ending in marriage, babies, and a house in the suburbs), it also showed less stereotypical lifestyles: Ross’s lesbian ex-wife and her marriage, Joey’s continued single life, Rachel’s choice to be a single mom AND a career woman. Yes, all ends happily, with three of the six main characters married and two in a committed relationship. But the show never forces bachelor Joey into marriage or commitment, as HIMYM did for Barney (and then brutally undid in the finale). And while Robin is a successful journalist, we don’t even get to see her feeling happy or fulfilled by that life: all we see is her sadness over losing Ted. And while HIMYM showed Barney reverting back to his, erm, promiscuous ways after his divorce, his character immediately becomes prudish Super Dad Man after his daughter is born. It’s sweet, and NPH did a terrific job with that scene, it’s hard to swallow. HIMYM does get kudos for Ted and Tracy’s decision to have kids and live together without getting married until, well, they do. Ten points for realism there.
7. Friends had a satisfying ending. In spite of everything I’ve said above, the most important reason why Friends kicked HIMYM’s ass was the top-notch, heart-warming series finale. The show manages to refer back to earlier episodes without regressing, and it also includes new developments and characters (Paul Rudd as Mike, anyone?!). It tugs on the heartstrings, but not in a manipulative way (“And that’s how your mom died: OFFSCREEN!”). The finale gave us a chance to not only see our beloved characters reach happy endings, but also to say goodbye to them in a satisfying way. No one was jerked out of the world, no one suffered beyond the normal sadness of farewells, and no one was neglected for having already wrapped up their story.
Ultimately, the producers and writers of Friends bent over backward to create and sustain character development that was believable, and they incorporated fan reactions to story lines without ever crumbling into fan service. So… if you want to watch a funny, satisfying sitcom? In the end, sometimes the classics stay popular for a reason.