Like the year in which Future Ted is recounting his stories, How I Met Your Mother may have been a little ahead of its time.
"I think [that] the best format for this series is ultimately as a download or a DVD — a binge-watch," co-creator and executive producer Carter Bays tells TVGuide.com.
"I think we should've been on Netflix," co-creator and executive producer Craig Thomas quips. "Maybe people wouldn't have been as upset at us. We could've been the first House of Cards!"
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Eight years before House of Cards first booked up your weekends, HIMYM premiered in September 2005 at a time when the traditional sitcom was struggling and single-camera comedies were just starting to take off. On Monday, it will end its nine-year run having carved out its own unique piece of sitcom history.
Telling Ted's (Josh Radnor) story from the future through flashbacks and flash-forwards at first appeared like a cutesy gimmick to set the show apart from other Friends wannabes about a group of twentysomethings. But what truly differentiated HIMYM was its built-in-the-title mythology, a first for a sitcom, that kept you wanting more and its pioneering hybrid shooting style, concocted by longtime director Pamela Fryman, that catered to its zippy, non-linear narrative — all while lacing in silly yet heartfelt story lines.
"I don't think any of us went into it in the beginning to break new ground or anything," Fryman says. "I think Carter and Craig had an idea and they wrote what they knew, which was a lot of scenes! And we figured out a way to shoot it. We did this pilot with high hopes. It was kind of different. There was no audience, but we were doing a multi-cam. It felt so good that we were sure it wouldn't get picked up because how could something that feels so right get the perfecting ending?"
To hear CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler tell it, there wasn't any doubt that HIMYM would land on the network's fall 2005 schedule. Wendi Trilling and Julie Pernworth, CBS' comedy development heads, had been tracking Bays and Thomas, former Late Show with David Letterman writers, for a while, and when the HIMYM pilot script came in, it was, like Ted locking eyes on Robin (Cobie Smulders), love at first sight. Everything from HIMYM's format, framing device, look and young cast was a departure for CBS and its stable of traditional comedies, but Tassler saw common ground between them.
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"I remember reading the script and thoroughly falling in love with it and falling in love with the characters," she says. "The pilot was just enchanting, incredibly funny and different from what we've had on the air before, but at the same time, it did reflect what we do have in our comedies, which is a sense of family, a group of people coming together and interacting and relating to each other. The spirit of it was in our wheelhouse; the execution, obviously different. Our expectation was that we wanted to continue to support the show and ultimately help it grow."
Despite developing a loyal audience, HIMYM wasn't a breakout hit, and the show lived precariously on the bubble its first three seasons. (The writers' strike during Season 3 didn't help.) "It was nerve-wracking," Fryman says. "We knew it was special. We wanted the world to be watching, but you can only do your best work and you can't control anything else. My mother told as many people as she could." Against all odds, it survived CBS' notoriously ruthless cuts each season and, after getting syndicated, flourished in its fourth season, which earned the show its sole Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nomination.
"A big factor [in its renewals] is your belief in the creative integrity of your showrunners," Tassler says. "The show's success was due in great part to how Carter and Craig and Pam [pitched] inspired and fresh ideas each year. And you say, 'That's the future of television.' It should always rest in the hands of the passionate, the inspired, the creative. Season to season, it's hard to remember specifically how much it was on the bubble, but they were always passionate, committed, and they always brought groundbreaking, clever and fresh ideas to the table."
As the show's popularity grew — thanks in large part to running gags (the slap bet, Robin Sparkles, interventions, the Bro Code) and engaging online tie-ins (tedmosbyisajerk.com, itwasthebestnightever.com) before social media was all the rage — so did many fans' impatience at waiting to meet The Mother (Cristin Milioti), who was finally revealed in the Season 8 finale. With its serialized nature, HIMYM rewarded fans who paid attention to continuity, callbacks, the yellow umbrella and other hints about The Mother. But unlike Lost, which had premiered a year prior, HIMYM was first and foremost a (backwards) love story, not a mystery.
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"Around Season 4, people started to think our show was a big puzzle, like a game they were supposed to solve," Neil Patrick Harris says of the fan over-analysis, which is even more pervasive today, sometimes for shows that don't even invite it. "'The book was red on this side and now it's blue over here.' They were trying to solve the show and it was never intended to be something to solve."
Bays says he can't fault fans for getting hung up on The Mother reveal. "It's the title of the show! I know there's a segment of the audience that feels like there's been too much 'filler,'" he says. "If you're reading a long novel and you're only allowed to read one short chapter a week, there will obviously be some weeks where you feel like you didn't get enough. Our primary focus was on assembling a cohesive whole as opposed to making every installment exciting and Earth-shattering, because it's as a cohesive whole that our show will live on. So I'm very happy with how we did it."
Outside of having Victoria (Ashley Williams) as a backup Mother in Season 1 in case the show was canceled, Bays and Thomas didn't waver on their overarching plan. For her part, Tassler, who chalks up fans' frustrations to their investment in the show, says she trusted the duo and never asked for The Mother to be revealed earlier. She also never asked about the show's endgame, which Bays and Thomas had envisioned since the beginning and part of which was filmed in 2006 with Ted's kids, Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Luke (David Henrie).
"When you have writers who have been consistently delivering episodes of a comedy that have been so embraced by a very rabid fan base ... you have to support and trust and allow them to do what they've done so well," Tassler says, adding that she was better off not knowing. "The first years of Survivor and The Amazing Race, I didn't want to know who won because I didn't want to mistakenly admit it to somebody!" Bays and Thomas only shared the ending with Tassler and CBS brass during discussions for a ninth and final season. "Very rarely do we announce the final season of a show, but when we collectively talked about it and we wanted to do it, we were like, 'OK, you're gonna have to tell us now," she says. "And I loved it."
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Tassler also liked the plan to set the entire ninth season during Barney and Robin's wedding weekend, building up to the moment Ted and The Mother will meet on the train platform after the nuptials in the series finale. The shake-up, however, was divisive among fans, some of whom, fairly or not, accused the show of once again prolonging Ted and The Mother's meet-cute. Nonetheless, Bays has "zero regrets" about the format change.
"I feel like this season has been one of our best, and it's largely because we shook up the formula," he says. "People are welcome to disagree, and I'm sure me saying I'm very proud of these last 24 episodes won't change their minds, but I will say this: Whether it was successful or not, you can't make something great without taking a risk. I'm proud of the risks we've taken on this show. That goes for this season's format, and that especially goes for the finale."
Naturally, no one will confirm or deny recent fears that The Mother is dead or will die in the finale. (Fryman does point out that "we've done a lot of fake-outs and we're kind of good at it.") Titled "Last Forever," the final hour will chronicle the group's lives in the 17 years between Barney and Robin's wedding in 2013 and 2030, when Future Ted (Bob Saget) is telling his kids how he met their mother. All involved, though, as biased as they may be, can heap nothing but praise on Bays and Thomas' ending, which never changed.
"I knew for nine years, but I didn't know how they were going to do it until I read the final script," Radnor says. "I was over the moon. I was so thrilled. I thought it was just such a great piece of writing and such a great [episode of] How I Met Your Mother. Whatever people love about the show, they'll love about the finale."
Adds Tassler: "I think what is most important is that they have never disappointed their audience. They have been incredibly faithful to the spirit of the show, which is always balancing the hilarity and outrageous comedy with an emotional core and weaving through the romantic elements. I think for the fans, it'll be a very satisfying ending."
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While HIMYM might carry on in its spin-off How I Met Your Dad if it's ordered to series, Tassler notes that nine years later, there is still nothing like it on television — or Netflix. "[It's] an extraordinary show of which we're monumentally proud," she says. "It has made its mark on the landscape of television forever."
Bays, however, is far more cautious when it comes to meeting finale expectations — "you just can't predict if everybody will be satisfied" — and far more modest about the show's legacy.
"We love this finale. It's the ending we've been writing towards for nine years now, and it says everything we've ever wanted to say with this show. I'm so proud of everyone involved in making it," he says. "It's nice to hear about people watching our show to cheer themselves them up when they're down. If HIMYM lives on as something you binge-watch over a bowl of soup when you're sick in bed, I'd be happy with that."
How I Met Your Mother's series finale airs Monday at 8/7c on CBS. Watch a sneak peek below.
Additional reporting by Natalie Abrams
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)