How I Met Your Mother, CBS
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Caution: spoilers! Oh so many spoilers...
This is a fairly quirky show, and part of me has long felt I should maybe put my review in the quirky section, rather than the sitcom section. I suppose I'll never be entirely content with my decision to put it here, but... eh, it's fine. Certainly it's always a hilarious show. And often quite touching. And charming. And brilliant. And there are awesome running gags that pay off really well for the dedicated viewer (most notably, the "slap bet"... and later doppelgängers... and "Robin Sparkles"... etc.) Some might consider the show's basic premise "too gimmicky," and I can't deny that it is a gimmick, and in fact the show is loaded with countless other gimmicks. But, while I think gimmicks can lead to lazy or just plain bad storytelling, all they really are is storytelling techniques, and I don't think it's fair to say some techniques are inherently good and some bad. Any technique can be good or bad, regardless of whether you choose to call it a "gimmick." What matters is how those techniques are handled, and in my opinion, this show's gimmicks are handled with incredible- I dare say legendary- skill by the writers and the actors. In fact the plots, both within episodes and throughout the seasons and the series as a whole, are so intricately interconnected, with such incredible continuity, that I want to say the stories are like pretzels or something, but actually the series is more like an M.C. Escher drawing. And the characters really are a great bunch of friends. I love all of them as individuals, as well as loving their friendships and romantic relationships. While some aspects of the plot(s) may strain credulity, and the series is riddled with practically impossible coincidences, the characters themselves make it all somehow believable. Because of the kinds of peole they are, the gimmicks just... make sense. And serve the story. (Actually, maybe that means by definition the storytelling techniques in play here aren't gimmicks, even if they would be in less skilled hands, telling less clever or less quirky stories, with less believable internal logic. I dunno. The point is, you shouldn't dismiss the show as "too gimmicky" without first giving it a fair chance.)
Anyway, the show begins in 2005, but it's narrated from the future (2030) by an architect named Ted Mosby (voiced by Bob Saget, though he's played by Josh Radnor in the present). Ted is telling his teenage son and daughter the story of how he met their mother (which happens in 2013, though we don't see it until 2014). We see a little bit of his kids in the future just sitting there listening to him (we never see him in the future, we just see the kids from his perspective, at least until the series finale). But anyway, mostly we see stuff set in the present. Ted has a friend named Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel), a law student he'd first met in college years ago. Marshall gets engaged to Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan), a kindergarten teacher and aspiring artist, whom he had first met and started dating in college. The three of them have another friend, Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), whose job... isn't truly explained until the final season. (Barney doesn't seem like the kind of guy I'd be friends with in real life, but he's hilarious as a character, and you totally gotta read his blog. And in the course of the series, he actually turns out to be a pretty good guy... for the most part.) Anyway, after Marshall and Lily get engaged, Ted is anxious to find true love, himself. Meanwhile, Barney is into casual flings, and wants to keep Ted from getting too serious about anyone. But Ted meets a reporter (who is originally from Canada, a fact which becomes the subject of jokes throughout the series) named Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders). He falls in love with her after one date, which kinda freaks her out, especially considering she doesn't think she ever wants to get married. But they remain friends, and she becomes part of the whole group of friends. Ted meets some other women in the course of the first season, and starts seriously dating a woman named Victoria for awhile, but that doesn't last.
At the end of season one, Ted and Robin get together, and Lily and Marshall break up when she goes to San Francisco to find herself. So season two starts with Marshall being miserable and Ted and Robin being happy, except for having to deal with Marshall's depression.... But the season ends with Marshall and Lily getting married, and Ted and Robin breaking up. (It's all rather symmetrical, isn't it?) Still, Robin remains friends with the group (we already know that in the future, she's like an aunt to Ted's kids; and Barney's like an uncle).
Anyway, season 3 is... well, Ted dates and stuff I guess, and so does Robin. Ted actually hangs with Barney more often and acts a bit more like him sometimes, which is a bit disturbing.... But by the end of season 3, Ted had been seeing a woman named Stella (Sarah Chalke) for awhile, and proposed to her. The proposal was a cliffhanger...
...which was resolved in season 4, when she said yes. And they were engaged for the first few episodes, until... she leaves him at the altar, to go back to her ex. Throughout the season, Barney is struggling with feelings for Robin, which she doesn't know about (though she learns of it in the season finale). Ted starts his own architecture firm, but by the end of the season he takes a job teaching architecture at a university. Marshall gets a job working at Goliath National Bank, where Barney also works. Robin gets a job appearing on a 4am news show.
Robin and Barney have a relationship in season 5, though it doesn't last. She'll later date her coanchor, Don, for awhile. Lily reconnects with her estranged father, Mickey (Chris Elliott). Ted briefly dates a woman named Cindy (Rachel Bilson), whose roommate we know (via future narration) will be Ted's future wife, though it will be several seasons before he meets her. Ted also buys a house, which will take a few seasons for him to get fixed up.
In season 6, Ted gets a job designing a building for Goliath National Bank, but it means tearing down a dilapidated architectural landmark, the Arcadian. He meets a girl named Zoey, who leads a protest against tearing down the Arcadian. So Ted and Zoey sort of become enemies, even though he doesn't really want GNB to demolish the building... but designing the new building is his big break as an architect. Also, Ted becomes sort of friends with Zoey's rich, older husband (who is simply known as "The Captain"), though Ted finds him kind of scary. And eventually Ted and Zoey become friends, in spite of their differences. Also this season, Marshall's father dies, which really hits him hard, as they'd been very close. And Barney develops feelings for a woman named Nora. He also meets his father (played by John Lithgow) for the first time. Marshall quits his job at GNB to work (as an unpaid volunteer) for an environmental group. And eventually Zoey leaves the Captain and begins dating Ted, though that doesn't last. Robin gets a new job as a news researcher at a different network. The season finale has a flashforward to Barney's wedding day, sometime in the future, but most of the episode is told in the present... when we learn that Lily is pregnant.
In season 7, Marshall gets a real job at an environmental law firm (run by Garrison Cootes, played by Martin Short). Barney begins dating Nora, who was initially reluctant. Robin begins attending therapy sessions with a psychiatrist named Kevin. But he eventually decides to stop being her therapist, so he can begin dating her. There's also a Halloween episode that harks back to the Halloween episode from season one, which leads to a brief relationship for Ted. Also, Lily inherits her grandparents' house in the suburbs, and she and Marshall start to think about moving there, which would mean seeing less of their friends in New York. And Robin gets a job as a news anchor. Eventually Robin and Barney realize they still have feelings for each other, so he breaks up with Nora, but she ends up staying with Kevin... but they do break up a few months later, for a reason unrelated to Barney. Meanwhile, Barney starts dating a stripper named Quinn. Lily eventually has her baby, whom she and Marshall name Marvin. Also this season, Ted and Victoria get back together. Barney and Quinn get engaged, but the season ends with a flashforward to the same day as the flashforward at the end of season 6; we now learn that Barney's bride-to-be is Robin.
In season 8, Robin dates a guy named Nick. Eventually they break up, as do Barney and Quinn, and Ted and Victoria. Lily gets a job as an art consultant for the Captain, and Marshall looks into the possibility of becoming a judge. Eventually, Robin and Barney get engaged. The Captain plans to move to Rome, and wants Lily to accompany him (for a year), along with Marshall and Marvin. Ted dates a crazy girl named Jeannette for awhile. In the season finale, Ted tells Lily he'll be moving to Chicago after Barney and Robin's wedding. (He's happy for them, but still loves her, so doesn't feel he can stay in New York and continue to be around her.) He plans to sell his house, after finally finishing the renovations. And as Lily and Marshall prepare for their move to Rome, Marshall gets offered a position as judge, which would mean they'd have to spend a year apart. And we get a glimpse of the woman who is going to end up marrying Ted and being the mother of his children.
Season 9 is the final season. Pretty much the whole thing is set over the course of a three-day weekend, leading up to Barney and Robin's wedding (which we've been waiting for since the end of season 6). Of course, there are flashforwards and flashbacks scattered throughout the season, and the final (hour long) episode shows what happens over the next 17 years or so, until Ted finishes telling his story to his kids. Ted doesn't actually meet his wife until near the end of the story, but by then we had gotten to see a bit of their life together in flashforwards. (There's also an episode that shows what the Mother's life had been like over the eight years of Ted's story, up until Robin and Barney's wedding. It was pretty good, but I did feel like it would have been more effective if it had been longer.) And throughout the season, there are episodes where we see how the Mother met each of Ted's friends, before she ever met him. (Oh, and I should mention that she's in the band that plays at the wedding.) Meanwhile, for the first half of the season, Marshall is trying to get to Farhampton, where the wedding will take place. He spends several episodes traveling with a woman named Daphne (played by Sherri Shepherd), and... they don't always get along. He's also worried about Lily finding out he's been offered a judgeship, since it would mean he couldn't go to Italy with her. But I won't spoil how that all works out. In fact, I guess I don't want to spoil anything else about how the season (and the series) works out.
I will say critical reaction to the season was mixed, from the start, essentially because it was set over just three days. But personally, I thought it was as brilliant and funny and touching as ever. And I thought they did an amazing job of making it clear that Ted and the Mother really are perfect for each other, and that she would be a welcome addition to Ted's group of friends. And of course there are running gags throughout the season that I quite enjoyed, as well as wrapping up gags that had been running throughout the whole series. And... well... I'm afraid I have mixed feelings about the way the series ends. Which I won't spoil. (I was actually in a bit of an existential crisis for the rest of the night, after watching the finale. But I got over it.) Everything up to and including the actual first meeting of Ted and the Mother was pretty much perfect, and I think of the whole series as the most elaborate meet-cute in the history of love stories (and that's a good thing). And then... we see the kids' reaction to the story. Finally. (Apparently it had been filmed some years earlier, when the actors were still young enough to be believable as teenagers. Because of course the show's creators knew all along how it was going to end. Which I appreciate.) And while I thought what happened after the story was well done and made a kind of sense, part of me did feel a bit betrayed (and by "a bit," I mean "oh so very deeply"). But I also kind of liked it. I guess. So, yeah, mixed feelings. But certainly that doesn't detract from my deep adoration of the series as a whole....