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What made 'How I Met Your Mother' worth waiting for

TelevisionEntertainmentTelevision IndustryConcertsCraig ThomasHow I Met Your Mother (tv program)

After nine years and 208 episodes, it's last call at MacLaren's Pub for Broda and his buds.

On Monday, CBS' sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" will sign off with the second part of a two-episode finale that costar Josh Radnor — who plays lovelorn nerd Ted — called "hilarious and bittersweet." It's the culmination of a season that's been set almost entirely in the days leading up to the wedding of epic ladies' man Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) — tireless dispenser of faux romantic wisdom to his bros and dudes — and formidable TV reporter Robin (Cobie Smulders). Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan round out the ensemble.

Co-creator Craig Thomas promises a finale that stays true to the series' mix of quotable snark, frequent flashbacks and heartstrings tugs.

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" 'HIMYM' has always been unafraid to explore real emotion, and I think it's that fact as much as any joke we've ever written that has helped us connect to our audience," Thomas — who's busy working on the sequel, a pilot called "How I Met Your Dad" — wrote in an email. "We wanted this finale to show what really happens to people over the course of 17 years."

The series is among the last of a vanishing breed, the romantic comedy about well-educated, pop culturally attuned young white people trying to find love and sex in the city as they embark on their careers and independent lives. Such sitcoms proliferated after "Friends" became a huge hit for NBC in the 1990s.

But since ABC struck gold with "Modern Family," networks have traded the urban coffee shops and bars for the suburban McMansion. TV comedies that explore the dating lives of young people now tend to be a lot darker than "How I Met Your Mother." Take, for instance, HBO's "Girls," where the sex is graphic — and often soul-crushing for the characters.

Which is not to say that "HIMYM" was conventional.

The show grew out of the New York experiences of Thomas and co-creator Carter Bays, who had previously written for David Letterman and had bonded through a shared love of pop music.

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"Carter and I first met and started working together by playing music in a band," Thomas said. With their band the Solids, the pair wrote "Hey Beautiful," the theme to "HIMYM," as well as much of the show's music. Indie rock from artists like the Shins and the Decemberists is frequently heard on the soundtrack.

"Music is a huge part of our collaboration, so the music we put on the show matters a lot to us," Thomas added.

The show they created was probably as daring as a multi-camera sitcom on a broadcast network could be, mainly through its narrative structure.

The entire series is conceived as a flashback from the year 2030, with off-screen narrator Bob Saget as the older Ted, explaining the romantic exploits of his younger days to his kids. The "mother" of the title was not explained for years; only at the end of last season was she revealed to be a woman played by Cristin Milioti who meets Ted at Barney's wedding.

Another unusual feature by sitcom standards: an almost existential sense of the absurd. In "The Pineapple Incident" from Season 1, Ted gets very drunk and has a one-night stand. When he wakes up the next morning, he's surprised to discover a girl in his bed — and a very large pineapple on his nightstand.

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The girl's presence was explained, but the pineapple's never was. Such touches helped inspire an intense loyalty with fans. "It has some anti-depressive quality with people," Radnor said of the show's off-kilter humor.

The storytelling attracted positive attention from critics. "The way they went back and forth in time and slammed these things together was really very innovative," said Robert Thompson, professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

But that distinctive approach may have come at a price. "It's that kind of innovation that never makes it to huge ratings heights of the good, old-fashioned sitcom," Thompson said. "They're very post-modern characters, so steeped in the irony and cynicism of the '90s they grew up in, that sometimes it's kind of hard to like them."

Indeed, "HIMYM" never cracked even the Top 40 in total viewers, consistently averaging around 9 million or so over the course of its run, according to Nielsen. Yet it still occupied an important role for CBS, which is the most-watched network in the U.S. but often has trouble attracting young adults.

"It wasn't a ratings bonanza, but it was our youngest-skewing show," said Nina Tassler, chairman of CBS Entertainment.

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Of course, in the world of TV series no goodbye is ever final. "HIMYM" — one of the very few TV shows known through an acronym — will live on forever in syndication.

And then there's the sequel, in contention for a slot on CBS' fall schedule. It has a different cast and characters, but fans may find one or two familiar things.

"It shares one of the best features of 'HIMYM': It's a life story told by someone who lived it, so to that person, it's the most important story in the world," Thomas said. "Why tell it otherwise?"

scott.collins@latimes.com

 

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