How I Failed Your Mother: Successful Finales and How 'HIMYM' Got It Wrong

How I Failed Your Mother: Successful Finales and How 'HIMYM' Got It Wrong If you're a fan of "How I Met Your Mother" and you pay attention to Twitter, you know by now how much of a disaster last night's series finale was. In fact, if you now consider yourself a former fan of "How I Met Your Mother," you're not alone. But how could the show's creators have missed the mark so badly with the show's last episode, and was there any way they could have gotten it right?

It's asking a lot to expect fans to be happy at the end of a beloved series, but sometimes it happens. When "Breaking Bad" ended its run recently, practically no one was disappointed with how everything turned out. But that had much to do with the fact that the story of Walter White was a tale with a beginning, middle and end, and the show's writers stuck to their coherent narrative right up to the conclusion. Even if they couldn't predict any particular plot point, viewers were confident that they were on their way to a resolution, and they were satisfied when they got there.

"HIMYM" had a much more difficult task. It was a story, as it turns out, with a beginning and an end—Ted falls in love with Robin, Ted gets Robin—but the show's writers were clearly winging it with the 9-year-long middle. Worse, viewers thought that they knew where the show's narrative was headed—it was spelled out right there in the title—but in the end, that was just a red herring. After investing nearly a decade waiting for what they thought was the foundation of the show, viewers were given instead a few minutes of screen time and a handful of lines of dialogue—Ted meets the Mother, has kids, Mother dies, now back to Robin—to sum up the show's supposed reason for being. It felt like a betrayal.

When it comes to series finales, viewers don't like ambiguity. When "The Sopranos" ended with an infamous cut to a black screen that dodged the question of whether or not Tony Soprano died, viewers were angry. They wanted an ending, not a guessing game. The finale of "Lost" wasn't quite so reviled, but its resolution was complex and confusing enough that some fans didn't get it and were left unsatisfied.

Fans don't necessarily need a happy ending, but they need closure. At the end of "M*A*S*H," closure was easy; the war ended, and everyone went home. When "Cheers" ended, Sam Malone and the gang at his bar were going to remain where they'd been all along, but the viewers simply weren't going to be there with them any more; it wasn't an ending, but we could rest easy knowing that everything was going to be okay without us.

That easy closure was the model that "HIMYM" tried to follow, but it forgot one other key fact: viewers don't like to be tricked, either. The show's creators set themselves up when they decided they wanted to be clever and creative rather than follow a simple, conventional narrative. You think the show is about how Ted met his future wife, but, surprise, it's not! They went for the twist, and that's a risky move.

Perhaps the only time a twist has been successful in ending a series is in the finale of "Newhart," in which it turns out that the entire series was the dream of the lead character from "The Bob Newhart Show." It worked because the twist was consistent with the comedic style of "Newhart" and because it masterfully played on viewer nostalgia in an affectionate way.

The ending of "HIMYM," however, was neither consistent nor masterful nor affectionate. Its twist felt underdeveloped and gratuitous. It came off seeming deceptive and cruel, and it left viewers feeling betrayed.

One can only wonder how the show's creators felt over the past few weeks, after many fans not only accurately predicted how the show's plot would wrap up, but also almost universally declared that they hated the idea. Did the creators stick with the original conception of the ending because it was way too late in the game to make changes, or because they were overconfident enough to think they could pull it off despite all evidence to the contrary? Whatever the case, they forged ahead with their plan, and they succeeded in making one of the most ill-received series finales in TV history.