Time Jumps in How I Met Your Mother: Why We’re Not Buying It Now
In its ninth and final season, How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) is slowly inching its way towards the punchline of the whole show – the meeting between Ted (Josh Radnor) and The Mother (Cristin Milioti). While the whole show is basically one giant cobweb of timelines and stories, there is a big difference between how these timelines operate in terms of driving or slowing down the narrative. The differences between how the narrative utilizes the timelines regarding the past, present, and future of Ted’s life contribute to the great moments of the show and to the worst moments (ahem the last few seasons).
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve split the show’s narrative into these different timelines: Past, Present, Near Future, and Far Future.
The Present in HIMYM is the main storyline. To put it into the context of time, anything that happens in the storyline between 2005 and 2014 is part of the Present. The Past in HIMYM consists of any happenings that occur before 2005, i.e. Ted, Marshall, and Lily’s college years. The Far Future happens in 2030 and only has 3 voices so far – Older Ted (voiced by Bob Saget) and Ted’s kids. The majority of the show takes place within these three timelines.
Because HIMYM is ultimately a bedtime story for Ted’s kids, the play between the Present/Past timeline and the Far Future timeline provides some of the greatest moments of the show using the following devices:
1. Fantastic elements/surrealism
Since Far Future Ted is telling a story to his kids, he is able to stretch the limits of reality in order to exaggerate a certain part of a story or to visually depict a euphemism in order to censor something offensive. We as an audience are able to see these fantastically fake elements play out onscreen.
A recurring example of this would be Ted censoring an old habit of smoking weed by instead saying that he was “eating a sandwich.” In another sitcom, a euphemism like this would ordinarily be accompanied by a look or gesture to represent the actual offense, but in HIMYM, we are able to visually see the euphemism in the form of college Ted and Marshall get high off of eating sandwiches. This fresh take on euphemism in television works not only because it’s not only hilarious for viewers, but because we see the euphemism under the premise that the story is being told to kids. It makes the ridiculous image of getting high off of eating sandwiches an acceptable alternative for actually smoking weed.
Another example of a fantastic element in the series is the ability of some characters to defy the laws of physics. In Season 1, Episode 5 called “Okay Awesome,” Marshall and Lily escape from a boring wine and cheese party by jumping out of their third floor apartment to the ground floor. Although Ted “is a little foggy on the details” the show depicts Marshall and Lily exiting from the bathroom window and jumping down on the ground in an alley, implying that they jumped three stories. However, we as an audience accept the impossible jump because it happens under the premise that Ted is telling the story with some hindsight (or lack of it).
So because of the play between the Past/Present timelines and the Far Future timeline, the audience is more accepting of fantastic and story-like images, providing a fresh take on comedic tropes.
2. Symbolism/Literal Imagery
I’m not just talking about the yellow umbrella, a recurring symbol in the series usually depicting a turning point in Ted’s life that leads him to The Mother. HIMYM also put itself in a unique position of being able to depict symbols and image on television literally without having viewers question if the presence of a symbol is realistic or not.
One of the most powerful uses of literal images is the use of different-sized luggages to represent a person’s emotional baggage. In Season 5, Episode 23, “The Wedding Bride,” Ted decides to start dating again after being left at the altar. After seeing a new hit movie called “The Wedding Bride” on a date that depicts him as the annoying Jed Mosley in the very wedding where he was left at the alter, he starts to fear rejection from those who despise the character in the movie. Because of this fear, it appears that Ted has the huge weight of being left at the altar on his shoulders, represented by a big black trunk marked “LEFT AT THE ALTAR.”
After admitting that he was left at the altar and seeing that his date is willing to listen to his problems, he remembers that everyone has emotional baggage and that being in a meaningful relationship means that your partner is willing to help you out with your baggage. His date helps him carry “LEFT AT THE ALTAR” trunk.
Again, the use of literal symbols works in the series because of the play between the Present timeline and the Far Future. As Ted tells his kids about a time that he was having emotional baggage, said baggage visually manifests itself into something tangible that a kid might actually be able to understand. The weight and size of a luggage physically depicts the weight and size of said emotional baggage on one’s mind and heart, impacting viewers who are watching and presumably leading to Ted’s kid’s understanding of the situation.
Another example of the use of literal images is the representation of Robin’s dogs as her ex-boyfriends and Ted’s things as his ex-girlfriends in Season 2, Episode 16, titled “Stuff.” Robin and Ted are at odds when things that reveal to each other that different things in their apartments were given to them by exes. Ted sees Robin’s ex-boyfriends when he looks at her dogs and Robin sees Ted’s ex-girlfriends when she looks as his stuff – and the audience sees them too.
Due to the storytelling nature of HIMYM, we are able to see visual representation of these images onscreen which not only provide comedic relief, but also add a metaphysical weight to every symbol or literal image.
3. Life lessons and/or theories on life
“Nothing good happens after 2AM.”
“The Front Porch Test.”
“The Crazy/Hot Scale.”
“The Mermaid Theory.”
There are hundreds of lessons and theories that we’ve learned from HIMYM, including an official HIMYM published text of rules on how to seduce women, a.k.a. The Playbook. These lessons and rules and theories are told under the premise that Far Future Ted is trying to impart wisdom on his children and work not only because they inform important actions that each character takes, but also because the audience can relate to these rules.
For example, “The Mermaid Theory” is a Stinson-certified theory that a manatee, or an unattractive woman, in a man’s life has a certain amount of time before they turn into a mermaid, or an attractive woman. The only way for a manatee to turn back into a mermaid is for the man to sleep with said mermaid. However, Ted attributes the debunking of this theory to the reason why Marshall and Robin became such close friends.
While this life rule/theory doesn’t seem like a significant one, it adds a lot of weight to the story of Marshall and Robin and informs the way that they acted before and after “The Mermaid Theory” was debunked. And, if you were in the audience watching this, you might have been able to think of that manatee-turned-mermaid in your own life.
While these elements added to the charm of HIMYM through play between the Past/Present and the Far Future, more recently, a new timeline, which I’m calling the Near Future, presented itself more prominently into the HIMYM canon. This timeline happens sometime between 2014 (when the show is scheduled to end and Ted is supposed to meet The Mother) and 2030 and depicts Ted’s life after he meets the Mother.
So far, Season 9 is made up of interactions between the Present timeline and the Past/Near Future timelines. We have seen Ted propose to the Mother, we have seen a kind of racist backstory on the second-to-last slap, and we’ve witnessed the night of Luke’s (the son) birth, all before we’ve seen the meeting between Ted and the Mother.
The clear objective of this season is to slow down Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend as much as possible using flashbacks and flash-forwards so that Ted and the Mother meet at the end of the season. However this is possibly why the show has taken a turn for the worst and here are some reasons why:
1. No background on The Mother
We’ve seen Ted do crazy things for love. He stole a blue french horn for Robin, he was willing to move to New Jersey (Ted hates NJ) for Stella, and he put his career on the line for Zoe. After all this, his Season 9 proposal to The Mother didn’t really tug any heartstrings. It was simple and cute, but there was something missing.
It wasn’t the fact that Ted didn’t go all out for this proposal – it was the fact that we as viewers don’t know anything about the Mother or her relationship with Ted, except for the facts about certain milestones in their life together shown only in Season 9.
If we compare Ted’s proposal to The Mother to his proposal to Stella (played by Sarah Chalke), we see two very different proposals. The Mother got romantic, planned proposal on a lighthouse on a beach at sunset. Ted’s proposal to Stella at the arcade was last-minute. He didn’t have a ring, had just gotten dumped by Stella a few hours before, and had just gotten out of the hospital. But she said, “Yes.” And that was an exponentially more satisfying proposal than The Mother’s because we know more about Stella-and-Ted than The-Mother-and-Ted.
While this was slightly remedied with the Season 9, Episode 16 titled “How Your Mother Met Me,” there is still not enough background for an audience to be emotionally invested in the relationship or for an audience to root for Ted and The Mother. Thus, the flash-forwards into Ted and The Mother’s life, while cute, seem like a significant waste of air time.
2. Nothing is actually happening in Season 9
If you ask someone what HIMYM is really about, they wouldn’t say that it’s about a man who is looking for the love of his life. They’d say that the show is about the day-to-day life of a group of friends living in New York… and one of them is on the way to meet the love of his life.
While meeting The Mother is ultimately what the show is driving the audience towards, HIMYM has kept fans because they are invested in the lives of not only Ted, but also Marshall, Lily, Robin, and Barney. We’ve seen the milestones of Marshall and Lily’s whole relationship, we’ve seen Robin become a famous news anchor, and we’ve seen Barney’s progression from womanizing single-for-life guy to someone who wants to settle down with one lady. There has always been movement within each season’s Present timeline and in the lives of each character.
The problem with this season is that there is no movement. So far, there are exactly 4 major plot points in Season 9: (1) The Meeting between Ted and the Mother, (2) Marshall and Lily’s argument about moving to Rome or staying in New York, (3) Barney and Robin’s wedding, and (4) Ted letting go of Robin. The only one that has been resolved (hopefully) is Ted letting go of Robin.
Things are happening. We find out that Barney’s brother, James, has gotten a divorce. We find out that Robin has no girlfriends except for Lily. Some jerk that is in The Mother’s band tries to ruin the friendships between the gang. And there are flashbacks that accompany these stories in the Present timeline. However, these flashbacks and Present timeline happenings don’t really add anything significant to the movement of the aforementioned plot points.
This makes for a stagnant Present timeline, which usually inform significant flashbacks.
3. Realism and storytelling with no substance
Let’s talk about Episode 14 of this season, ‘Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmara.’ The whole episode takes place within the span of a 5-second slap, taking us through a flashback of Marshall telling the story of how he learned the ancient art of slapping. The flashbacks mainly consist of Marshall going to several ridiculous slap masters who teach him three major components of an epic slap.
In a way, it was a nice break from the endless wedding antics back to the familiar dynamic of using flashbacks to add to the Present timeline. However, the fact that this particularly long flashback adds 5 seconds to the Present timeline of the wedding, makes the whole episode seem like a big waste of time.
The same could be said of other flashback episodes this season, including Episode 7, “No Questions Asked.” In this episode, after Lily gets a text from Marshall that could ruin their relationship, Ted rushes to tell Lily that she has to delete the text before reading it, with no questions asked. The episode consists of flashbacks showing different times that members of the gang asked for help, no questions asked. While this episode does add weight to the reason why Lily would listen to Ted’s no-questions-asked request, the only function that the episode serves is to again, slow the disagreement between Marshall and Lily.
These are two examples of flashbacks in Season 9 that have no emotional weight in the story and have the function of adding backstory to insignificant plot points in this season (being the second-to-last slap and deleting a text). Because these flashbacks don’t really add significant backstory to the actual story, there is definitely less to be interested in as the season progresses.
The combination of a lack of background story, a slow main narrative, and lack of meaning behind flashbacks makes for a disappointing last season.
I had my own predictions for how the last season would go. I would have been more interested in seeing Ted meet the Mother by mid-season and seeing him court her, rather than this.
However, I am holding on to hope that the final few episodes will give the series an ending that it truly deserves – one that is full of meaning and that good old HIMYM charm.
Are you liking the way that this last season is going? Or do you agree with me? What do you think are the best and worst parts of HIMYM?
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I’ve seen enough films and tv shows to know that this show is way too cliced. I understand the relationship troubles, they kind of spell it out for you every episode anyway with that god damn Bob Saget voice. In the end everyone makes up anyway, it’s just 15 minutes of filler from the set-up to the happy ending.
And that laugh track, any show that needs simulated laughs to stimulate the viewers isn’t comedy. It’s like the group effect, if a bunch of people laugh at something that isn’t funny a majority feel inclined to laugh so they are ‘part of the group’. It’s clever sure but not worth 200 episodes.
I mean, we lost Twin Peaks after 2 seasons and that had more funny moments than this, including relationship awkwardness.
If I ever find myself enjoying this show, I’d be ashamed. It’s the same thing with friends, this is more or less a copy and paste of that.
I started the show a couple years back by watching reruns at night every now and again. I thought it was ok but really just ended up having most of it as background noise because I didn’t think it was that great. But after hearing from many friends how great they thought it was, decided to watch it from the beginning on Netflix. It took a little while for me to get into it but when I did, I loved it. So from my experience, its a show you should really watch from the beginning in order. But no show is for everyone, so you might never like it, and that is ok. But there is nothing wrong with those of us who do either. And as far as the laughtrack goes, if you are 14 you are growing up in a time where more sitcoms are moving away from that. I grew up in a time where every sitcom had the live audience or a laughtrack added so to be honest I don’t even notice it until I watch a show that doesn’t have it…I notice the lack of it.
You make some great points, but I think you have to forgive Season 9 a little, since the entire season is taking place over one weekend. Within those confines, I think they’re doing a decent job. I agree that it does seem a bit less worthy than previous seasons, but those seasons also show us that some strings are left to be tied in one big pretty bow in the last couple episodes. So, I’m with you on the hope that the final part will be the epic bow out this show deserves.
Thanks for reading and for your comment. I agree that they are doing the best they can with the timeline they gave themselves, but I feel like it could have been a lot better if they didn’t confine themselves like that. Am I the only one that would have been ok with seeing Ted meet The Mother at the beginning of the season? Maybe I’m just impatient haha 🙂
I can see wht PerkAlert is saying, but I don’t think it’s a GOOD thing that they confined this whole season to a weekend. You can do that in a movie. Hell, even “Death at a Funeral” does it within one day, but you can’t make 15 or so episodes, 300 minutes of material last over a weekend unless there is a LOT going on. I think with the plot points this season has going they could have wrapped them up in 3 episodes probably. Maybe 5. I agree with you Frankie. I hope they don’t just end the series with us “meeting” the mother. I know that’s the point of the show but I don’t feel like we’ll even know who the Mother is as a character if it just ends. Victoria was awesome because we saw Ted and her go on a few dates… we got an idea of how the two interact with each other.
Hopefully my ramblings make sense. I think they should have opted to end HIMYM about 2 seasons ago.
I agree that given the limited time frame of Robin and Barney’s wedding weekend they are doing an okay job. The only real point where they lost me was when they brought in the ghosts of 2006 and 2014 Lily. That was a bit much for me. I do hope that they pull it all together in the end.
Good article and I like your arguments, they are very convincing!
I must say I was a huge HIMYM fan before season 7: after the 8th episode, I just couldn’t watch anymore.I found the jokes completely flat, the love triangle between Ted/Robin/Barney annoying and improbable. I really regret the old seasons,where every joke in the show made you cry of laughter. The show could not avoid to fall into the trap of the 7th season, like many other TV series.
Thanks for reading! I have to agree with you – the show has lost a lot of its old charm for me since the 8th season (at least!) AND the Ted-Stuck-On-Robin thing was very weird for me too! Although, I have to say there are some episodes in Season 7 thought I thought were really great. For example, Episode 12, “Symphony of Illumination” where Robin finds out that she can’t have a kid. It really moving for me, anyways… although it does lead to the whole Ted being in love with Robin thing again.
Yes, I remember that episode as being an exception, it was really moving. But I was still very disappointed in the whole season. I should maybe try to watch the newest episodes, hopefully they’ve improved…? 🙂
That episode with Robin discovering she can’t have children is probably one of the better episodes of the post-charming HIMYM episodes. There are stand outs here and there, which I think is why everyone has been watching up until this point. There are a lot of flat episodes in there too.
Yes! Also, I think that people wanted to know who the mother was 🙂
I really like the new season, I think that it got some of its old charm back by referring to older seasons and solving a lot of the mysteries like Barney’s job. It’s true that nothing much ‘actually’ happens and it’s not my favorite season, but the previous two were much more boring in my opinion.
Also, I don’t get the whole racism thing. It was clearly a depiction of stereotypes, not a depiction of how we think Chinese people are really like. I mean, Lone Ranger was nominated for an Oscar in Hair and Makeup for ‘red-facing’ Johnny Depp. Not that that’s a good thing but it’s confusing.
Thanks for the comment! In response to your comment about the racism issue, the very problem lies in the depiction of stereotypes. This show is a story about the many facets of Caucasian, NY life – the characters are good, bad, charming, mean and we love them because of it.
Asian-Americans don’t get a lot of exposure on American TV, and in this rare time that Asian-American culture is depicted on TV, it is depicted in yellowface and it perpetuates the stereotype that all Asian people are wise old people that drink tea and eat noodles all day on a mountain.
The episode is clearly an homage to old kung fu movies which is fine. It’s fine to appreciate certain parts of a culture and pay homage them. But the way they executed the episode was the worst. The fact that white people would rather have other white people don culture as a costume rather than portray authentic Asian people on national TV is just a slap in the face to all Asian-Americans.
As for the Oscar nomination to “Lone Ranger,” I had no idea about that at all. Is it just for Johnny Depp’s make up??? That is just messed up if it is… it might be authentic tho… although it’s more of a casting problem to me.
Now I’m just rambling…
You’ve touched on many of the issues I’ve had with HIMYM lately. They showed some signs of progress with that great episode with the mother, but it seems like they’ve forgotten about her again.
I did like the episode on the mother, but I also loved the recent episode about Ted finally letting go of Robin. It was kind of disappointing to see the subject come up again, but I think it was an important episode.
I definitely agree that the last few episodes of HIMYM have been slow, but the emotional investment in the show and the countless hours of watching this series keeps me interested. After so much time spent with Lilly, Marshall, Robin, Barney, and Ted I think a slow ending is appropriate for a show that has had so many changes and so many lasting impressions. I imagine the series finale will be as compelling and as saddening/heart-breaking/heart-wrenching as Friends.
It’s a good point. I definitely love these characters too 🙂
I completely agree and think that this article explains the last season well. I think this last season has no true substance and they’re just buying time, everyone sees that but were still watching because this show and the characters have become such a big part of everyone’s life.
Thanks! I am definitely one of the people who is still watching because I love the characters… I’m so sad there’s only 6 episodes left! (according to CBS)
I was surprised to find myself getting hooked on HIMYM, it isn’t my sort of TV show and it definitely isn’t perfectly written, but it has the sort of characters and situations that are ultimately endearing and so I ended up watching it a lot.
I think they ran themselves into a dead end by not really thinking about the ultimate “meet” enough or how to approach it. I recently read a forum thread (can’t remember where, sorry!) in which fans were discussing that the main point of the series so far has been Ted getting over Robin. The meeting of the mother seems to occur as soon as he lets go of Robin (at her wedding). This however means that the series, despite having mentions of the mother throughout, has leaned heavily on the relationship between Robin and Ted, and so by the time we get to the meeting, there’s no real background to the relationship between Ted and the mother.
The writers were stuck either way they went: end the series at the meeting of the mother and it would have been a complete anti-climax, because we ultimately know nothing about her; carry on the series after the meeting, following their relationship and it would no longer be following the premise of “How I Met Your Mother” and people wouldn’t be as interested.
And so the writers have tried to create a middle ground, but as you’ve pointed out, it isn’t really working. Showing their later relationship is meant to help us care about the couple, but firstly, it feels forced and rushed (one season of development for their relationship, eight seasons for the relationship with Robin), and secondly, as you stated, it adds nothing to the overall “present” storyline of how he met their mother. It’s really frustrating. The creators wrote themselves into a wall.
Thanks! It’s definitely an interesting point about what the “main point of the series is” since the series does start with Ted meeting Robin.
I don’t know if the writers were stuck… but I definitely think that I would have been interested if Ted met the mother in the last season and the series kept going. Just because I’m already invested in the characters.
Your article was spot on.
What made the show for me was the funny situations that Barney got into. I slowly but sure started to dislike Ted and I thought it would have been hilarious if Ted turned out to be gay.
But I also think they should have done the mid-season meet up between the mother and Ted.
The flashbacks got on my nerves in the last season because they were clearly filler. And I lost track of probably everything because of the endless flashbacks.
Watching a wedding for so long only for it to last 1 episode or something like that, that’s annoying.
Having 3 babies announced in 3 episodes, that’s annoying.
6 years after the passing of a mother, I wouldn’t be oh you have to date aunt Robin.
And to answer the question to everyone who wonders why people still watched the show even if we hated it. We wanted resolution, we wanted to know if it got better. And how can we say on a forum if it was good or bad if we didn’t watch it all.