A common plot device/formula that TV series (sitcoms in particular) employ is the on-again/off-again couple. They are the ones that date (sometimes get married) and break-up multiple times before (usually) reconciling for a “happily ever after”. Viewers are stringed along for years because they love the undeniable chemistry.
The most notorious on-again/off-again couple is Ross (David Schwimmer) & Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends. For 10 years, they went through periods of being together always followed by some conflict which led to separation. It was definitely a roller coaster ride. It can be frustrating to watch a couple go through such a tumultuous journey. While there is never a guaranteed “happy ending”, viewers are usually optimistic and support the couple until the end.
This year, another long-running sitcom concluded and viewers learned that it had been following the “on-again/off-again” formula, but the audience response was far from the celebratory one that Ross & Rachel received. The sitcom in reference is no other than How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted (Josh Radnor) & Robin (Cobie Smulders).
After 9 years, HIMYM concluded with Ted ending up not with the “Mother”, but with Aunt Robin. This outraged many a viewer because everyone believed the series’ premise was about Ted & the “Mother” (and their presumed happily ever after). For years, people had followed the series anxiously waiting for the “Mother”… only to find out she dies?!
Season 8 concluded with viewers actually meeting this titular “Mother”, Tracy (the perfectly cast Cristin Milioti), in an extremely surprising but satisfying reveal. I greatly looked forward to watching Tracy & Ted’s love story in season 9. Sadly, season 9 was mostly a time waster, keeping the series at a standstill and unbearably dragged out. The worst part was that it wasn’t even funny or entertaining. I skipped/half-watched the final season. Tracy and the “flash forwards” were the saving graces of season 9. Those scenes were extremely precious and had the full essence of what made HIMYM so awesome a long time ago (full of heart, wit, and often humor). Josh & Cristin had amazing chemistry and I truly felt like Tracy was the perfect match for Ted. One of my absolute favorite scene of the whole series has to be the epic moment when Ted talks to Tracy for the first time; the flawless writing and spectacular acting encapsulated so many emotions and highlighted how “fated” this couple was supposed to be and felt like the big “reward” for sticking it out for so many years to wait for the “Mother”.
As for Ted & Robin…
Despite knowing from the beginning that she wasn’t the “Mother”, I couldn’t help but be infatuated with Ted & Robin during the early seasons. I loved their chemistry! I definitely enjoyed their courtship in season 1 and their dating in season 2. After their initial big break up, I reminded myself that I knew all along they had an “expiration date” and that Ted isn’t supposed to end up with Robin. Thus I forced myself to let go of my love for this couple and continued to watch patiently for Ted’s “true love” (the elusive and mysterious “Mother”).
As the series progressed, Ted and Robin went through multiple partners. Yet, somehow they always ended up at a spot of getting back together and then not. As a closeted supporter of Ted & Robin, I felt frustrated and teased. Why let them have such amazing chemistry and be in such predicaments when they aren’t going to end up together?! I tried very hard to not root for them consequently.
As a Ted & Robin fan, I can’t exactly say I’m upset with the ending because their final pairing was what I secretly rooted for since the beginning. The main problem I have with the ending is that it negates all of the character development that occurred in later seasons. In particular, the multiple seasons-long journey of Ted letting go of Robin so that he can meet and be with the “Mother”. It feels almost pointless.
While the creators stand by the fact that they had planned out the whole story since the beginning, I can’t help but feel like their hands were tied by an ending they had filmed nearly a decade earlier (HIMYM was at risk of cancellation during its early years so I believe the creators had this pre-filmed ending in their back pocket “just in case”). The original intention was actually to not even have the “Mother” be a character in the series (save for her reveal in the final moments). Perhaps they should have stuck with that plan rather than giving us the simply adorable Tracy. I would rather not know the “Mother” at all if she was supposed to be an “insignificant” character all along.
I believe most people are upset with the ending because it makes them feel cheated and misled. It was too sudden and contradicts most of season 9. Ted & Robin would have been easier for viewers to “swallow” if the writers dedicated sufficient time to fleshing out this story. The most important aspect of effective storytelling is that the audience has to believe it. Perhaps the intention of HIMYM was to point out that life is unpredictable, but when it comes to TV watching, viewers expect a certain “script”. Twists/surprises are wonderful, but they must feel earned and credible; this is where HIMYM failed.
In the history of the “on/off couple”, Ted & Robin are probably the most frustrating and hard to accept (even though I really loved their chemistry).