The fourth season of CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" was filled with challenges.

Both of the show's leading ladies, Cobie Smulders and Alyson Hannigan, were pregnant and spent the spring hiding behind counters, carrying basketballs or entirely absent for tenuously plotted reasons [What *was* that joke Barney told Lily?]. Meanwhile, the show's main character Ted (Josh Radnor) was having an on-and-off relationship with a woman (Stella) played by an actress  (Sarah Chalke) from another show ("Scrubs"), forcing an atypical piece of storytelling to work around her schedule. Jason Segel was becoming a movie star. Neil Patrick Harris was becoming a media-conquering supernova (maybe a minor overstatement, but NPH has been everywhere).

The payoff for all of those struggles and challenges? Only the show's first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Season Five premieres on Monday, Sept. 21 and order has been restored. Smulders and Hannigan are both back and spending time with Barney and Marshall. Ted is starting a new career as a college professor and Future Ted has already hinted at the whereabout of his Future Wife and "How I Met Your Mother" would never tease us about her identity without a payoff. Right?

I caught up with "How I Met Your Mother" co-creator Carter Bays last month at the Television Critics Association press tour and we discussed Season Four's accommodations, teasing the audience and what Happy Ted will mean for Season Five.

[Interview after the break...]

HitFix: So how are you approaching this season in terms of the actresses who were in a delicate condition for much of the spring?

Carter Bays: We're so excited to have them back and in full force. Cobie was a trooper and she made it through the whole season, but it was hard not having Alyson there for the last four episodes we shot. We definitely missed her. I'm very excited because the first episode, the premiere episode, is a great Lily story and it's reminding us how much me missed her and how much fun we have with that character and it'll be fun to have her back this season. Hopefully she goes a whole year without having another baby.

 

HitFix: Was it a situation where you made sure that right up-front you worked Alyson and Cobie back in to start the season?

CB: I don't know if we were consciously doing that, but it's just great fun to write those characters. Cobie, we had to dial her back a bit because she was just coming down the stretch, as they say in horse-racing. It's funny. Alyson gave us the news first and Alyson was like a month ahead and so in our heads, we were like, "OK. Alyson's the pregnant one." And it didn't really sink in that we were going to have to do this with both of them and there was one day where Cobie was like suddenly, OK, she's pregnant and suddenly you can't hide her.

 

Interloping Questioner [as happens at press tour]: Did you enjoy hiding their pregnancies?

CB: I enjoyed the loosy-goosy putting on a show vibe that our show sometimes has. There's a lot of winks to the audience and we had a lot of fun finding clever ways to play with the elements that we had. They weren't the ideal elements to have, but that sometimes makes it more fun, more of a challenge.

 

HitFix: There seemed to be a lot of effort put into covering Alyson, but Cobie was often just out there and pregnant. Did she ask not to go through the ruse?

CB: Believe it or not, and it's all the magic of television, but she had her giant purses, definitely.

 

HitFix: And he wasn't pregnant, but how has Jason Segel's movie career impacted your ability to tell certain stories?

CB: I think it's been great. The great thing about Jason is that he can go out and become the biggest star on the face of the Earth and then he comes back to the show and just gives 110 percent.

 

HitFix: Still, though, y'all had to feel like there was a lot of accommodating you guys were doing for a lot of different people.

CB: There always is. That's just part of scheduling when you have five super-talented actors on your show, who are in demand. You have to make it work, because it's good for the show. Also, as they're friends, you want to see them get to do all of the things that they want to do. It's definitely the case that, in this business, you have to take it when you can get it and right now is a really good time for all of them and we want to make sure that they're getting as much done as they possibly can.

 

HitFix: Along those lines, how much of last season's storytelling had to be  built around Sarah Chalke's availability?

CB: Oh, a lot of it. It's all to the credit of Bill Lawrence. He was awesome about it and he has a lot of karma points coming his way. 

 

Interloper: Is she done?

CB: You know, any day that she's on our set is a happier day than one where she isn't, so we'd love to have her back, eventually. 

 

Interloper: I don't want her back.

CB: As a romantic interest for Ted, she's done. It's time to move on from that.

 

HitFix: You had the episode that ended with them reuniting and a strong, albeit false, hint that she was The Mother. Did you get a sense of how much that concerned fans?

CB: Oh, absolutely! My sister called me furious. She was furious. I don't know. We love our audience and we love our fans so much and we don't want to do anything that makes them angry, but at the same time... Maybe it's the abusive relationship I have with "Lost." They jerk me around and I keep coming back. I think for us, knowing the way the season was going to end up, this was an inevitable part of that story and I was really happy with how the last three or four episodes played out. I think it will play a lot better on DVD. I think when you can immediately see what happened, that will be better. That was a rough week for a lot of people.

 

HitFix: Were you intentionally poking or teasing the audience with that episode?

CB: Absolutely. We had so much fun doing just fun stand-alone episodes and it was great being able to do that for the lion's share of the season, that for the last three or four episodes, I think we felt that it was time to poke the audience, to wake them up a little bit, to say, "Remember, there's a bigger story here."

 

HitFix: Sarah's hilarious and one of the sweetest people out there, but why do you think people reacted so negatively towards her as the future Mother?

CB: I think it was just because of what she did to Ted. It's unambiguously bad what she did to him and that was a fun thing to explore, taking this character that we loved and everyone loved and played by an actress that everyone loves and have her do something that's just unambiguously s***y. 

 

HitFix: But even before she left him at the altar, there was uncertainty that fans wanted her to be The One.

CB: We made sure to sprinkle that in so that when she did leave him, it wouldn't be "Oh God!" We wanted to create a situation where you understood that this wasn't going to work out well before it happened and then when it happened, you were surprised and then not surprised at the same time.

 

HitFix: But is it a concern that if you have an actress so likable and she had such good chemistry with Josh and people *still* weren't rooting for it to work, that whoever it ends up being, it won't be embraced either?

CB: That's worried us a lot. I was just saying to somebody else... Maybe I was reading different sources, but I thought she and Josh were fantastic together. I look at Josh Radnor as, I think he's an actor with great chemistry. He's just got great chemistry. You put him an a scene with a goat and he's got great chemistry with the goat. 

 

HitFix: But agreeing that they have great chemistry isn't the same as wanting them to be the solution to the mystery you've been posing all these years. Maybe people don't want the solution?

CB: You don't want to say that the audience wants to be jerked around. I don't think they want to be jerked around. But a little bit they do. I certainly like being jerked around by my favorite shows. It's a fine line that we walk, though, because it is a sitcom and our first job is make people feel good and to laugh for a half-hour every week, but part of the way we do that is by making a show that's true to life and true to what goes on in the real world. And part of what goes on in the real world is that sometimes there surprises that you don't see coming and that you don't like so much and you've gotta make do with.

 

HitFix: So what does the academic milieu  do this season for Ted?

CB: It's a fun environment to put Ted in. We haven't shot anything there, but we're really excited. We just saw his classroom set and it's this rich, mahogany/oak Ivy League classroom and it's fun environment and it's going to be a fun environment for Ted.

 

HitFix: I feel like it may bring out a certain side of him...

CB: Oh it is. It is. And he's going to have to squelch it. We're getting such good stories out of it and it's also just fun writing him in a world where he's happy and satisfied. We put him through the plagues of Job this past season and there was a reason behind it. We knew at the beginning of the season that the last episode was going to be, "All of this terrible stuff happened to me this year, but I wouldn't have met your mother if it hadn't." So we knew we were heading toward that, but over the course of the year, it was hard putting him through trial after trial and having him lose his fiance and lose his job. He like him. We like the character and we like Josh and it's hard to Josh go through that. So it's going to be fun this year seeing him kinda happy and figured out and settled. It leaves room for the rest of the cast to go through their own trials and tributions.

 

HitFix: So Happy Ted and Less-Happy Everybody Else?

CB: I think, in a nutshell, that's what we're going to be seeing this year. I think so.

 

"How I Met Your Mother" returns to CBS on Monday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m.