One of my favorite sitcoms of the last half-decade, CBS' "How I Met Your Mother," had what I felt was its weakest season last year, one that seemed to lack any kind of notable storytelling direction, or heart, and wasn't funny enough to make up for that.
Often when I come to press tour after a show I like has had an off-year, I want to see what the producers have to say about it. If they talk as if everything's still fine and dandy, I can brace myself for the decline to continue, and perhaps rapidly accelerate. If, on the other hand, they admit to seeing the same problems I did, then I know there's hope for a turnaround.
An hour-long conversation with "HIMYM" creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas filled me (and, I got the sense, the handful of other critics who were with me) with a whole lot of hope. They couldn't offer too many details about storylines (nor would I want to hear many of them), and it's entirely possible their execution will fall short of their ambition, but they talked throughout that hour about moving away from the standalone, disposable storylines of season five and returning to the series' more emotionally complicated roots.
An abridged transcript - which includes some vague (at times incredibly vague) spoilers for the sixth season (which debuts Sept. 20) - with some notes from me, coming up after the jump...
The Big Picture
Carter Bays: It's going to be a newsworthy season for us. We were happy with season five as we were doing it, but the headline is, season five of our show was very sitcommy. We feel that way. We set out to say, 'What if we do a show where every episode you hit the reset button at the end of the episode? Do it like a box of chocolates; every one is a little morsel.' And we had fun doing that, but that's not the show we've wanted to do. Our headline for this year is that we're kind of getting back into the saga of the show.
Craig Thomas: I think a certain kind of fan of the show felt last season was less emotionally interesting. Less interesting in the larger arc of who's the mother, but also less interesting in the sense of moving forward in these characters lives. In the first couple three seasons of 'How I Met Your Mother,' crazy stuff happened. You saw Marshall and Lily get engaged, Ted decides to find The One, Marshall and Lily want to break up, they are estranged, get back together, get married. I feel like we earned fans by exploring a lot of rites of passage in people's lives, and last year we did a lot less of that. We want to get the message out there that we're kind of bringing it back to being a little more emotionally invested in these character's lives, and to tweak the larger mystery of the series in a way we've never done before. We'll be annoyingly vague now.
CB: I feel like we kind of had a moment as we were starting to break these stories, a real, existential moment where we realized the show was going to end. This is the season where we start working towards what that ending is. In breaking this season, we've kind of broken the entire series.
CT: "Broken" is a sitcom word for "planned."
Does this mean, they're asked, that they have an end date in mind?
CB: We have a set ending. We don't have a set time. We want to make it clear. We're not going to do what "Lost" did and say, "Oh, we have this many episodes left." We've broken it to what we feel will be a good amount of episodes remaining, but that can change as we see how things are going.
How do we get there?
I ask if this means they have the ability to expand or contract the amount of story it will take to get to the planned end, depending on how many more seasons the show runs (as of now, the actors are all contracted for three more seasons).
CT: It's hard to answer that without getting too specific. We are a show that can look into the future... We're going to get some glimpses into the future that are going to alter the way we view the story, immediately in episode one.
CB: In episode one, we begin a new framework for the show, in addition to the framework that exists, that will cast the mystery in a new light. Also create a new mystery that will expand the universe a bit.
CT: The future is going to become even more a part of the present on the show. There's going to be a kind of running mystery in the future, and we don't know how far into the future this is going to be. But we're going to see something that alters the question of the series, "How I Met Your Mother." One example, without saying too much, we did this a lot last season: "I was dating this girl..." And the audience is supposed to think, "Is that the mother or not?" That trick that we've done for five years - is this one The Mother? - we're going to put that trick to bed.... You're going to learn some stuff in episode one that ends that particular gimmick... Rachel Bilson is booked and is in episode one.
They apologize for teasing the audience for so long about The Mother.
CT: We're going to move on to creating a series of different questions that expand the mystery a little bit.
I ask about the frustrated reaction some viewers (like me) had to the 100th episode, "Girls vs. Suits," that physically brought us closer than ever to the mother, in that we saw her foot, but that didn't really advance that story in any meaningful way.
CT: Our feeling was, you can't get any closer than that without meeting her. We can't keep doing that same trick, so we wondered, what do you do? You change the trick. And we're going to do that right away by flashing forward and changing the perspective.
Can't they just meet the mother, be done with it, and make her a regular character on the show?
CT: That absolutely can happen.
CB: We can't say one way or another whether that will happen. That is definitely a possibility. There's going to be a kind of grander story that will involve the mother to some degree but is about the characters. We always feel like that question, it is the title of the show and we can't ignore it to some degree, it feels like there's a lot of story to tell about the characters beyond that question.
So how will the new season deal with Lily and Marshall's decision to try to have a baby?
CT: The season premiere begins with night one, their first at bat... It affects the season a lot. It's a season where everyone's lives will change dramatically. whereas last week we sort of had amnesia from week-to-week, told a lot of standalones. There wasn't kind of an accumulation of meaning to it. It wasn't maybe the strongest season.
CB: We didn't know where we were going. We experimented with being rudderless.
CT: We had a lot of fun, but I think the show functions best on an emotional level. I think that'show we won the fanbase early on, and we did less of that last year. We're going to do more of that. We're going to get on big journeys for these characters. We're going to see Marshall and Lily, night one, and the idea of them moving forward and thinking about kids is going to end up triggering Barney onto his journey this season of trying to find his father. Admitting that it's probably not Bob Barker. Even Barney, even our character who is most the same every week, is going to have a big quest.
How much debate have the writers had about whether to let those two have a kid?
CB: We've had as much debate as an actual married couple would have about having a baby. And it's been along the same lines: "We're not going to have as much fun. We're not going to be able to go to the bar as much. We're not going to have the same adventures."
CB: We've definitely heard, "Don't add a baby." That's Sitcom 101. But Craig as a father, there are a lot of stories that come out of that.
CT: And we don't want to be Sitcom 101. We want to be a show that tells it like it is and takes you on a journey through people's lives. It's not out of false stakes or trying to calculate what's interesting, but actually moving somewhere in the character's lives. Whatever you say about season six, you won't say it was like season five. It's going to move the characters. Our fear is that we'll move them too far, too fast, but I think it's going to be really exciting.
Barn-man & Robin strike back?
One of season five's biggest disappointments, at least from this corner, is that the writers, having spent the previous season building up the idea that Barney was in love with Robin and that Robin might feel the same way, split them up after only a handful of episodes as a couple.
CB: Initially, when we got them together, we didn't want to make it that long. We weren't 'shippers the way the rest of the world was. We didn't pay attention to that. There's a part of us, honestly, I think Ted and Robin still belong together in our minds to some degree. And that may have affected why. We never looked at it as a grand romance. And as it turned out, Neil and Cobie did have a ridiculous chemistry and it did work, so when we cut it short, it probably bugged some people.
CT: We didn't want to do the same kind of beats that we'd done with Ted and Robin that we did with Barney and Robin. We wanted to do something with a different size and shape to it. I feel like he does love her and she loves him. I'm not prepared to say we're done with that...That's why we did that episode later where Barney learned that it did hurt her...I think these are two people who are not ready to be in a couple. I never look at those two as done, because they're so amazing together. But I don't think it would have been emotionally true to those characters to have them suddenly move in and get engaged. But hopefully we'll have some more seasons to the show.
CB: Honestly, I think part of it was that we had written so many of the scripts before we started shooting - before we'd seen what they were like as a couple. In the writing, we felt that six episodes in, "Well, we've done this now. Where do we go next? Let's see how they handle a break-up." We were ahead of the magic, I think. As a result, we probably should have kept them together longer.
Robin Sparkles returns?
What's Robin's story going to be this year?
CT: Robin's story we can't talk about too much. One Robin thing we can talk about is we're going to do the third installment of Robin Sparkles. Alan Thicke hinted that there was this Robin Sparkles kids show in Canada.
CB: This is all if we can get Alan Thicke.
CT: Who knows if we'll be able to book him? We love the idea of teasing going back to that. It's going to be an early tween type show in Canada. Most likely an outer space-themed show, and she had a partner named Glitter, so it was "Sparkles and Glitter."
CB: We're casting Glitter right now.
CT: It's not the pressure of, "How do you write a song that tops 'Let's Go to the Mall'?" (The critics briefly begin debating the merits of "Sandcastles in the Sand" vs. "Mall")... If we have to write a song, it'll be something about math. It has to be an educational Canadian show. It may be a song warning about the dangers of thin ice. The number one killer of kids in Canada.
CB: Ted has such a crazy other journey in the next season that Robin will be there for. In the finale, our intention was to put Ted and Robin to bed, so to speak, just for a while. The note that it ends on is they're friends now... They have a bond that's weirdly stronger than it was when they were just dating. But Ted, there's going to be a big adventure for Ted. He is going to get called back to Goliath National Bank to design their headquarters, and he's going to work for Barney and Marshall. It's going to be a season-long arc... After the whole season with Stella, we didn't want Ted to go, "Oh, here's the new love of my life."
CT: We wanted a year off. But then the question is, how do you do something new and meaningful for Ted that's a bit different? And we figured out how to do it this season... It's all about the steps of destiny on this show, and the fact that Ted signs on to design the GNB national headquarters leads to this situation where it's the opportunity of a lifetime for him as an architect. But to make this new building, this really old, beautiful building has to be destroyed. And this is very current to New York right now... So Ted, this great, nostalgic character who loves old New York, has to be responsible in some way for destroying this building. Through that, he meets this woman - it's her cause and passion to preserve and protect this building. She's someone who would picket the destruction. We meet this great new, significant character in Ted's life who is his nemesis, and he is the enemy of her cause. It gives us so much good material.
CB: We made a decision to stop (telling you anything) there. We'll tell you up to that point.
CT: It's not going to be Date of the Week, season six.
CT: We look at it as, if "HIMYM" is a three-act play, this is the start of the third act... We have this great momentum and pull toward where we want to end the story. If there are people out there who didn't love the fact that season five was a little more standalone, you're gonna really like season six.
CB: It's going to be a little more the show we love. We are as obsessed with "The Wire" as anyone, and it's going to be more like that. We're looking at it as 22-24 chapters of a novel.
Someone laments the lack of big romantic moments in season five as compared to previous seasons.
CB: As we compiled the soundtrack of the season in our heads, I think that's a good way to gauge the amount of romance we're going to try to capture. So much of this season will be about the songs that are playing. As we've broken these stories, looking at the document with our 24-episode plan for this season just got us wistful and emotional. I really wish I could say just exactly what it's going to mean. But our show has always thrived when it's talking about the big pivotal moments of your life, and the gauntlets you have to go through in your life. There are things that are very personal to the people on our staff, that have happened, and we're going to write about that.
CT: Last year there was a lot of Girl of the Week, and there wasn't as much of an accumulation of meaning as there was in the past. We write better when we're accumulating meaning and building as we go on through the season. Last year was great. It was kind of our syndication year. It was, "Here's some funny episodes!"
CB: It was, "Here's some episodes you can watch and laugh at and forget the next day."
CT: But this year is different.
CB: Our emotional barometer is (director) Pam Fryman. If a take is making her cry, she'll make them do it again even if it worked, just so she can see it again. And just going down our outline, I can see six or seven moments that are going to make her cry on the set.
CT: It feels like we're diving into the heart and soul of the series this year in a way we didn't last year, and we're better writers when we do. Maybe we're not the guys who are writing standalone episode after standalone episode. It was an interesting experiment to do that in the late-ish middle of the season last year. I don't think we're going to look back on it as the highlight of our writing career.
CB: It's not our forte as writers, I think. We're not "Community," and we're not "30 Rock," and those are my two favorite shows right now, but we don't do that.
Someone brings up Ted's alarming level of douchiness in the fifth season, and Craig turns to me - having apparently read the many, many, many season five reviews where I used the d-word to describe Ted Evelyn Mosby - and I smile and invoke the douchiest Ted episode of all, saying, "Let's talk 'Robots vs. Wrestlers.'" Craig pretends to act hurt, and says, "I don't want to talk about it with you." Then, more seriously...
CT: Can I make a promise? Ted will be absolutely undouchey this year. We knew we weren't diving into a huge emotional story for Ted. A bad thing can happen when you're going episode-to-episode without a big emotional arc. You say, "That seems kind of funny. Let's do that." You do certain things and you get greedy. You emphasize something you shouldn't be, because you're not telling a larger story. I look at last season, and Ted was too douchey.
CB: We will mea culpa many things from last year, but we loved ("Robots vs. Wrestlers"). We were very proud of that episode.
CT: We want to go back to hero Ted this year. And robots are cool. Apparently, if people say they don't like that episode, then they don't like robots and that makes you un-American. I'm just saying... Alan.
After Barney and Robin broke up, Robin spent much of the season's timeline in a relationship with co-worker Don, but she didn't spend much time in actual episodes with him. I asked Thomas and Bays how they felt that storyline worked.
CT: I feel that ultimately we didn't show enough of him to make people care as much as we needed to... I would have seen him a couple more times to make him land more.
CB: There were moments where we cut scenes he was in that we probably shouldn't have cut, because we were trying to give more time to our guys.
CT: The journey of showing Robin become someone after half a decade, who would give up her career to go after love, I loved that. I loved showing Robin go somewhere... Maybe we didn't make the audience care about Don enough.
A failed experiment
CB: Some of the episodes from last year were some of the best episodes we've ever done: "Girls vs. Suits," I think "Dopplegangers" was one of our best ever. Last year was kind of an improv game. I don't know if you remember, the opening shot of the season was a quote: "The only thing I know is I know nothing." That was our little klarion call to ourselves, to see if we could let the show just unfold the way it unfolded. I think we were wrong to do that. We ignored that part of us that are planners by nature. It suffered, structurally.
CT: Some of our best "standalone" episodes like "The Bro Code" or "The Pineapple Incident," these sort of catchy episodes, they all came from an emotional arc. "The Bro Code" came from the fact that Ted and Barney were having a real intense friendship breakup. That was embedded within an arc. I think we write our best catchy, gimmicky episodes while being deep within an arc. And we forgot that. I really liked the episode "The Perfect Week" last year, but looking back at it, we had to create false stakes, that Barney might lose his job. Whereas "The Bro Code" had a really significant series arc that it was borne out of, and we didn't have to invent something to make it matter. That was a good lesson that I feel we learned this season.
Thomas then explains that this approach is called "schmuck-bait... it's a sitcom writer room term for when you create false tension."
CB: There are three or four big stories going on that are drawn from real things happening to the writers and people we know.
CT: This year's going to be a lot of writing from real life. I hope no one throws the word "sitcommy" at us after season six.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org