“Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story: the story of how I met your mother.”
From the very moment, it begins, How I Met Your Mother is a love story. We haven’t even seen the protagonist yet – just his children – and we’re already being told the ending of the story. Already, there’s a lot of things working against the show, and it’s only existed for twenty-five seconds: thankfully, the twenty-plus minutes to follow are a near-flawless set of character introductions and world-building that launched one of the most popular, everlasting comedies in recent memory. Surprisingly enough, it does so without using some of the show’s signature touches: without a ton of self-referential humor to Inception itself with (as it increasingly has over the years), the pilot of How I Met Your Mother is simple, straightforward, and endlessly endearing – until it gets to the end, which nearly undermined the entire series before it started.
All these years later, it stands to the power of what Bays and Thomas would build over its first few seasons, that How I Met Your Mother became such a success, a show that was one part LOST and two parts Friends, with a couple of dashes of Arrested Development and Cheers thrown on top for good measure. There wasn’t one particular thing How I Met Your Mother did better than any of these other shows, but it took those familiar elements and mixed them in a way that was wholly HIMYM’s own, mechanics and storytelling devices that were mostly nowhere to be found in the fairly innocent pilot (save for Barney’s blog), detailing the night Ted met… Aunt Robin Scherbatsky, a woman who Ted would remain in love with for the entire run of the series.
The reveal at the end of the pilot very nearly destroys everything carefully built before it: Marshall’s adorable proposal to his college girlfriend Lily (and his inability to lie, being a second-year law student with a huge heart), Barney’s relentless pursuit of sexual conquest (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris, by the way – his performance in the pilot literally spawned a sub-culture of Bros), and Ted’s lovable tale of losers looking for love… it all almost falls apart when it reveals the entire pilot to be the show’s crutch for the next 200 episodes, that Ted was falling in love with a woman who would not end up being his wife or the mother of his children. By doing that, it removes the whole “will they”/”won’t they” of the entire episode, season, and series – something it took a lot of work for the show to rebuild throughout the first season, and unfortunately returned to far too many times throughout the series.
It initially feels like a neat twist: but years later upon revisiting, it’s the single worst thing about that first half-hour, highlighted by Marshall’s fear of opening a champagne bottle and Barney’s iconic “Haaaave you met Ted?” bar game. Here is Ted, moments after stealing a blue french horn from a restaurant and blurting out “I love you” to a woman he’s on his first date with (just about as “will they, won’t they” as a pilot can get)… and the show reveals it to be nobody, an unrelated aunt who is part of the family, but not the integral part Ted initially builds her up to be. It’s a bit of a rug-pulling gimmick – and tacked onto the end of an otherwise clever, confident sitcom pilot, feels too much like an audience grab for its own good.
Thankfully, Ted and Robin would always be the weakest part of How I Met Your Mother, the perfect couple doomed never to be together: with Marshall and Lily, we had a successful relationship we could watch over the next nine seasons, detailing their professional and personal journeys in such satisfying ways (their wedding… the news of Lily being pregnant… them buying their first house… the classic story arcs for Marshmellow and Lilypad are numerous) that we don’t get to see in the first episode (except for Marshall’s ‘thinking on his feet’ skills and the evidence of a kindergartner getting to second base with Ms. Aldrin). And of course, there’s Barney, the show’s cartoonish center, a man whore whose eventual growth is nowhere to be found in this episode (“Lebanese girls are the new half-Asian girls” he tells Ted, setting the show’s typical bar for racial sensitivity very, very low). Used mostly as a vehicle for sex jokes in the early going, there are no signs of weakness with the first incarnation of Barney Stinson: in “Pilot”, he’s nothing but an empty suit, parading about telling Ted how to live life and not fall in love – the latter of which Ted Moesby is ready for when we meet him for the first time.
Without the time-jumping or complex homages that eventually became a part of How I Met Your Mother‘s formula, “Pilot” is a fairly standard sitcom pilot, albeit one charming and engaging enough to set itself apart from most of CBS’s comedy line-up for the next nine years (when HIMYM began airing, King of Queens and Two and a Half Man were still ‘hits’ for the network), even in its laziest moments and storylines (Zoey anyone?). Above all, How I Met Your Mother is about the power of love flying in the face of reason, embracing the idea of destiny in a whole-hearted way most sitcoms could only feign – philosophies immediately apparent in the first ten minutes of the pilot, setting the stage for the 200-plus episodes (some genius, some endearing, some astonishingly terrible) to follow.