For seven seasons, the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother has kept viewers coming back, despite the show quite possibly breaking the record for the longest story ever told. That story resumed this week when the show’s eighth season premiered. For those who haven’t seen the show, or watched any sort of TV for the past seven years or interacted with popular culture in any way, it’s a sitcom about five friends reaching the end of their 20s. The show’s story is told through the narrative device of one of those five—Ted—in the year 2030, telling his two kids about how he met their mother. So far the audience has been given precious little information about who the mother actually is, and that’s just the way the show’s creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, intended it.
In the 1960s, Gilligan’s Island was able to maintain its conceit that the castaways came this close to being rescued time and time again, but never actually were rescued. In that less cynical time, it was comparatively easier to maintain the willing-suspension-of-disbelief on the part of audiences. Bays and Thomas can’t quite get away with Gilligan level suspension of disbelief, so they have had to push and pull their audience, giving out just enough clues to keep viewers going while raising enough new questions each week and each season to make the show almost irresistible.
"We watch a lot more cable hour shows than we do sitcoms," says Thomas. "We love that stuff. It’s always been our goal to emulate that daringness within the sitcom, as much as we can. "We love the moments where we can surprise people, and jump around in time, and do unconventional twists."
Frequently when a female character is introduced on HIMYM, the narrator will tease the possibility that this new character just might be the mother. But at the end of that character’s story arc, we find out she is not. However, just as that character’s arc ends, a new storyline begins with a new possibility. Every few episodes, Bays and Thomas rule some people out and create more specific parameters for who the mother could be, giving the viewers a sense that they aren’t being led on a wild goose chase. Bays and Thomas also take the attention away from the "mother question" from time to time. For instance, last season, the show focused on a wedding storyline between two other characters, Robin and Barney. In the previous season, the other two lead characters, Marshall and Lily, had an extended "will-they-or-won’t they" story arc about having a baby together. "All of these choices are careful decisions about moving the story forward," says Bays. "Before we decided that Marshall and Lily were going to have a baby, we thought it through, have we gone through every iteration of these guys hanging out at a bar without a baby to worry about, have they had enough fun? And you know, that was the same conversation I had before I decided to have kids."
The framing device of the show came at its very inception. Bays and Thomas were friends and fellow comedy writers for David Letterman in New York during their 20s, sharing countless wild adventures, many of which formed the basis for the show. "We wrote the pilot when we were 29 but we were already nostalgic for our 20s," says Thomas, "Carter and I had just moved to L.A. and we missed New York. We wanted to tell the story of everything that happened to us. Telling it from a future perspective gave it so much more significance, it’s a life story."
Telling the story to kids also provides a convenient out for any inappropriate details which might also happen to offend the network’s family viewers. Bays and Thomas occasionally poke fun at their self-censoring by doing things like using the phrase "eating a sandwich" as a code phrase when the friends discuss "smoking a joint." The device also affords them the ability to plant details in one season and return to them later in the season or even in future seasons. "We like to use the narrative to write checks that we then have to cash," says Thomas. "It can be fun as a writer to put yourself into a corner and be accountable for following through on those details."
Bays and Thomas promise viewers that we will in fact eventually learn who the mother is. In fact, it may be as early as this season, which may be the show’s last. The creators’ plan for who the mother is and how she will be revealed has been unchanged since season one. In fact, they shot a part of the episode where the mother is revealed a few years ago, the footage is sitting in a vault and protected by confidentiality agreements. "The title seems to indicate that it’s answering one question, but we never viewed the show that way. We always thought this was a story of what it’s like to be in your 20s, the highs and lows and how your friends get you through it," says Thomas. "Nevertheless, I think people will be very satisfied with the answer to the question. But how we get there will be filled with twists and turns. We’re really close to that point in the series now."