Occasionally, people ask me what I think the best sitcom pilot since 2000 is. Every time, I say, “It’s a tie between Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother.” While the two shows don’t seem similar, their pilot episodes actually have a lot in common: Both benefit greatly from using narration, both feel like full stories, both are stylistically inventive, and both offer a uniquely assured portrait of what the series would turn into. Series finales often echo pilots — like Arrested Development’s Fox finale did — so with HIMYM ending tonight, I wanted to rewatch the 2005 premiere episode and look back at where Ted, Barney, and the gang started out. Here is a list of six moments and themes from the pilot episode, how they factored into the series over the years, and why they might come up in tonight’s one-hour farewell.
1. Ted as storyteller.
In a way, HIMYM was the populist Arrested Development. Both aspired to play with how stories were told in the half-hour sitcom format; however, where it felt like AD was doing so as a result of a cynicism toward the medium, HIMYM was doing so out of deference.
HIMYM’s pilot exhibits the sort of nested storytelling that would become the show’s signature. Not only is Future-Ted (Bob Saget) narrating the macro story as well as the micro one about the specific night on which the pilot takes place, but at multiple times within the episode we see Past-Ted (Josh Radnor) telling the gang specific events from his date with Robin. Beyond being a unique and dynamic move to get your pilot noticed among the masses, it portrayed Ted as a storyteller.
Echoed throughout the series, Ted is a guy (as the Mother put it a few episodes ago) who “lives in his stories” — both the ones that happened and the ones he imagines. In the pilot, he creates Robin and his happily ever after before he said hello. Robin, though special, is not totally unique in this, as Ted has idealized almost of all of his girlfriends.
Tonight, we’ll learn what all this storytelling adds up to. The theory going around is that the Mom is dead and that Ted is telling his kids the story (“Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story, the story of how I met your mother”) as a way of remembering her. But every good story needs an ending.
2. “Have you met Ted?” “Suit up!” and other running jokes.
As we pointed out earlier today, How I Met Your Mother (like Arrested Development) loved themselves some running jokes. The pilot featured the first appearance of a few, including “Suit up!” which takes on a big role in the story, as Barney convinces Ted to put on a suit when he goes to see Robin. “Have you met Ted?” was probably even bigger, not because it became the most iconic but because it underlined what the show was about (i.e., the meeting of a woman who may or may not have been the mother of the title). The show wasn’t about the marriage Ted and the eventual mother had; it was about serpentine journey that brought them together.
Tonight we’ll learn in concrete fashion how Ted met the mother. And if it happens by Barney tapping her on the shoulder and saying, “Have you met Ted?” we’ll die, regardless of whether the mother does or not.
3. “The Olive Theory” and Lily and Marshall, #TeamMarriage.
Though they’d obviously be fleshed out more during the series, it was pretty clear who Lily and Marshall were broadly: he, an earnest big lug and she, a sparkplug. However, more clear was who they were as a couple. Lily was clearly in charge and more independent, which foreshadowed what would eventually happen between the two when she briefly leaves him for San Francisco. But mostly it was apparent that they were in love and could get through anything, like her leaving him for San Francisco. In the pilot, this hinges on the “The Olive Theory,” which is that Lily loves olives and Marshall hates them, making them a perfectly complementary match. Barney then calls out Marshall for actually loving olives. When Marshall reveals this to Lily, she kisses him and says, “We’ll make it work.” And they have throughout the series, up until last week’s vow renewal. To Ted, they represented the marriage he wanted to have already. They were like the marriage-angel on his right shoulder. But first he needed to vanquish the marriage-devil.
4. “Don’t think about getting married until you’re 30” and Barney, the darkside.
Of all the characters, Barney, who would become the show’s breakout, was the most immediately clear: He was a bro who loved suits and banging chicks. He was also Ted’s id. He explains the above quote after Ted goes on and on about Lily and Marshall’s engagement. He then proceeds to say, “Have you met Ted?” and introduce Ted to a hot girl (who happened to be Lebanese, Barney’s obsession du jour). It would be a drum Barney would beat for most of the series: Don’t be sad about her, have sex with this other person.
Ted said he was ready to get married, but he wasn’t. He needed to outgrow the Barney side of himself and did so through Barney outgrowing the Barney-side of himself. That’s why Barney getting married last week was one of the last necessary steps for Ted to be ready to meet the Mother. We so very much hope he introduces her.
5. “Okay, I’m ready. Where is she?” and Robin, the girl that had to get away.
The final step, however, was getting over Robin. Ted first sees Robin across the bar, in romantic slow-motion. Saget’s voice-over says, “It was like something from an old movie, where the sailor sees the girl across the crowded dance floor, turns to his buddy and says, ‘See that girl? I’m gonna marry her someday.’” He was wrong. But for a storyteller like Ted, all the evidence proving that he was wrong was just color before the happy ending.
The pilot ends with Past-Ted thinking he blew it with Robin and the voice-over saying, “I never thought I’d see that girl again, but it turns out I was just too close to the puzzle to see the picture that was forming. Because that, kids, is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin.” When the pilot aired, that was a clever little twist and final laugh line, but it also suggested more. A longer title for the show, as if that were possible, could’ve been, How I Met Robin, Got Over Robin, and Then Met Your Mother. That is why last week’s scene where Robin suggests she should be marrying him instead of Barney, only to have Ted strongly disagree, was maybe the most important in the series.
Maybe instead of Barney, it would be even better if Robin pulled off the “Have you met Ted?” with the Mother. Either way, we are going to cry the most tears.
6. The sign “I Love You,” and Ted, the protagonist.
Something that surprised me a little while I rewatched the pilot is just how much the show was about Ted. I know he’s always been the narrator and he’s the “I” in the title, but as the show has gone on, the focus has seemingly been divvied equally between the five. This is especially true as the seasons went on and fans found themselves liking him and caring about his story less and less. The pilot, however, makes it more explicit that this is a show about one guy’s journey and the people along the way who helped form it.
Ted will undoubtedly be the focus of the finale — especially since the conflicts and arcs of the other four all wrapped up last week — so I suggest trying to remember what you first liked about the Ted from the pilot. Remember him as the hopeless romantic who is a little bit more charming than he gets credit for. Remember him as the guy who told Robin he loved her on their first date and meant it. Remember him for the speech in the video below, which he gave to Robin after he said “I love you” and she freaked out about it.
Nine years and 206 episodes ago, all we wanted was for this Schmosby to meet the love of his life. He will tonight.