true love

Why How I Met Your Mother’s Marshall and Lily Were TV’s Best Sitcom Couple

Photo: CBS

For many casual fans of How I Met Your Mother, the treacly plot of Ted seeking out “the Mother” grew unbearably manipulative, right up through the twists and turns of last night’s final episode. And yet, our nostalgic flame will burn on for many aspects of HIMYM, among them the awesomeness of Lily and Marshall. The married college sweethearts, played by comedy heavyweights Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan, provided a model for happy but rarely boring coupledom, even as the show’s other characters fumbled romantically. For every obnoxious rom-com gesture that Ted attempted, Lily and Marshall were there to point out that the real thing is as messy as it is sweet.

In fact, these two offered a new paradigm for long-term couples on TV sitcoms, one that we now see to hilarious effect on shows like Parks and Recreation. (Would there be a Leslie and Ben without Lily and Marshall?) Instead of resorting to familiar sitcom couple tropes like “Honey, I’m home!” and exasperated-wife-puckish-hubby, the show found humor in their relationship using shared inside jokes and endless intimacy. As Segel has said, “There’s sort of this formula of a successful TV couple that seems to involve a lot of nagging and a lot of eye-rolling. We’ve managed to do nine years without nagging or eye-rolling.” Basically, Lily and Marshall were the Coach and Tami of the sitcom world. Here are nine reasons why we’ll miss them:

1. They throw a wrench in romantic clichés. After an early breakup, Lily re-proposes to Marshall, and after he accepts, they cap it off with kitchen-floor sex. Their Valentine’s Day tradition is watching Predator. They begin their honeymoon by scarfing down fast food because they didn’t get enough to eat at their wedding. And they ditch the suburbs (where they’d moved to raise a baby) because they’d rather live in the city near their friends. Take that, Monica and Chandler.

2. They’re Lily Pad and Marshmallow, bitch. They have a signature couple-high-five (that the other couples on the show imitate). They have given each other a goofy pair of nicknames, and Lily sleeps with a pillow called Marshpillow when Marshall’s gone. These and other goofy signifiers of long-term coupledom become badges of pride in their relationship and, among their single-and-searching friends, a reminder of their authority on shacking up.

3. They focus on each other’s long-term dreams. Lily and Marshall encourage each other to pursue their most cherished goals even when their finances might, and do, suffer. Lily urges Marshall to quit his corporate job and practice save-the-world environmental law. Marshall wants Lily to work in the art world and, after a big fight, agrees to put his own judgeship on hold to honor her wished-for year in Italy.

4. They began their relationship in a druggy haze and still know how to party. Sandwich-eating, HIMYM’s stand-in for smoking weed, was a big part of Marshall and Lily’s early years at Wesleyan, and left a cloud of stoner mystery over their becoming a couple in the first place. But the fun doesn’t end at graduation. Lily gets tanked at their wedding, Marshall is trashed the night of their son’s birth (after Lily sends him to Atlantic City so she can get a break from his obsessing), and they even separately sneak out of a wine-and-cheese party with other married couples to go hit the club with their on-the-make buddies — Marshall tears up the dance floor while Lily suggests flashing the bouncer.

5. They tolerate each others’ quirks, but force each other to confront them. Lily is a shopaholic with a perhaps-inflated view of her own artistic abilities. Marshall believes the “truth is out there” when it comes to Sasquatch, extraterrestrials, and other unexplained phenomena. They are willing to live with each partner’s foibles, but are not beyond curbing each others’ excesses when they spiral out of control.

6. Familiarity and friendship are their aphrodisiacs, not mood-killers. Early on, Lily worries that peeing in front of Marshall will ruin the air of mystery between them, but the show begs to differ — it creates gags out them getting overly acquainted with each others’ bodily functions while also remaining hot to trot all the time. Sometimes Marshall might be dressing up as Fay Wray and Lily as King Kong, and sometimes they’re just kicking it on the couch, but they’re pretty regularly in the mood. “They really like to get it on, which I think is really funny and kind of rare,” Segel has said.

7. They’re never tempted by infidelity. While Lily and Marshall talk openly and honestly about being attracted to other people — including, in Lily’s case, a bi-curious interest in Robin — the show’s creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays never threw another woman or man in the way of their relationship. Competing careers, interfering in-laws, and bad sleeping habits (Lily smacks Marshall in her sleep) are bigger threats to their stability together than third parties.

8. They remain tight with their friends and have individual relationships with them. Both Lily and Marshall have one-on-one friendships within their gang, and often Ted, Robin, or Barney will just call one of the two for advice. After they have a baby, they decide to amend their previously imposed insistence that the others only come to them with “8 or higher” grade problems, realizing they’ve missed out too much on their friends’ lives.

9. They break all their wedding vows but are still role models for true love. In the penultimate episode, Barney — about to get married himself — confronts Lily and Marshall with his knowledge of how they (at least in letter, if not in spirit) have broken most of their wedding vows over six years. This prompts the two to make a much more silly, and realistic, set of vows, which they promise to keep a reasonable percentage of the time and update regularly, because “one set [of vows] can’t cover a lifetime of growing and changing with you, of raising children with you, falling more and more in love with you every day.” Cue tears. As Lily would say, “That’s love, bitch.”

HIMYM’s Lily and Marshall, TV’s Best Couple