–Posted by Maureen Ryan
"I hope no one will throw the word 'sitcommy' at us after Season 6."
Those are the words of Craig Thomas, executive producer and co-creator of "How I Met Your Mother."
He and Carter Bays, his fellow executive producer and co-creator, gave a group interview to several TV writers and critics Wednesday evening at the Television Critics Association press tour. They talked about beginning the show's overall endgame and what's to come in Season 6 (and much of that information is at the end of this post).
And for almost an hour, Thomas and Bays talked about Season 5, which many critics, including myself, found uneven at best and, yes, broad and sitcommy at worst. In their view, their decision to experiment and not give the season an overall arc produced some of what they consider "HIMYM's" best episodes, such as "Girls Versus Suits" and "Doppelgangers," but they said they ultimately realized the season felt "rudderless."
In Season 5, "We set out to say, 'What if every episode, you hit the reset button at the end of the episode?'" Bays said. "…We had fun doing that, but I feel like that's not the show we wanted to do."
"A certain kind of fan of the show felt like 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," Thomas added. "I feel like we earned fans by exploring a lot of different rites of passage in people's lives, and last year I feel like we did a lot less of it."
Season 6 certainly sounds good on paper. For one thing, Bays and Thomas promise to fundamentally shake up the question of Ted's future wife — the mother of the show's title — in the show's Sept. 20 season premiere, which will see the return of guest star Rachel Bilson, who plays the unseen mother's roommate.
"That trick that we've done for five years — 'Is this one the mother?' — we're going to put that trick to bed," Thomas said. "You're going to learn some stuff in Episode 1 that sort of ends that particular gimmick."
There will also be significant arcs for each character, and "by the end of the season, everyone's lives will change dramatically," Thomas said.
Thomas also made this vow: "Ted will be absolutely un-douchey this year."
Ted's douchiness wasn't the show's biggest problem in Season 5, however. Though the season had its moments, elements that had driven it in the past — emotionally compelling relationships, intricate or inventive stories, a sense of romantic possibility and a relatable sense of progress in the characters' lives — weren't consistently well executed.
And once Barney and Robin abruptly broke up a third of the way through the season, I kept watching for a while, thinking that a reason for the sudden breakup or a further emotional development would be coming on that front. When nothing more happened in that arena, despite my residual affection for the comedy, I drifted away.
Thomas and Bays said if they had to do it all over again, they'd have kept Barney and Robin together longer. Part of the problem was that the writers had penned a lot of episodes in advance. By the time they saw the chemistry that Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris had as Barney and Robin, they'd already put the couple on the path to a breakup.
But the bigger problem was the interchangeable, standalone nature of most episodes.
"There wasn't accumulation of meaning from episode to episode last year, as much as we've done in the past," Thomas said. "And I think we write better when we're accumulating meaning and momentum and building a larger season."
"I think we were wrong" to play what he called "an improv game" with the season, Bays said. "We sort of ignored that part of us that are planners by nature, and it suffered structurally, I think."
Thomas noted that "our canary in the emotional coalmine is … Pam Fryman," who has directed almost every episode of the CBS comedy. After Thomas and Bays presented her with their outline for the 24-episode sixth season, she read it and declared that the show was "back."
"Just writing that [document] up got us kind of wistful and emotional," Bays said.
"This year there's going to be a lot more writing from real life" — from the writers' own lives, he added.
He and Thomas have also sketched out the ending of "HIMYM." They're not doing a "Lost" — they haven't set an end date for the show (and in case you're wondering, the cast is under contract through Season 8). But they said that the show is now entering its third and final act, and that when the last season comes, they will have a plan for it.
""We have a set ending but we don't have a set end time," Bays said.
Before then, in Season 6 they are going to "create a series of different questions that expand the [central] mystery a little bit," Thomas said.
[From here on out there will be more concrete information about what's to come in Season 6.]
"We're going to get some glimpses into the future that will actually alter the way we tell the story in a fundamental way," Bays said. "In Episode 1, we kind of begin a new framework for the show."
"The future is going to become even more a part of the present in the show," he added, a bit cryptically.
When it came to other elements of Season 6, Bays and Thomas were more forthcoming. Here are a few of the developments they have planned:
- Barney will accept that his father is not Bob Barker and he will look for his real father. "If we do it right, Neil [Patrick Harris] will have a hard time picking his Emmy episode,"?Thomas said. Added Bays, "I think we can say that Barney's going to grow up this year in an entertaining way."
- Marshall and Lily are going to try to have a baby. Bays and Thomas wouldn't say whether the married couple do get pregnant, but the show's creators noted that they had debated introducing a baby on the show for a long time. It's "Sitcom 101" not to introduce a baby into a comedy, as Bays noted, but they also don't want the show to have fake, small, sitcommy stakes.
- Ted will not have a date every week in Season 6 ("Ted's tally is getting a little high," Thomas said). He will be commissioned to design Goliath National Bank building and thus he'll work with Barney and Marshall. "To make this new building he's designing, this really old, beautiful building has to be destroyed," Thomas said. Given how nostalgic Ted himself is, this isn't easy for him, especially when he meets a preservationist, who plays a significant role in the season; she is his "nemesis."
- There will be a third installment in the Robin Sparkles saga; they're trying to get Alan Thicke back for it. It will relive the glory days of the tween-oriented, educational show that Robin Sparkles hosted in Canada — with her showbiz partner, Glitter. Thomas and Bays are writing a song for Sparkles and Glitter. "We talked about it being a safety warning about thin ice," Thomas said.
- There don't appear to be specific plans to get Robin and Barney back together, but Thomas said he thinks Barney does love her and Thomas doesn't feel as though the show is completely "done" with that relationship.
- There will be more Web sites, possibly a Twitter feed and other social-media goodies this year.
In any event, they say the goal this year is to get the laughs, at least some of the time, from fraught emotional places.
The show "should be able to make you cry," Thomas said. "The laughs are deeper when it's from that place."
By the way, Alan Sepinwall has an abridged transcript of the conversation here.
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