It may seem obvious that a television show called “How I Met Your Mother” is about family, but that familiar theme plays out in an unfamiliar way.
Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), a happily married man in 2030, is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. But the tale Ted relates through flashback is neither simple nor straightforward. In the pilot episode, in the “future” Ted tells of falling “head over heels in love at first sight” with the pretty newscaster Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders). It’s a storybook romantic moment. But at the episode’s end Ted surprises both his children and the audience when he says “and that’s how I met...your Aunt Robin.”
In response to their bewilderment, Ted offers that he’s “getting to it...it’s a long story.” It is a long story, because in order to tell his children about the formation of their family, he needs to recount the details of his life with his friends—Marshall (Jason Segel), Marshall’s wife, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and, most recently, Robin—who were and are a family unit in their own right. “Mother” isn’t just about Ted’s 2030 family but about the importance of his earlier family and the path it places him on, the path that eventually leads him to his children’s mother.
The theme of family is coded into the language of the CBS show beyond just its title. Barney, Ted’s womanizing “wingman,” regularly refers to Ted and Marshall (and, on one occasion, Robin) as his “bros.” At their first meeting, he plops down next to Ted in a booth at a bar and tells him, as a big brother would, “Ted, I’m going to show you how to live.” In many ways he is a pig, to put it bluntly, and what he hopes to share with Ted is how to “score” with women. But underneath is a real sense of brotherhood with Ted, and also with Marshall. For all his resistance to marriage or fidelity, it is Barney who flies to San Francisco to talk to Lily after she has broken off her engagement to Marshall and convinces her to return; in spite of all his (apparently feigned) protests during their engagement, it is Barney who delivers an impassioned speech about why Lily and Marshall belong together. When Barney hears Ted was in a car accident, he rushes out of a meeting and then gets hit by a bus as he runs all the way to the hospital (don’t worry: he rebounds nicely). These well-crafted plot points reinforce Barney’s “bromanity,” his commitment to their family unit, which is a value Ted appreciates and shares.
None of the characters are literally kin, yet they regard one another as family. In a season three episode entitled “Slapsgiving,” Lily is irritated that Robin is bringing her new boyfriend, Bob, to their group’s first Thanksgiving dinner. For Lily, their first Thanksgiving is a momentous occasion; she considers it significant not simply because it is the first holiday dinner for her and Marshall as a married couple, but because this is the first time they are all celebrating together as a “family.” Lily worries that 30 years from now, she will look at photos and say, “There are the four people I love most in the world...and Bob.” As unofficial den mother, Lily is protective and territorial, unafraid to offer frank advice or even, quite comically, to sabotage her friends’ bad relationships. She and Marshall are both the series’ romantic lynchpin and individuals who see their friends as an essential part of their worlds. (One episode dealt with Lily and Marshall confronting life without Ted, who had been their longtime roommate and on whom they have depended for everything from toilet paper to TV-watching companionship.)
As illustrated by the episodes “Lucky Penny” and “Right Place, Right Time,” Ted believes strongly that every decision we make (from something as simple as choosing to turn left or right to more complex choices like with whom we choose to form relationships) is significant. You’d think Ted could simply say, “I met your mother at ______.” But for him, it is the context that makes the story compelling, not just the events that led to their meeting but also those that prepared him to be the man she would want to marry.
Aunt Robin is important because Ted falls madly in love with her on their first date and, in spite of every indication that they could not be less compatible (he dreams of marriage and kids; her dreams revolve around her career), he pursues her doggedly (and charmingly). To realize how deeply he desires a wife and children, he needs to take this turn with Robin. But even though it is a wrong turn, it brings the happiest of consequences. Not only does he realize how much he values marriage; he also brings Robin, a young, ambitious career woman who is new in town, sequestered in Brooklyn with her five dogs, into a group of people who are her first “family” in New York. She quickly changes from being a two-dimensional concept (a sort of “dream girl”) to a real person, one who establishes and nurtures bonds with all of Ted’s friends, who become her friends.
Ted cannot tell his children the story of his meeting their mother without talking about the life he lived before them, because without that life, they might not ever have existed. If not for the example of enduring love Ted sees in Lily and Marshall, if not for the adventures that Barney forces him to experience, and if not for his failed relationship but solid friendship with Robin, Ted could not have become the man their mother married.
Really the show is just as much “How I Became Your Father” as it is “How I Met Your Mother.” As with all deep friendships, the bonds Ted creates provide him with great training in love and responsibility, which are what he will need to win his future wife, and the patience to wait for her.