Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: There was at least one back-up Mother in the show How I Met Your Mother.
The CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother concluded its impressive nine-year run earlier this year (its final was one of its highest-rated seasons yet – it ended up as CBS’ second-most popular show in the all-important 18-49 demographic, behind only the ratings juggernaut The Big Bang Theory. If CBS had its druthers, the show likely would have continued for even more seasons).
The show was about a man named Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor) who was telling his kids in the year 2030 the (rather long) story about how he met their mother (the narrator telling the story through voiceovers is oddly enough not Radnor, but veteran sitcom actor Bob Saget). At the end of season 8, viewers got to meet the mother, played by Cristin Milioti, and the final season showed flash-forwards of the relationship between Ted and the Mother (their first date, his wedding proposal, the birth of their kids) while we waited to finally see their first meeting in the series finale. Reader Lynn J. wrote in, though, to ask if it was true that the show had a number of other characters originally planned as the titular Mother. Read on to see the answer!
The important thing to remember about How I Met Your Mother is that while it ended its run as one of CBS’ most popular shows, that was not always the case. The show is one of those relatively rare examples of a network TV show whose audience did not really kick in until a few seasons had passed. The first season did relatively well, but the second and third seasons both took a step back in the ratings department before the ship was righted in season four and it was not in danger of cancellation from that point on.
When they first launched the show, though, there was no way for the producers, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, to know one way or the other if the show would make it past the initially ordered episodes (typically, networks only order 13 episodes of new TV series. If the first 13 do well, then the networks order an additional nine episodes to make it a total of 22 episodes. That’s why you’ll often hear of TV shows receiving “the back nine.”). Therefore, they had to have a contingency plan in place if the show never got more than the initial thirteen episodes. That contingency plan was the thirteenth episodes itself, the How I Met Your Mother classic, “Drumroll, Please.” In it, Ted tracks down a mysterious woman he met at a wedding (the woman, later named Victoria, is played by Ashley Williams) and then has to decide whether to actually go meet her or to just keep their wedding date a “perfect memory.” In the end, he decides to go for it and visits her cupcake shop (she was at the wedding since she did the wedding cake) and she is thrilled to see him (she says “Oh thank god” when he walks in) and they embrace.
Had the show never made it past episode thirteen, there would have been a voiceover for that final scene noting that this was how he met their mother. However, the show did get the “back nine” and by the finale of Season 1, Victoria was no longer involved with Ted. The creators were pretty confident in getting a Season 2, so there were no plans for a resolution of who the mother was in the finale of Season 1.
At the end of Season 2, the creators were much less confident that they would be renewed for Season 3 and in fact, the finale of Season 2, “Something Blue,” aired before anyone learned if CBS was going to bring the show back for another season (as an aside, in an old TV Legends Revealed, I wrote about how “Something Blue” had a real-life wedding engagement in it). So Bays and Thomas did not have the opportunity to go with a back-up plan in case they were canceled (since they didn’t know either), so they couldn’t reveal who the mother was. Instead, near the end of the episode (which detailed Ted’s break-up with his girlfriend at the time, Robin, who he had been dating all season-long) they used the following voiceover about his relationship with Robin:
And as hard as it was at the time, in the end we both got what we wanted. She did eventually go on to live in Argentina, and Morocco, Greece, Russia, even Japan for a little while. And I? Well, I met your mom.
As noted before, Season 3 was the last time that the show was in any risk of being canceled due to low ratings, and a result, Bays and Thomas introduced Ted’s dermatologis Stella (played by Sarah Chalke) as a second back-up plan for the mother if the show never made it past Season 3.
However, Stella was much less of a back-up plan than Victoria was, simply because Stella’s debut, (“Ten Sessions,” the thirteenth episode of Season 3) also featured Britney Spears as Stella’s assistant, Abby (who was enamored with Ted). The stunt casting paid off big time and the show jumped up to its highest ratings of the season and as Carter Bays noted in an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit a while back:
And by golly she put our show on the map. It can’t be overstated. Britney Spears rescued us from ever being on the bubble again. Thanks Britney!
So by the time Season 3 ended (with Ted proposing to Stella), the show was in decent enough shape that Bays and Thomas felt confident enough to go with a cliffhanger ending (the aforementioned proposal). So while I think it is probably fair to consider Stella a back-up plan, she wasn’t nearly the same sort of definitive back-up as Victoria was.
One thing is for certain, though, Robin (played by Colbie Smulders) was never a back-up plan. The end of the pilot (which famously revealed that Robin was not the kid’s mother) was always the same. That was never changed.
So the legend is…
STATUS: Basically True
Thanks for the question, Lynn!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.