For everyone who wonders when we’ll find the next Lost, I have some news for you: It’s already here. A show that flashes forwards and backwards in time, has labyrinthine continuity and is centered around one big mystery? That can only be CBS’ long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
I admit, it sounds ridiculous to suggest that a sitcom – especially one on CBS, traditionally the oldest-skewing, least-experimental of the broadcast networks – is the obvious natural successor to one of the most acclaimed genre series of the last decade or two. And, sure, if all you’re looking for from “the new Lost” is some psychic kid who’ll disappear after a season, or perhaps a monster made out of smoke, then you’ll definitely find yourself disappointed by HIMYM, because this is a show firmly grounded in (an admittedly skewed version of) reality, where science fiction doesn’t really exist, as such. But if what you’re looking for is something that plays with narrative convention as much as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s show ever did – if not more so – then this is definitely the show for you.
To wit: Tonight’s season premiere takes place in three distinct periods: The future (The framing sequence of a future Ted, the series’ main character, telling his kids how he met their mother), the present (Everyone at Barney’s wedding), and the past (The majority of the episode). This isn’t that unusual for the show; episodes normally take place in at least two time periods, although three isn’t too uncommon, and I’m pretty sure we’ve even seen four approached more than once. Whether consciously or not, HIMYM not only follows the cross-time formula of Lost, but manages to surpass it with one simple addition: Almost everything in the series is a story told by the future Ted, and he is an increasingly unreliable narrator – which means that, not only are there plenty of plot threads that are there to legitimately keep track of, but there are also many that are intentional dead ends to be corrected, ignored or clarified later.
And, oh man, the number of things to keep track of. The show has an astonishing number of threads that return as late as years after its initial mention: Slapsgiving/The remaining free slap. The sandwich metaphor. The girl with the yellow umbrella. Robin’s weird Canadian past as a pop star. The mystery about just what it is that Barney actually does at Goliath National Bank. Of course, there’s also the big question: Who is the future mother of Ted’s children? Admittedly, it’s not exactly “What is the island?” – You can happily watch How I Met Your Mother and not care about the answer at all – but it’s a nice hook upon which to keep everything and everyone moving forward… and, because it’s not as central to your understand of, or enjoyment of, the show, there’s much less chance that you’ll end up retroactively hating the series when you finally get the answer.
For a show that embraces such a heavy continuity – Seriously, there can be more plot/character development in a season of HIMYM as a season of, say, Grey’s Anatomy – the show nonetheless remains surprisingly open and available for new viewers, a trick that Lost… well, lost, very early on. If you’re not watching, there’s one way to prove this for yourself: Tune into tonight’s episode, and see whether you can keep up with what’s going on. And then see if you keep watching into the second episode, and find yourself hooked.