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 is just a couple of weeks away from concluding its impressive nine-year run (this current season is one of its highest-rated yet; it’s the network’s second-most popular show in the all-important 18-49 demographic, behind only The Big Bang Theory). The show is about a man named Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor), who’s telling his kids in the year 2030 the (rather long) story about how he met their mother (the narrator is oddly enough not Radnor, but rather sitcom veteran Bob Saget).
At the end of Season 8, viewers got to meet the mother, played by Cristin Milioti, and this current season has shown flash-forwards of the relationship between Ted and the Mother (their first date, his wedding proposal, the birth of their kids) while we wait to finally see their first meeting in the series finale. Reader Lynn J. wrote in, though, to ask if it was true 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’s now one of CBS’s most popular shows, that was not always the case. The comedy is one of those relatively rare examples of a network TV series whose audience didn’t really kick in until a few seasons had passed. The first season did relatively well, but ratings slipped in the second and third seasons before the ship was righted in the fourth. The show hasn’t been in danger of cancellation since.
When they first launched the show, however, there was no way for producers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas to know whether How I Met Your Mother would make it past the initial episode order. (Typically, networks order just 13 episodes of new TV series; if those do well, then an additional nine episodes are ordered to make a total of 22 episodes. That’s why you’ll often hear of TV shows receiving “the back nine.”). Therefore, they had to prepare in case the series didn’t make it past that original order. The contingency plan was the 13th episode 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 because she made the wedding cake); she’s thrilled to see him — she says “Oh, thank god” when he walks in – and the two embrace. Had the show never made it past Episode 13, 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 end 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.
At the end of the second season, the creators were much less confident they would be picked up for a third; in fact, the finale of Season 2, “Something Blue,” aired before anyone learned whether 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). Bays and Thomas didn’t have the opportunity to go with a back-up plan in case they were canceled, 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, whom he had been dating all season, 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 the show was in any risk of being canceled due to low ratings, and as a result, Bays and Thomas introduced Ted’s dermatologist Stella (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 contingency plan than Victoria was, simply because Stella’s debut, (“Ten Sessions,” the 13th 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 to its highest ratings of the season. As Carter Bays noted in an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit:
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 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.
From Season 4 on, the show was on such solid ground, ratings-wise, that Bays and Thomas were able to plan long-term without worrying about the show being canceled, so there was no need for back-ups again.
The legend is…
STATUS: Basically True
Thanks for the question, Lynn!
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