When trying to establish the legacy of How I Met Your Mother, it’s easy to get bogged down in the lackluster late-season shenanigans (apparently Ted and Robin had unresolved feelings for each other?), running jokes run (wait for it) directly into the ground, and a finale so controversial it retroactively negated the entire premise the show was built on. So appalling are these indignities that they overshadow the show’s crowning achievement: The defining marriage of a television generation, between Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan). With Segel and Hannigan in roles that superficially appear to be standard fare for romantic comedy bit players—that of the wizened, long-standing couple who advise the protagonist in the ways of romance—How I Met Your Mother elevated the form. Through their interactions with protagonist Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), they detailed how twisty the road to true love can be. But the series’ true innovation is in how that veteran couple gathered all its wisdom.
As detailed in How I Met Your Mother’s extensive backstory—available for revisiting as part of the complete series DVD set due September 23—Marshall and Lily met in their freshman year at Wesleyan University. Speaking as someone who immediately fell into a relationship (and ultimately married) the boy I met on the first day of college, How I Met Your Mother did so many things right in relating what it is to find yourself committed to another person when you’re both still children. The ramifications of that youthful coupling were most clearly illustrated in the show’s first two seasons; with Lily uncertain if she’d sacrificed her dreams for a loving relationship, the pair broke off its engagement. Even after the couple reconciled, it took time and effort for the wounds of their estrangement to heal. Their time apart resonated throughout How I Met Your Mother’s other relationships, particularly the friendship of Lily and Ted. Being left behind to pick up the pieces with Marshall in the wake of Lily’s decision left Ted angry and burdened with resentment long after Marshall’s had dissipated.
Marshall and Lily’s separation exposed weaknesses in their relationship’s foundation. Lily’s lingering doubts about sacrificing her passion and future in art—along with her difficulty communicating her concerns—were a hidden fault line the series was wise to explore. Not only in the first two seasons, but again in the series’ final stretch of episodes, when the Marshall-and-Lily story remained the show’s most emotionally satisfying go-to. In the early going, that storyline gave the characters the time and perspective to evaluate whether those weaknesses were things that they could or (more importantly) want to fix. By addressing this doubt straightforwardly in How I Met Your Mother’s early seasons, Marshall and Lily’s relationship formed a bulwark the rest of the characters could tether to. Even when the couple revisited these issues in the final season, they were resonant in a way that the Ted/Robin/Barney/Mother merry-go-round never was. (This is in no small part thanks to sterling performances by Segel and Hannigan, who from day one inhabited the couple with deeply humane, lived-in—but still uproarious—energy. The thought that they were not actually a long-existing couple beggared belief.) Having addressed such vital, haranguing issues head-on, their romance was allowed blossom and exist in a place of loving rejoinders, as opposed to the biting, acid-tongued retorts of most lengthy sitcom relationships.
And the broken engagement was just one of many realistic trials the couple navigated during their time together: The series also saw the duo address (repeated) job dissatisfaction, situational depression, feared infertility, and the disappointment and loss one can experience with a parent. The humor was inherent in each of these stories, but it was always clear that there were true stakes involved. To watch Marshall and Lily navigate these situations—even in ridiculous or heightened fashion—was to see what it means for two people to survive an ordeal as individuals, while allowing it to strengthen their bond as a couple.
This is what distinguishes Lily and Marshall from what seem like similar TV marriages. Married TV couples are numerous, but they generally divide into one of two groups: the blandly inoffensive and the outwardly hostile. The former group is milquetoast and settled into marital routine, having become a sort of formless other in the face of matrimony. (Jim and Pam from The Office and Ben and Leslie from Parks And Recreation come to mind.) The latter group comprises spouses who are openly vicious toward one another, their years of togetherness wearing through the facade of affection and revealing the ugly framework of wedded obligation, with interactions deteriorating into the tired dynamic of nagging wife/hen-pecked husband. (Think any of the married characters on Everybody Loves Raymond or Modern Family.)
How I Met Your Mother’s alpha couple, however, is at home alongside Rob and Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bob and Emily Hartley of The Bob Newhart Show, and even Roseanne and Dan Conner of Roseanne. Though they may tease through good-natured ribbing and disagree in times of trouble, these are spouses who never fail to present a united front to the outside world. In a fashion all too rarely experienced on TV, these couples are still genuinely in love. The love manifests itself in a number of ways, none as significant as the fact that Marshall and Lily (or Rob and Laura, or Cliff and Clair Huxtable) are still ridiculously hot for each other.
Sex is a funny thing when it comes to married couples on TV, and Marshall and Lily have more of it than just about anyone. More distinctive still is how it was Lily’s sex drive that fueled the couple’s exploits. It’s a fact treated as completely legitimate; where other shows might treat it as sheer novelty, How I Met Your Mother derived humor from the frankness of Lily’s desires—best represented by her comment that if she didn’t have sex enough, she’d likely be “out there selling it for a nickel”—as well as the breadth of her interests, like her persistent girl-crush on Robin or her stint switching places with her Russian stripper doppelgänger.
Unfortunately, with Marshall and Lily serving as the zenith of How I Met Your Mother’s achievements and innovations, their enduring love and affection makes the failure and complete mismanagement of the show’s other romantic endeavors all the more pointed. The series labored to invest the audience in Barney and Robin’s relationship and marriage, only to throw that investment away with little care in the series finale. More egregiously, the show built itself around the search for Ted’s soulmate, found her (in the form of the fantastic Cristin Milioti), and integrated her into the cast, only to trash her (along with an entire premise) in the closing moments. These are just a few examples from a show surprisingly rife with them. Examples that, taken alone, left viewers wondering if How I Met Your Mother understood relationships at all.
But when all was said and done, Marshall and Lily remained. They’re the ones still madly in love at the end of the show, still aching to jump each other’s bones 18 years into their relationship. They’re the ones who’ve finally reached the point in their lives where they’ve spent more time together than apart. They’re the ones who wouldn’t let that tenure suffocate their growth as people; instead they greeted it as a gift that made them who they were, their love sheltering the harshest blows that life can offer. Lily and Marshall are television’s last best example of a marriage that exists more often in the real world than it does in fiction: one that melds the comfort of familiarity, the fiery joy of intoxicating love, and the slaphappy farce of life itself.
How I Met Your Mother concluded its once promising, ultimately divisive run in the spring of 2014, putting to bed the uninspiring tale of one man’s quest to have his unrequited cake and eat it too. But in the course of its storytelling, it yielded a creation not bound by anything so concrete as a network cancellation. It gave viewers Marshall and Lily, a testament to true love, partnership, and marriage in a modern age. They will be missed.