Passed Pilot Theater: Greta Gerwig And HOW I MET YOUR DAD

How I Met Your Dad
Image via 20th Century Fox

Passed Pilot Theater is a new recurring feature where we look at various television pilots that were abandoned by their network at some point in development and try to figure out why.

One of the most popular sitcoms of the mid-2000s was How I Met Your Mother. Created by the Late Show With David Letterman writing team of Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, the series told the story of the love-lorn Ted Mosbey and his friends as he tries to find his one, true love. What made the show stand out was its framing device – an older Ted in the year 2030 telling his two children the story of how he did eventually met the woman he would marry. It was a device that allowed the show to hint at future plots that invited the audience to try and guess who would ultimately be the mother of Ted’s two children.

Launching in 2005, the series was entering its ninth, and final, season in the fall of 2013 when it was announced that the series’ producer 20th Century Fox Television was developing a spinoff series for How I Met Your Mother‘s network CBS. This new version would center on a young woman and her friends as she tries to find the love of her life, basically a gender-flipped version of the original show. In addition to Thomas and Bays, former Saturday Night Live writer Emily Spivey joined the project as the show’s third co-creator. By March 2014, a pilot script had been approved and ordered into production by the network with rising indie film star Greta Gerwig as the show’s lead, Sally.

How I Met Your Dad
Image via 20th Century Fox
The pilot opens in the year 2044 with Sally writing a letter to her daughter Cricket – hopefully that’s a nickname – detailing the story about she met her father. We flashback to 2014 and a 27-year-old Sally (Gerwig) is living her best life, partying all night, every night with her best friend Juliet (Tiya Sircar) before going home to her husband Gavin (Workaholics‘ Anders Holm). Gavin, however, is far more responsible and fed up with the carefree lifestyle of his wife and asks for a divorce. Despondent, she temporarily moves in with her brother Danny (I’m Dying Up Here‘s Andrew Santino) and his husband Todd (Drew Tarver), while Juliet tries to fix her up on a “nail and bail” rebound date with her office co-worker Frank (Nicholas D’Agosto). The pilot ends with Sally telling Frank she isn’t ready to start dating yet, even for one night stands, but thinks that that they could be friends. Meanwhile, in 2044, Older Sally (voiced by Meg Ryan) tells Cricket that Frank is her father.

On its surface, the How I Met Your Dad pilot feels very much a piece with its progenitor series. In broad strokes you have some similar character archetypes carrying over – Danny and Todd as a couple fill the Marshall and Lily role, Juliet’s sexual appetite is somewhat carried over from Barney and Frank is the newcomer into the group dynamic, similar to Robin’s role in the How I Met Your Mother pilot. The rhythm of the pilot feels very much like that of Mother, possibly in part due to being directed by Rob Greenberg, who had directed seven episodes of the original. While the characters might not be defined as well as the original Mother gang was in that pilot, there is enough groundwork laid for exploration had the series gone forward.

But the one major variation from the original series comes right at the end with Older Sally’s reveal that Frank is the Dad of the show’s title. One of the main elements of the original was the mystery of who the mother of Ted’s children will be, planting hints and clues, inviting viewers into the mystery. The pilot’s last line undercuts that potential, reducing the series’s central storyline to a “When will they?” variation on the familiar “Will they or won’t they?” trope. If anything, the revelation prejudices in the viewer’s mind any relationship that Sally enters into. And the idea of watching your main character get into one relationship after another you already know is doomed doesn’t seem very inviting.

How I Met Your Father
Image via 20th Century Fox

One question that I am sure that fans of the original series may be wondering is how connected to the world of Ted, Marshall, Lilly, Barney and Robin was this new show? Thomas and Bays had stated during the show’s development that they intended for this new story to be its own thing, independent from the original series. The new characters would not be introduced on How I Met Your Mother and that they would have a new bar that they would hang out in. Still, sharp-eyed fans watching the pilot may see a bottle of Famous Alexanders – a fictitious beer brand created for the original series and named after the show’s unit production manager, Missy Alexander – which Frank can bee seen drinking during his date with Sally.

So what happened? Why didn’t How I Met Your Dad move forward?

Well, the buzz on the project seemed good and it was thought that an actual pickup would be fait accompli. That is, until it wasn’t. When the 2014 television schedule was announced, How I Met Your Dad was not on it. CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler said that “there were elements of the pilot that didn’t work out,” and there was an offer from the network to finance a do-over on the pilot. However, show creators Craig Thomas, Carter Bays and Emily Spivey were disinclined to retool the pilot if there wasn’t a series commitment attached. (CBS did a similar deal when it was developing The Big Bang Theory with 20th Century Fox and was extending the same offer on their The Odd Couple remake that was being developed the same pilot cycle as How I Met Your Dad.)

In a 2017 appearance on CBS’s The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Gerwig self-effacingly stated that when the pilot was screened for a test audience in Las Vegas indicated that they didn’t like the show “whenever I came on. They didn’t like it. At all.”

Recently however, show co-creator Thomas shed a little more light on why CBS declined to pick up the series while praising Gerwig’s success with Barbie. And it wasn’t because “elements of the pilot that didn’t work out.”

(If not a tacit confirmation, then this tweet at least feels in the same ballpark of rumors at the time of rebuffed advances from a certain CBS executive. Since no one has gone on the record in regards to the alleged event, we only note that these rumors exist but won’t go into details.)

Fox tried to shop the pilot elsewhere and while there was reportedly some interest, How I Met Your Dad never found a new home.

This wasn’t the end of the idea for a How I Met Your Mother spinoff, though. Fox would try again in 2016 with writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger and again a year later with You’re The Worst writer Allison Bennett, though neither attempt got to a point where a pilot was put into production. It wouldn’t be until Aptaker and Berger returned for a second try that would land a version of How I Met Your Father on streaming service Hulu.

And obviously, Gerwig has gone on to do quite well for herself. Just a couple of years after this pilot was shot, she made her solo directorial debut with 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay for Gerwig. She followed Lady Bird up with an adaption of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women which garnered six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. And now her third film, Barbie, is setting box office records and already generating some Oscar buzz. And all of that would probably not have happened if CBS had gone ahead with How I Met Your Dad.

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About Rich Drees 7210 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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