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Commentary: Final season is proof positive the CBS sitcom overstayed its welcome

The time will come in the not-too-distant future when ABC’s “Modern Family” or CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” will have to decide whether to continue for another season or exit primetime while they’re still strong.

If the producers of these hit shows need help determining their future, here’s an idea: pop in a disc of the final season of CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother.” For if ever there was a cautionary tale to be had regarding the peril of staying on air a season or three too long, it is amply provided by this sitcom that marred its otherwise impressive run by getting wobbly in the homestretch.

That may be of little concern to CBS or 20th Century Fox, which can boast of the remarkable ratings staying power “HIMYM” maintained to the very end of its ninth season. But when its March 31 finale ushers in a wave of valedictories that whitewash just how unwatchable “HIMYM” became at the end of its life, let at least one voice of dissent beg to differ.

I don’t come to this finale as some “HIMYM”-hater. To the contrary, I became a fan midway through its run thanks to Lifetime reruns that I consumed quickly enough to catch up to its then-current season. The series took my binge-watch virginity before the term even existed.

In its prime, “HIMYM” rivaled the series that paved the way for its twentysomething-social-circle-in-Manhattan premise — NBC’s “Friends” — with a great cast backed by sharp comedic writing. But somewhere around the eighth season or so, my goodwill began curdling as the series lost creative momentum. (So much so that the mere prospect that CBS may put a “How I Met Your Dad” series on the air next season fills me with dread.)

Not coincidentally, executive producers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have known for quite some time as to how they wanted to wrap up and explain the show’s title. But as CBS and 20th have shoveled more and more money to them and the cast to continue their gravity-defying ratings, they forestalled the end and shoehorned in more episodes before the long-awaited payoff.

As a result, whatever blind loyalty kept me tuning in during the penultimate season was thoroughly exhausted this final season. Nearly the entire batch of episodes has been claustrophobically contained to the hotel where the wedding of Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) takes place. A storyline that would have otherwise been dispatched over a few episodes has been impossibly elongated; it’s essentially just vamping for a seven-month period.

The appeal of the titular search of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) for his long-awaited wife has worn so thin that my hope is the finale will feature his surprise vow of celibacy.

What little the story ventured outside the hotel was even more painful, particularly earlier in the season when a endless arc about Marshall (Jason Segel) embarking on a  “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”-style journey to the wedding along with guest star Sherri Shepherd was so awful that after a few episodes, I just began fast-forwarding past their scenes. If Segel and Shepherd didn’t just sit in a car in front of a green screen and polish off production on like eight episodes of their scenes over the course of one afternoon, it sure played like that was the case.

Blame isn’t easily assigned here. The actors didn’t get any less charming as time wore on. And it may be too herculean a task for any writers to keep any show vital after a decade; if anything, “HIMYM’s” creaky last leg is a reminder that sitcoms just aren’t capable of infinite episodes, though too many great ones press on as if that’s possible. By the end of “Friends,” they had so thoroughly exhausted the romantic permutations of the cast that I was sure a Ross-Monica incest romance was in the offing.

“HIMYM” is far from the only comedy to lose steam before its time, from “The Office” to “That 70′s Show.” But Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David set a bar with which all comedies that come after it will be measured by “going out on top” even when the NBC series surely had the clout to stay on the air. They didn’t because they were knew the show wouldn’t be remembered as favorably if it stuck around too long.

Everyone at “HIMYM” has padded their already considerable fortunes, and I’m sure if I was in their beautiful shoes, I would have done the same. But that windfall comes at the expense of tarnishing a legacy that might have otherwise held up better.

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