How I Met Your Mother is now four episodes into its seventh – that’s right, seventh! – season, and so far, the reaction has been the same it has been for the past couple of seasons. There are those who complain that the show has totally lost its way since season 3 or 4 and wish it would revert back to its old style, and there are those who still think that the show is a pretty good way to spend half an hour every Monday night.

As for me, I used to think I fell somewhere between the two camps, but now I’m not so sure. Last week’s “Ducky Tie,” the third episode of the season, was a referendum of sorts for HIMYM fans. It marked the return of Victoria, played by Ashley Williams, one of Ted’s love interests from season 1 and probably one of the most loved characters in the show’s history. It consisted mainly of Ted telling the story of a night he spent with Victoria, while he was at dinner with his friends. The reaction to “Ducky Tie” – both from critics and fans – was overwhelmingly positive, with some of them calling it the best episode in years.

But me? I strongly disliked it. It was a step above such duds as “The Yips,” “Benefits,” or “The Perfect Cocktail,” but it was by far the worst of this season’s first four episodes. That got me thinking: am I watching this show differently than everyone else is? I’m starting to think that I might be, and I’ll examine why after the jump.

I started kicking around the idea of writing an entry like this after reading TV critic Mo Ryan’s article about her issues with the show, in which she explains that she has grown frustrated with the show’s seemingly endless parade of red herrings and unsolved mysteries. Her frustration is understandable; you’d think that a show entitled How I Met Your Mother would be about the titular character meeting his wife.

But I’ve always seen things differently, perhaps for “meta” reasons. HIMYM has a finite premise, but it’s one that could easily be stretched out over several seasons, as the show has demonstrated. Making everything about the eventual meeting of the mother would have been too convoluted and confusing, so the show was forced to expand sideways and tell stories about all aspects of the main characters’ lives, not just Ted’s romantic life.

For that reason, I’ve always been content to view HIMYM as a collection of stories about five thirtysomethings living in New York City. I don’t care if we meet the mother in the last five minutes of the series; the title notwithstanding, meeting the mother isn’t the point of the show. The point is to sit back and listen to Ted’s rambling, jumbled shaggy dog story about the years leading up to his eventual marriage. The mother mystery is just a fun, engaging hook to keep viewers interested; it’s not the sum total of what the show is about. That the show is adding another mystery this season in the form of Barney’s mystery bride has little bearing on its quality. It’s just another hook to maintain viewer interest.

HIMYM is often compared to Friends because both shows involved a group of friends hanging out in New York City, but I feel as if this comparison is made for all the wrong reasons. Friends may have been about a group of friends hanging out, but it was also about what was happening in their lives. The reason Friends was able to last for 10 seasons is that there was always a sense of forward momentum; the audience felt as if it was moving through the characters’ lives alongside them. HIMYM is similar to Friends in that respect: it’s always telling a story.

Except for when it isn’t, which is what bothered me about the entirety of season 5 and also what bothered me about “Ducky Tie.” In season 5, when the show lost all forward momentum by doing mainly standalone episodes, it literally became about a group of friends hanging out and nothing else; the characters’ lives, especially Ted’s, were lost in whatever crazy shenanigans were happening in the episode of the week. That’s not to say that the show can’t do standalones, but the best ones have been those that still provide some compelling character development or that illuminate an interesting aspect of the characters’ lives. “Ducky Tie” wasn’t such an episode.

Full disclosure: I am not a Victoria fan. I find her cloying, to be honest, as if she was written merely to be the ideal girlfriend. She doesn’t even seem to have a personality of her own. But “Ducky Tie’s” problems went way deeper than Victoria’s mere presence. The episode was literally half an hour of Ted and Victoria talking about their feelings, interspersed with scenes at a Benihana-like restaurant. All forward story momentum was saved for the final thirty seconds, in which Victoria told Ted that the reason all his relationships failed was because he was still hanging out with his ex, Robin. Aside from that, this episode really said nothing about Ted’s character, nor did it generate any real story progress. I really didn’t see the point of bringing back Victoria just to tell Ted to fix his situation with Robin. Why couldn’t someone else tell him that, someone who had seen him hanging out with Robin since their break-up? Or better yet, why couldn’t he come to that realization by himself?

Arguably, Victoria was brought back to resolve her storyline from season 1, but 6 seasons later is a little too late for that, don’t you think? In any case, that’s not pushing the story forward as much as it is being mired in the past. For those who love the first three or four seasons, I can see why they’d want to take a trip down memory lane. But I think the best course of action for this show is to keep moving forward by continuing to give us reasons to care about these characters’ lives, not to remind us why we used to care about them.

The other episodes this season have done a much better job of that. “The Best Man” featured Robin coming to grip with her renewed feelings for Barney and also gave Ted the opportunity to re-evaluate the cynicism he had developed over the past six years. “The Naked Truth” was a sweet look into the kind of father Marshall wanted to be and whether he’d have to stop being a big kid at heart. “The Stinson Missile Crisis” put Robin in a therapy session that allowed her to re-examine the decisions she made with regards to relationship with Barney. I may not agree with every narrative development in those episodes, but I can appreciate what they added to the overall story. I can’t say the same for “Ducky Tie.”

I’m not asking for the show to tell me who the mother is. I’m not asking the show to drop the mystery bride shtick. In fact, making specific demands of a show is indicative of a level of entitlement that I’m simply not comfortable with. I’m asking for the show to continue telling rich, emotionally satisfying stories, which is something it has had trouble with over the last couple of seasons, as Barney has become a cartoon, Robin has become a loser, and Ted has become a douche. I want to be invested in these characters’ lives. I want to watch them develop through their triumphs and their failures. I don’t want to watch them having meaningless conversations with ex-girlfriends or make bets on Lily’s boobs.

If mystery and intrigue were at the centre of this show, then the mystery bride storyline and the fact that we’ve made no real progress towards meeting the mother would be major issues. But HIMYM isn’t centred around a sense of mystery; it’s built around the lives of five friends. When the show fails to chronicle those lives in an interesting way – like most of season 5, much of season 6, and “Ducky Tie” – that’s when the show fails. That failure, strikingly apparent in “Ducky Tie,” is my biggest problem with the show, and it has nothing to do with yellow umbrellas, incorrect classrooms, or flashes of bare ankles.

Or maybe I just really, really hate Barney’s new tie.