How I Met Your Mother Season One
Starring: Alyson Hannigan, Neil Patrick Harris, Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel
Series Creators: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
I’ll admit, when How I Met Your Mother debuted, I wasn’t very interested in watching it. I was happy to see that Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris were back on TV, but wished it wasn’t on a show that sounded so silly. The premise of the show, following the story of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) as he meets the mother of his future children, as told by the older Ted (Bob Saget) to his children in the year 2030, sounded a little too pat and limiting. The format of the show, multi-camera with a laugh track, wasn’t one I was too excited about (it is now the only show of this format that I watch).
But, enough people whose opinions I trust had good things to say about the show that I decided to check it out in reruns over the summer following its first season. It wasn’t an ideal way to watch the show, with episodes omitted and others shown out of sequence, but as a sitcom with largely single-episode storylines, it was alright. Enough to show me that it really was a good show, one well worth my time, delivering laughs on a weekly basis.
First off, I’ll address the most common comment on How I Met Your Mother, that it seems like another Friends. It’s a show that follows a group of twenty-something friends living in New York. So, yeah, basically it is very similar to Friends. But here’s the thing: despite being horribly-overexposed, limping to a finish, and fairly middlebrow, there was a time when Friends was a pretty good sitcom (pretty much the middle of its run). It ended up delivering some memorable moments and funny bits, even if it was never as good as it was popular. More importantly, HIMYM is better and more clever than Friends ever was. So it’s not only the new Friends, it’s the new and improved Friends.
Created by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, former writers from The Late Show with David Letterman, deliver a satisfying comedy with of-the-moment comedy, focusing on young people looking to move on to the next phase in their lives. Ted is ready to leave the single life behind to pursue a more meaningful relationship, spurred on by the engagement of his two best friends, Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Hannigan). He thinks he’s met Mrs. Right when he meets Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), but messes things up on their first meeting, settling for a friendship with the career-driven local reporter. Putting the cast at turning points in their lives is a nice touch, and will hopefully keep the characters from being in a constant state of arrested development like that which made the final seasons of Friends such a slag (seriously, even when those characters had major things happen to them, like babies, they were still the same do-nothings from season one).
Re-watching the season on DVD (in order, with the gaps filled in) I noticed that the show took awhile to really hit its stride. The early episodes are fun, and feature some good bits, but are a bit uneven and come off a little too standard-sitcom to truly be excellent. The characters all have their charms and the set-ups are good enough to make you want to keeping watching, but it isn’t until the first third is out of the way does the show elevate itself from its sitcom trappings to become really good instead of decently good. At this point (around “The Pineapple Incident”), the cast has gelled, providing the necessary chemistry for a show of this nature to truly succeed, and the comedy is more assured (whereas there are points in the early episodes where the gags feel a little forced). Once the actors really got a sense of their characters, the show begins to roll, building towards an excellent final third of the season, making it one of the better sitcoms on TV.
From the start, Neil Patrick Harris is the highlight of the show as Barney Stinson. A well-off friend of the group, Barney is an egotistic skirt-chaser, nailing most of the jokes and giving the show some of its most memorable moments. In the wrong hands, Barney would be unbelievably obnoxious, a mere collection of catchphrases and mugging for the camera. But Harris absolutely NAILS the character, making him a network-friendly version of his Harold & Kumar version of himself. Easily one of the funniest characters on television, and the best reason to check out the show.
I love Barney. How could I not? But, as great as he is, he’s not my favourite part of the show. Instead, my personal favourite element of HIMYM is the relationship of Marshall and Lily. I honestly can’t think of another pairing like it in the history of television: a long-term couple that’s still young and not yet married. There’s tonnes of examples of new couples on TV, or married couples (be it long-time married or newlyweds), but I can’t think of any young, established couples, giving the show new material to mine. Obviously, I see a lot of myself in the relationship (other than the not married part), and thus can relate to the humour. But even if I didn’t, I like to think I’d still appreciate the new jokes and situations, instead of the same tired bits of bickering, sexless married folks, or the dating couple navigating the minefield of new love. Hannigan and Segel, TV vets both, are just great in their roles, bringing depth to the relationship while playing for maximum humour. And, their freaking adorable.
Josh Radnor is a solid lead, letting the more wacky Barney or the goofy Marshall steal scenes but remaining a character we can cheer for. It’s not easy, since the material given for Ted could easily make him insufferably emo, or worse, make him the Ross Gellar of the show. Radnor avoids this, making Ted both highly romantic yet still down-to-earth and masculine. He’s comfortable being the butt of a lot of jokes, without being too much of a schmuck. He and Smulders have some genuine chemistry, even if their relationship doesn’t quite power the show (which is to the show’s credit, and gives them more freedom for the future, especially since the pilot reveals that Robin is NOT the mother in question).
As for the central conceit of the show, having Bob Saget narrate the story of how he met his wife (and the mother of his two children), the show effectively employs the narrator role for thematic relevance and some good jokes, but for the most part, the show succeeds in spite of its conceit, not because of it. Basically, the premise doesn’t really work, in that many of the stories (if not all) have nothing to do with how he met his kids’ mother, and a lot of them aren’t stories one would tell their kids anyway (even teenagers, which his kids are, played by Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie for about half the episodes before thankfully being dropped). It’s tough, because they probably needed the higher concept to get picked up, and they do get some humour out of the past-tense delivery, but there are times when the concept gets in the way. In particular, the dramatic season finale is undercut by facts that future Ted has already revealed in earlier episodes (although, that made it more tolerable for me. Otherwise, I would have been freaking out).
All in all, the first season of How I Met Your Mother is a solid set of episodic comedy, that went from decent to pretty great within a span of 22 episodes. The cast and crew aren’t re-inventing the wheel with the show, but instead are proving that the sitcom isn’t dead yet. The old way of doing the sitcom, using multiple cameras and familiar character-types and situations can still work, as long as you have a group of people as talented as those responsible for this show behind and in front of the camera.