Review: ‘How I Met Your Father’ is not for cynics. That’s its best quality
Possibly under the theory that every generation entering its 30s will need the mirror of a situation comedy to recognize, admire or chuckle knowingly at itself, “How I Met Your Mother,” which ran on CBS from 2005 to 2014, has been rebooted by Hulu as “How I Met Your Father.”
Like its structural model, it uses the framing device of a narrator from the future explaining what the title promises (Kim Cattrall in 2050, looking back on younger self Hillary Duff in 2022); is set in New York, in a world without COVID-19; and features a bar. (There is a hint at the end of the pilot that it occupies the same fictional universe as “How I Met Your Mother,” and a note to the press describes the new show as a “sequel,” but I’m happy to stick with “reboot.”)
An earlier mooted reboot, “How I Met Your Dad,” from “Mother” creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas and “Saturday Night Live” writer Emily Spivey, was set to follow hot on the heels of “Mother” but never made it past the pilot. And though I haven’t noticed the world clamoring these six years for someone to pick up that thread, it is not strange that Hulu, which streams “How I Met Your Mother,” might have seen the industrial wisdom in giving it this little sister.
To be sure, the framing device is now just a gimmick to distinguish this ensemble fading-youth comedy, in which some characters live together and all of whom spend time in a place where drink and/or food is served, from other comedies whose characters do the same — while linking it to an earlier hit. But, after all, it has got our attention.
Duff plays Sophie, who, after 87 Tinder dates — “this year” — has made a love connection with Ian (Daniel Augustin), whom the script whisks out of the picture by the end of the pilot. (This does not count as a spoiler; boyfriends are always being whisked away in situation comedy, and he may be back.) Jesse (Chris Lowell) is internet famous for a rejected proposal (to Leighton Meester, in the briefest of cameos) caught on video.
Directed by Pamela Fryman, who helmed nearly every episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” it’s a looking-glass reboot. Sophie’s future self is onscreen, where, in “Mother,” narrator Ted’s was not; Ted’s future children were onscreen, where Sophie’s son is not. Where most of the main characters of “Mother” arrived with a long history together, the “Father” pilot is chockablock with new relationships.
Sophie is picked up by Jesse in an Uber, in which his friend Sid (Suraj Sharma), who owns the series’ bar, is a passenger; her roommate Valentina (Francia Raisa) has returned from a trip to London with Charlie (Tom Ainsley), an aristocratic hunk, something like a cross between Bertie Wooster and Jethro Bodine, whom she has moved into their apartment; Ellen (Tien Tran), Jesse’s adopted sister, has moved to New York from Iowa to reconnect with him, but they are essentially strangers, having grown up separately after their parents’ divorce. (By the third episode, they’re cemented as a gang.) As a result, the pilot does a lot of heavy narrative lifting; subsequent episodes settle down into more relaxed rhythms.
Not surprisingly — inevitably, even purposely — there is nothing particularly new here. Bays and Thomas were 29 when they wrote the “Mother” pilot, roughly the same age as their characters, and used themselves and their friends as models. Within the context of a network sitcom, it produced something that felt authentic and generationally fresh. Here, the pop cultural references feel like billboards.
The plots are the usual stuff of mainstream situation comedy — lies and misunderstandings, characters thrown into competition over this or that thing, or trying to seem something they’re not. There is a (double) spit take. That does not mean it’s difficult to watch; at worst, it’s pleasant, undemanding company that might ring some harmonious bells with viewers excited for a show that references Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” Pabst Blue Ribbon and “7th Heaven.” It’s funny at times, and when it isn’t funny, it is usually at least sweet, which is no small thing.
Indeed, the series’ most appealing aspect — perhaps a legacy of its broadcast roots, or the fact that rebooters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger were showrunners on NBC’s soft-center “This Is Us” — is its unwillingness to decouple sex from love. Sophie, despite her many bad dates, still wants to “find my person”; Jesse, despite his carapace of cynicism, is an emotional marshmallow. As in the “Mother” pilot, there is an engagement and a climactic rom-com mission. The word “monogamy” is spoken in a positive light.
The cast members sit comfortably in their parts. I particularly enjoyed Ainsley, who answers in the affirmative the question of whether a buff man can be funny; Peck, a former child star like Duff, whose innate gentleness I find most pleasing; and especially Tran, who never acts as if she’s in a sitcom and, given a serious scene to play, pulls the show into a more naturalistic space — no mean trick.
The laugh track is a distraction for a while, because it is so obviously not the work of a studio audience. But this tends to fade into the background, like a not especially severe case of tinnitus.
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