‘How I Met Your Mother,’ deft repartee
Good writing saves this CBS sitcom from itself
September 26, 2005
Even sitcoms with overly familiar, seemingly played-out ideas can shine when they’re created by talented writers with a knack for quick-witted comic repartee. Funny is good, especially when there are also attractive actors who appear to be having a great time speaking those sparkling punch lines.
That’s the case with CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, which is much better than its tiresome premise would indicate. This show was created by two alumni of Late Show With David Letterman,” Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and you don’t last with Letterman unless you have a flair for sharp retorts, rapid-fire comebacks and skewed, offbeat observations about human behavior. Best of all, when the jokes are sexual, they’re not smutty. Instead, they’re often uproariously weird and twisted.
The plot is about five singles in New York, all looking for love to some degree as they complain and commiserate in the city’s apartments, bars and taxicabs. Groan, Friends redux, one might well fear.
In addition, the unique twist here seems more strained than compelling. An unseen narrator (Bob Saget), ostensibly living in the year 2030, is explaining to his children how he and their mother met way back in 2005. Thus the narrative flips back and forth between the present-day and the future. The 2030 inserts are too cutesy, with the camera trained on two uncomfortable children worried their dad will embarrass them with too much romantic or sexual nostalgia.
Josh Radnor, who has a bit of the same woeful, sad-sack appearance of Friends’ David Schwimmer, plays Ted, the show’s star. Thrown into a panic when friend Marshall (Jason Segel) gets engaged to Lily (Alyson Hannigan), he seeks help from his dour friend Barney (Doogie Howser’s Neil Patrick Harris), who has as miserable a demeanor as anyone since the Bob Newhart Show’s Mr. Carlin.
But in a bar he meets Robin, a brunette with an incandescent smile (Cobie Smulders). Instantly smitten, Ted chases after her so intently it’s as if Cupid’s arrow was visibly protruding from his heart. His friends get worried that he’s uncool.
While the sit part of the sitcom Mother is fairly formulaic, the com part is a delight.
Too many sitcom writers are too busy moving their plot forward to mine something as obscure as a restaurant wall decoration for a joke, which “Mother” does. They’re too content going for the obvious double entendres and situational misunderstandings to look around their everyday environment in search of humor. That’s what kills those shows; the humor is broad rather than specific, and their show becomes interchangeable with every other.
It takes a strong imagination and keen, absurdist power of observation to see the comic potential in a bistro’s blue French horn. Letterman has it; good stand-up comics like Stephen Wright or Albert Brooks have it. Bays and Thomas have it, and it informs Mother.
It also has two excellent scene-stealers in the cast: Hannigan and Harris. Formerly of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the movie American Pie,” the red-headed Hannigan mines her character’s upfront sexuality for skewed, slightly jaded one-liners.
And Harris’s Barney, who likes to constantly dress up as if he just came from shopping at Barney’s, delivers one acerbic remark after another. He’s an internet-age Oscar Levant. Happy that Ted finally wears a suit at his request, he remarks, You suited up! This is totally going in my blog.
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