How I Met Your Mother: "Wait For It"
B+

How I Met Your Mother: "Wait For It"

B+

How I Met Your Mother

"Wait For It"

Season 3, Episode 1

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Picking up at the same narrative instant when last year's season finale faded out? It's been done. Resuming the story with the second half of a word whose first half ended the previous season? Legendary. Or "--dary!", which is where How I Met Your Mother kicks off its premiere, mid-Barneyism. And by the time Ted starts ranting about his breakup in the middle of shaving off his breakup beard, prompting discussion of an eighty-day around-the-world balloon race along with such sobriquets as "twenty-first president of the United States Chester A. Arthur," the premiere has settled into a sequence that rivals the show's highest-octane moments.

It can't last, of course. There's too much plot to pull in, too much season to set up, too many stunt-cast guest stars to whom screentime must be allotted. But although "Wait For It" goes flat in the overreaction to Ted's "tramp stamp" (and the giggly attempt to brand same as a catchphrase), the significant character touches are typically deft. My favorite is the re-education of Barney, the show's unrepetent Lothario, as a wingman who cannot tear himself away from his post long enough to get any for himself. When his girl for the night -- the shadow-side of Ted's rebound hookup Mandy Moore, playing va-va-voom and larger than life -- offers to do anything Barney wants, he lists briefly toward a hot-tub liplock before righting himself for yet another outraged attempt to pull Ted toward some worthier slut.

Clearly I'm outing myself as a Barney fan. Watching Neil Patrick Harris at work is one of the joys of my television-watching week. A character that would have shrunk to one note on most traditional sitcoms gets funnier as the seasons wear on, and it's all because Harris has so many gears and isn't ashamed to use them. But what makes HIMYM one of the best comedies on television is the strength of the ensemble in which Barney is only one highly-productive cog. The Jason Segel/Allyson Hannigan teamup, back again after an affecting but sometimes exhausting separation last semester, has a distinctive dynamic: sweet yet abashed Marshall goofs it up while Lily keeps him on track and reminds herself how good she's got it. Not everything about the Enrique Iglesias appearance worked, but the couple's mutual crush on "Male Gail" made for good B-story laughs.

Even Josh Radnor, who was too indistinct a presence as Ted for most of the first season, has found his voice and can carry stretches of the show on his own shoulders. (He's got a dark streak when he gets angry or reckless that always makes me sit up and take notice.) Only Cobie Smulders as Robin usually flounders in the group -- yet she too has had flashes of surprising comic character, most notably in the famous "Let's Go To The Mall" subplot of the show's apex to date, "Slap Bet." Not coincidentally, tonight's episode featured an epilogue that referenced "Slap Bet"; Marshall directs Barney to slapcountdown.com so he can anticipate the slap he's still owed from that Season 2 episode, coming in (checking website ...) 56 days.

But what excited me most about "Wait For It" was the flashes of mythology, if one can apply that X-Files term to a three-camera sitcom. The show's premise -- that middle-age Ted-of-the-future is telling his kids the story of how he met their mother in the oughts -- has always existed in an uneasy relationship with its desire to just hang out in the present and have fun. Sometimes we feel the writers getting a little anxious that the wheels are spinning, or that the story needs another couple of kinks so it won't get anywhere too fast, or that the framing device is weighing the whole thing down. Then suddenly they drop an offhand nugget of information, or even an image like tonight's yellow umbrella (so poignantly seen from above with just a pair of anonymous legs under it), that reshuffles all these characters and situations into a new and surprising assemblage. Robin, the weakest character in the group, even becomes something of a tragic figure since we "know" (or do we?) that she's not the one. In those moments, HIMYM goes from a superior half-hour of comedy to a post-Seinfeld landmark -- the sitcom that managed to integrate nimble postmodernism with motley neurotic characters and still, sometimes, be about something.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

- Robin and Lily appear to have switched hair this season -- Lily's sporting a sleek straight look, and Robin has a weird half-curly thing going on that looks like her perm is about halfway grown out.

- And the girls' wardrobe has also been upgraded, or at least moved to the junior section of the department store. I happen to like those bikini-style bodices, even if Robin's flowing blue print is a little much.

- Is it wrong to enjoy the faux-branded products cluttering the set in super retro-Mad About You fashion, like Ted's box of Cap'n Munch cereal? It's like the one-camera sitcom never happened.

- Where can I buy the "AWESOMENESS" Successories poster hanging in Barney's office?

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