Divisive finale aside, How I Met Your Mother was a game-changer in the world of network sitcoms. While contemporaries like Modern Family and The Office did away with studio audiences and adapted single-camera setups, the winding story of boy-meets-girl-who-will-bear-his-children took a hybrid approach: Its many freeze frames, flashbacks, flash forwards, and overlapping storylines were shot like a traditional multi-camera sitcom, but they made it impossible to be viewed by a live studio audience in a straightforward manner. (The laugh track came from a crowd watching a completed episode at a later date.) But it sure made it fun to watch.
Now—a full eight years and one failed follow-up attempt later—comes How I Met Your Father. The series replicates HIMYM’s narrative inventiveness, but it’s the chemistry between its leads the new series tries hardest to recreate. There’s the looking-for-love main character (Hilary Duff as Sophie), alongside her best friend/roommate (Francia Raisa as Valentina). They’re balanced out by a similar pair of guy best friends, Chris Lowell as cynical Jesse alongside his Marshall-like committed pal Sid (Suraj Sharma). There’s a Barney-esque character for more outlandish comedic beats (Tom Ainsley as Charlie). And this time, there’s a sixth member of the crew, Jesse’s adopted Vietnamese sister Ellen (Tien Tran), who’s also searching for romance after divorcing her wife.
The possibilities seem virtually limitless, especially for a show taking place in 2022, when twenty/thirtysomethings look for romance in a social environment ruled by Tinder, texting, Uber, and Instagram. (In a further sign that times have changed since HIMYM’s debut, there’s a greater inclusivity in terms of race and sexuality within the main cast.) Duff, who’s used to steering a series from her days on Lizzie McGuire and recently made an appealing comeback on Younger, does a fair job of anchoring the show’s center. Her spark with Lowell is so palpable that finding the father seems almost superfluous at this point—because how could it not be not Jesse? And Jesse’s attempts to reconnect with his formerly long-distance sibling Ellen is one of HIMYF’s most effective plotlines.
Elsewhere, the show falls short. Charlie is a blue-blood whom Valentina brought back from London, and his attempts to fit in with the “poors” are more buffoonish than amusing. (Granted, Neil Patrick Harris left enormous shoes to fill in a similar role.) Sid is in a long-distance relationship that’s obviously doomed. And then there’s Sophie, still determined to find love even after 87 Tinder dates in a single year, when most reasonable people would lower their expectations at that point. Ted Mosby would be proud.
Part of the problem is, without the core chemistry (which may take a few episodes to work out), the new show so far also lacks the clever plot overlays we came to expect from Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ original series. (For the record, HIMYF is being billed as a “stand-alone sequel” created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, while still utilizing original series director Pamela Fryman). We’ve already seen too many sitcom disaster-party episodes, or crazy-night-out-at-the-club episodes (to name just a few themes from this first handful of episodes) to count, and that multi-cam/laugh track setup now seems even more dated than it did in the 2000s. HIMYF has a fun bit about spotting random Jason Momoa lookalikes that calls back to its parent series’ long-running doppelgänger gags, and a charming Josh Peck shows up as one of Sophie’s many suitors. But with a still-gelling cast, what else does the series have to offer to get it in the running as a definitive hangout comedy for the 2020s?
Well, there’s still that ingenious setup of a love story told backwards. This time, instead of the voiceover parent (R.I.P. Bob Saget) telling the story to his less-than-interested onscreen kids, there’s Kim Cattrall as an older Sophie, resplendent in her 2050 living room, regaling her offscreen son with the tale of his parents’ courtship. She says it’s going to be a long night, raising the question of how long the audience will be invested in the answer to the series’ titular query this time around.
But “This story’s about the journey, not the destination,” adult Sophie tells her offspring, and it seems like a mission statement not just for this series, but a message to those disgruntled with the conclusion of the one that came before it. And, fair enough. But How I Met Your Father is still going to have to raise the stakes on that journey to make it one that viewers will want to take every week.