Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sometimes They Get It Right

Most of the time the producers of situation comedies don't really push the envelope that much - they've been doing variations of the husband-wife-two-kids-and-a-dog format since Ozzie And Harriet. On rare occasions a new idea will emerge, like a baby alligator incubated by a chicken. If the idea doesn't work it drives others back to the same old ideas, but if it does work others will jump on the bandwagon...and usually produce crap. Sometimes however the imitators produce something that's not too bad. That's what happened with How I Met Your Mother.

The premise of the series is fairly simple. In the year 2030 Ted (played in the future by the voice of Bob Saget) is telling his son and daughter the story of how he met their mother in, as the son puts it "excruciating detail". Back in 2005, Ted is introduced to this gorgeous girl by incredibly obnoxious friend Barney. For Ted, who has to deal with his two best friends - Lilly and Marshall - getting engaged to each other, it is love at first sight. It just gets better as he gets to know her. Unfortunately he makes the error of telling her that he loves her and that derails everything. Still we the audience expect true love to run its inevitable course, with Ted marrying the woman...until the end of the first episode when "Future Ted" tells his kids "And that's how I met your Aunt Robin."

In the episode I watched on Monday night, Ted was still trying to connect with Robin, largely because she and Lilly had become friends. Lilly told Ted a little more than she promised Robin that she would, namely that Robin wanted a sort of casual relationship and that telling her that he loved her had driven her away from Ted. So Ted decided to set up a casual meeting, despite a warning from Barney that it wouldn't happen. He decided to invite her to a party but the night he had set it up for was wrong for her, so he set it for that night. She didn't show up so he told her the party had been held over to the next night and when she didn't show up then he extended it for a third night. When she finally did show up the party was virtually dead (it was a Sunday night) and although Marshall managed to get Robin to the most romantic spot he knew - the apartment building's roof - she hit him with the "let's be friends" line to end the evening.

There were a couple of interesting B-plots in this episode. Lilly, in a fit of post-engagement horniness, was trying to do Marshall at just about any opportunity while, between the sex and the parties Marshall wasn't getting much of a chance to write a 25 page paper for Law School. The other subplot involved Barney finding the girl at the party who didn't know anyone and taking her up to the roof for sex, expecting never to see her again. Then she showed up at the second party... and the third, much to the discomfort of the relationship phobic Barney.

Why do I like this show as much as I do? The first big thing is the casting. Both Cobie Smulders, who plays Robin, and Josh Radnor, who plays Ted, are essentially unknown to TV audiences - Smulders is a former model while Radnor may be most famous for playing Benjamin in the 2002 stage version of The Graduate opposite Kathleen Turner and Alicia Silverstone. The two have a definite attractive quality, to the point where you're really rooting for Ted but can sympathise with Robin. Jason Segel, who plays Marshall is better known, having had a recurring role in Undeclared and a starring role is Freaks and Geeks. He comes across as basically a lovable schlub who has just happened to snag the perfect girl. If this were a typical family sitcom and Marshall and Lilly were fifteen years older with a couple of kids we'd be asking how in the world did he get her and talking about how unrealistic it is, but seeing them as they are when they've recently fallen in love we begin to understand. Of course the big guns in the series are Alyson Hannigan as Lilly and Neil Patrick Harris as Barney. As always Hannigan is wonderful a Lilly. She has a certain innocent sexiness to her as well as a perceptiveness which indicates that she's really in touch with her friends. Barney may well be the role that makes people forget Doogie Howser. He's obnoxious and overbearing with a huge - and undeserved - ego. Lilly describes Barney as a huge dork but he basically doesn't care. The Barney-Lilly dynamic is a fun one to watch, primarily because Lilly sees Barney for what he is, an overgrown teenager who always wears a suit because - "suits are cool" - except when he's playing Laser Tag.

The writing is reasonably good. There are some gimmicks (besides the narration from "Future Ted") such as scenes where Ted imagines what's going to happen as he sets things up or how they've progressed set in metaphorical terms, and of course the ever popular excerpts from flashbacks. Moreover there's a certain wit to the approach in that the characters aren't doing the sort of obvious jokes that you so often hear.

An obvious comparison exists for this show. In fact the Canadian edition of TV Guide stated "We don't dare utter the word 'Friends' but we hop it has staying power." I would like to offer a different assessment of the show. We all remember the fiasco which was the American version of Coupling which was badly cast and attempted to transplant the British scripts for the show into the mouths of the badly cast American actors. I would like to suggest that while NBC made a total mess of Coupling, I would like to suggest that in creating How I Met Your Mother CBS and 20th Century Fox Television have managed to do an American version of Coupling - and do it right - even as they quite rightly avoid slavishly copying it. I certainly like the result and coming from someone who dislikes most sitcoms as much as I do, that says a great deal.

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