Reader, he married her. A quiet wedding they had: Ted and—
Actually, about the only thing viewers of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother know for sure is that Ted’s happily ever after is already well under way by 2030. That’s the year he will corral his daughter and son into sitting semi-still while he voiceovers the present-day, Upper East Side–set tale of how their parents crossed paths and never uncrossed.
The result of that too-cute Wonder Years–recalling conceit is the best comedy on television that you’ve probably never watched.
The Best Show on Television You Aren’t Watching: That blessing is usually more of a curse, or a sort of excuse saved up for the brilliant but weird programs that have sneaked onto the networks from HBO and Showtime, with varying degrees of success. But How I Met Your Mother (Mondays at 8 p.m.) isn’t as densely quiet as Friday Night Lights, as off-putting as Arrested Development, as willfully surreal as anything starring Andy Richter.
In fact, the show—from the former Letterman writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas—is an exceedingly well-written and mostly straightforward multi-camera comedy, following five New Yorkers in their 20’s from their tchotchke-cluttered apartments, directly downstairs to their favorite yet utterly average Irish pub, off to their time-wasting jobs, back to the bar for happy hour—with stops in between at crappy strip clubs, disappointing New Year’s parties, overcrowded brunch places and numerous bad dates. The show’s cast is an appealing and believable mix—an architect, a law student, a reporter, a kindergarten teacher and a, well, businessman of some sort (you know the type—he wears a suit, owns a 300-inch flat-screen, but what does he do?)—with a rare and natural chemistry. There’s a laugh track, but it’s largely unnecessary.
Sound something like Friends? How I Met Your Mother deserves to be just as big. It should be an absolute phenomenon, oft-quoted around every actual or metaphorical water cooler—but for whatever reason (lack of support, lack of imagination, basic corporate greed), CBS has been unwilling to promote it all that much, recently passing it over for the hit-making post–Super Bowl time slot. There are even rumors of its cancellation.
So tune in now. Save this show. It’s not too late. Despite the title, Ted hasn’t even met their mother yet.
LET’S FORGET, FOR THE MOMENT, how Ted (Josh Radnor) will meet his wife—who is she going to be?
The process of elimination has thus far crossed out only Ted’s current girlfriend, Robin (Cobie Smulders), and his best friend’s fiancé, Lily (Alyson Hannigan)—both knighted in the narration with the honorific “aunt”—which leaves about 134,000 potential guest stars between the ages of 20 and 34 on the island of Manhattan for Ted to fall for, propose to, marry, impregnate, grow old with and tired of, and then be buried beside.
It was maybe a mistake for the show’s writers to disqualify Robin right off the bat (the next-to-last line of the pilot being “And that, kids, was the true story of how I met … your Aunt Robin”). After all, Heraclitus wrote, “The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre,” which was pre-Socratic Greek for the ancient sitcom law of “Opposites Attract.”
There is, in this romance, a fresh inversion of the usual gender roles: Where Ted is a skinny slip of a schoolgirl, always daydreaming clichés about his wedding day, Robin is (in addition to being a Lauren Graham–like brunette giantess) a real man’s man, commitment-phobic and prickly and mostly immune to schmaltz, the owner of five dogs and no DVD not directed by John Woo, an aficionado of Cuban cigars and fine Scotch, and a frequent letter-writer to Guns & Ammo magazine. Her persona, to be fair, is as fabricated and reactionary as Reagan’s. After all, on an episode this past November, it was revealed that she was once a teenage pop star in Canada.
Sometime in the mid-90’s—which is apparently when our 80’s finally traversed the 49th parallel—Robin, her hair teased out and blond, had a minor hit in her home country entitled “Let’s Go to the Mall.” Lyrics included “Put on your jelly bracelets / And your cool graffiti coat / At the mall, having fun is what it’s all aboot!” (Her fake video, featuring A.V. Club special effects, much jamming upon a key-tar and a robot—you know, doing the robot—also became a minor hit on YouTube. Look it up.) Anyway, instead of shaving her head and getting shipped off to rehab, Robin just threw out her bedazzled jean jacket, changed her surname from Sparkles back to Scherbatzky, and emigrated south to become a soft-nosed reporter for NY1 News. She will not enter malls of any kind.
About Ted: Imagine if Patrick Dempsey in Can’t Buy Me Love hadn’t grown up to be Patrick Dempsey in Grey’s Anatomy, but instead stayed basically as adorable, awkward, eager. It’s a testament to newcomer Josh Radnor that, as Ted hurries love, he mostly avoids a) irritating the crap out of viewers at home and b) having every girl he meets immediately take out a restraining order against him.
MUCH OF THE SHOW’S EARLY PUBLICITY was devoted to the fact that the casting directors had organized something of a nerd summit. There was Willow, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sharing the same soundstage with Doogie Howser, M.D., and one of the freaks from Freaks and Geeks. Reviewers regarded it with the same mix of nostalgia and condescension they might have an all-star skit at Comic Con.
Alyson Hannigan as Lily did spend a lot of the first season performing a lot of her best-ofs from Buffy. But in the second season, after Lily broke off her engagement with Ted’s roommate—big, sweet Marshall (played by a comic wizard of heartache, Jason Segel, from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared)—moved to San Francisco, dyed her hair and returned to win Marshall
back, we’ve had an inkling of the real girl this cute Muppet might grow up into.
Then there’s Neil Patrick Harris as our aforementioned businessman, Barney.
This season, most of the publicity has been preoccupied with Mr. Harris’ sexuality both on the show (ludicrously straight) and off (happily gay). This coverage reveals our terrible hypocrisy: We willingly suspend our disbelief whenever the gorgeous college dropouts who populate Hollywood intubate blocked airways, transplant organs, process crime scenes and disarm nukes, but balk at a gay actor playing straight—even if it’s a sharp, hilarious caricature of a suited-up man-child who picks up drunk chicks and then sneaks out while they’re showering. If he’s feeling particularly sensitive, he will leave her his form letter, in which he claims to be a ghost who spent his last night on earth boning the hell out of her.
Thanks to Mr. Harris, Barney is another sitcom lothario in the same way that Homer Simpson is just another sitcom dad. Barney, in the character’s own words, takes it to the next level: He is manic, inventive, a poet of buffoonery. And where, say, Joey on Friends spent a decade or more dining out on a single line—“How you doin’?”—Barney is a catchphrase factory. A brief excerpt from the Barney lexicon:
Awesome: along with Legendary, this is Barney’s highest and most frequently deployed compliment, as in “Playing laser tag is awesome!” It can also be used to refer to a refined and enlightened state of Barney-ness, as in, “When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead.”
Lemon Law: A rule permitting one to end a date for any reason in the first five minutes, no questions asked. When a woman later lemon-laws him, he regrets not calling it “Barney’s Law.”
Broing-away Party: One last night of fun before Ted moves in with Robin and becomes a “hen-pecked, beaten-down shell of a man.” See also, Special Broccasion, Bro-Choice Party, Brotime at the Apollo.
Sex Visa: A 12-hour guest pass allowing women to visit the heart of Bachelor Country, i.e., Barney’s apartment (“Fourteen hours if you qualify for multiple entry.”)
Soul Boner: The good feeling Barney gets while volunteering at a soup kitchen.
Barney, like Robin, is a work of art, of self-reinvention. Of course, a show concerned with memory has to digress again and again into flashback; and so we’ve already seen Ted’s ill-conceived goatee and how the Pogues cassette got permanently stuck in the tape deck of Marshall’s Pontiac Fiero; we’ve visited the loss of each friend’s virginity, and seen a younger, poncho-wearing Barney, a gentle coffeehouse hippie, languidly preparing for a tour in the Peace Corps with his lady love. This was back when he threw out peace signs instead of high-fives. This was back when he had a heart that, once broken, he didn’t bother to replace.
TWO SEASONS OF How I Met Your Mother and still no mother: It makes you realize how lazy and rigged most romantic comedies are—little pop quizzes, with always the same answer. Two people meet cute; can’t stand one another; can’t stay away from one another; get into whatever disagreement will occupy the film’s second act; and then collapse into each other’s arms like castaways finally being rescued by the Coast Guard.
But How I Met Your Mother wants to show more than the final inning of the final game of our love lives—it wants to go back over the entire season, pre-season, training camp, little league, all of it, everything: all the failed relationships and false starts and fuck-ups, all the preparatory work that each of us have to go through in order to become someone else’s One. With every 22-minute chunk of this saga, it’s clear that this is not merely the story of how Ted met his kids’ mother; in front of this audience of his offspring, he’s reconstructing the whole narrative, start to finish, of how he grew up into the best version of Ted—the one their mother could meet and love.
The last time somebody sat down and decided to remember everything, we got In Search of Lost Time. This time, we get a sitcom—but maybe the funniest, most touching sitcom in years.