Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Mother Hood

"How I Met Your Mother"

"How I Met Your Mother" is what passes for a hip network sitcom these days, and it's standing right at the precipice. In its fourth season, the show needs a full-season renewal to reach the magic number of 100 episodes and thus syndication and eternal life. There it could join a growing subgenre of sitcoms like "Seinfeld," "That 70's Show," or even "30 Rock from the Sun" that started slowly only to blow up thanks to being particularly suited for being on every weekday at 5:30 or 10:30, perhaps after "The Simpsons." CBS could use a late-blooming hit that appeals to anybody below 50, and they've shown a lot of patience with "Mother," leaving it in a timeslot in between the more successful "Big Bang Theory" (which is both a better and more broadly accessible show) and the still-going "Two and a Half Men" (which is just broad).

Now would be the time for the show to reach a wider audience, given that CBS just had most of its target demographic captive for a whole month. Promos during the NCAA tournament pumped "Mentalist" and "Big Bang" pretty heavy, but a few quick-cut montage shots were all the creatively sagging "Mother" was afforded. The show has already tried a couple of times to draw in new eyes with event episodes, to ill effect. A dumb Super Bowl episode was followed a season later by an even dumber "bracket" show.

The trouble is, like most sitcom writers the "How I Met Your Mother" majordomos are East Coast intellectual types and don't know even the very least little bit about sports. Their male characters reflect this -- Ted is the kind of guy who might watch the Super Bowl and the Final Four and the World Series every year, but has no idea who's on any of the teams, Barney is too white-collar and self-focused to connect much with team sports (although he does have a gambling addiction, which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with enjoying or following sports). Marshall should and nominally does like sports, but he talks about them like a New Yorker imagines Minnesotans talk about football and hockey.

Even with Jason Segel's film career on fire and the unforeseen Neil Patrick Harris comeback roaring ahead full steam, "How I Met Your Mother" seems to be losing its juice as it pushes for that syndication finish line. Part of it is the writing, as noted above -- "Big Bang Theory" has a cast of four physicists and a babe, and yet it has five fully-developed characters; "How I Met Your Mother" still seems like Harris's Barney (an admittedly delicious comic creation) and then just mouthpieces for guy jokes and girl jokes, except Cobie Smulders (girl) is allowed to tell guy ones. Josh Radnor's milquetoast lead has never grown on me. I thought Segel was doing good work here, but then his hysterical, edgier stuff in I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall reminded me of how much riskier and well-rounded he made his role on "Undeclared" in only a handful of episodes. As Marshall, he's a big, soft dummy, with sitcom stunt-cast parents and watery eyes for old 80's movies, as if Craig Thomas and Carter Bays were skimming old Bill Simmons columns for material.

The biggest problem with the leaden fourth season, though, is something over which the writers and producers had no control whatsoever. Somehow, both Alyson Hannigan and Smulders got pregnant this season. The already weak writing for Lily and Robin has become all too painfully obvious now that the women have to do all of their scenes seated, draped in shawls, hiding behind laundry baskets, or oddly crammed into the frame as if you were watching the panned-and-scanned version. Smulders, naturally, looks absolutely radiant; poor Hannigan has been discolored and blotchy since about her second trimester. Both really suffer from the loss of their physicality. Hannigan is a born ham who likes to act every line with her whole body, and Smulders has a nonchalant way about her sexuality -- as if she forgets every now and then that she's a hot babe, but is always knowingly pleased when reminded -- and neither are really free to express themselves nonverbally in the ways to which they've become accustomed. Absent these subtle but important countermeasures, Lily seems hectoring and hypocritical and Robin seems like a ruthless ice queen.

Over on NBC, "Life" approached the problem of Sarah Shahi's pregnancy with an alternative strategy. Dani Reese is taking a couple of cases off, with Gabrielle Union stepping in as... I dunno, Detective Substitute. Of course, "Life" is a show like "House" with a lead and a supporting cast and "How I Met Your Mother" is an ensemble comedy. Perhaps Bays and Thomas could have brought in Steve Railsback to throw Robin and Lily in the trunk of his car and drive them to a rendezvous with the space aliens. Then they could have had an exciting season 5 premiere where Ted, Barney, and Marshall had to climb out of a moving cable car all while confronting the treachery of Agent Krycek.

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