Tom Ainsley and Tien Tran in the shaving scene from "How I Met Your Father".

Wait, Did They Fix “How I Met Your Father?”

I have a strange fascination for series with unrealized potential. This can mean featuring concepts that go beyond what the budget can manage, which sorts out my undying love for “Vagrant Queen”. It explains my morbid obsession with conducting a never-ending post-mortem on the “Halo” TV show. And it explains why I kept watching “How I Met Your Father” after giving it a very unfavorable review last year.

“How I Met Your Father” is a spin-off of “How I Met Your Mother”, the well-regarded sitcom that ran nine seasons from 2005 to 2014. Aside from a few brief guest appearances, they don’t share any cast. What they do share is the structure. An older Sophie tells each episode’s story to her son as a flashback, just as the original’s Ted did with his children.

The casting is clever, with Kim Cattrall and Hilary Duff playing older and younger Sophie. It features superb ensemble actors such as Christopher Lowell, Francia Raisa, Suraj Sharma, and Tien Tran. This explains why I feel the show has potential. Why did its first season struggle so much to meet it? Is the second season improving quickly enough to make up for it?

Out of the gate, I was insulted by the series’ constantly proclaiming how it was representative of Millennial experiences without ever engaging them. “How I Met Your Father” told a story without much recognition of COVID, Millennial financial trauma, or dealing with cults of racism and misogyny. Plenty of shows dodge these subjects without much problem, but they don’t go around proclaiming that this is somehow representative of a generation’s experiences.

The first season of “How I Met Your Father” (“HIMYF”) also leaned on callbacks that didn’t plug into its current story. It dropped constant reminders of the original show so that you could point and say, “I remember that,” but that’s all they did. They evoked recognition, but recognition on its own isn’t comedy – it has to do something. Instead, it just sat there with blinking lights asking us over and over if we recognized it. Yes, and…?

The other problem is that the series screwed up its pairings almost immediately. Its two strongest actors are Christopher Lowell, who also played the closeted benefactor and announcer of “GLOW”, and Tien Tran, who comes from a stand-up comedy background. Tran’s Ellen arrives in New York as an outsider, so her immediate connection is with her brother, Lowell’s Jesse. Trapping the two strongest actors together isn’t a bad thing, if the other actors and their writing is up to par. It wasn’t.

The first season leaned far too heavily on Hilary Duff as a lead rather than as part of the ensemble. To use the traditional terms for odd-couple pairings, you’ve usually got a comedic Straight Man and a Wise Guy. One approaches things seriously so the other can play off them. Semi-isolated in Sophie’s stories with guest actors of the week, Duff was often asked to play both roles at once. She was the Wise Guy in her own stories, and the Straight Man when it came to ensemble comedy. You can be both in balance, but not when you’re pulled from one extreme to the other week to week. We really couldn’t depend on a consistent read of her character, which damages a show when its central theme is about learning who she is.

Francia Raisa plays Sophie’s best friend and roommate, locked in a relationship with Tom Ainsley’s runaway royal Charlie. They shared a lot of scenes in the first season, which meant compartmentalizing two Wise Guys together.

Episodes shifted the mix around, but the baseline the first season returned to was: Duff being isolated from the ensemble, the two strongest actors stuck in wait-and-hold patterns for others’ stories, the two Wise Guys stuck together with no Straight Man to play off, and Suraj Sharma’s Sid becoming an afterthought in main plots.

In my original review I did highlight that I had hope the series might improve. This was based on how good the cast is if it could be used as a more balanced ensemble, and because I’d already seen Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker drastically improve one of their other series from its first to its second season. The “HIMYF” showrunners also ran “Love, Victor”, a series that was charming and superbly cast but struggled with overall direction in its first season. “Love, Victor” featured a drastic improvement in its second season, turning into a resurrection and subversion of 80s teen comedies. Unfortunately, Hulu rushed the show and truncated its episode count at the last minute, meaning the third season fell back a little bit, but that second season was brilliant. If they could do it with one series, that’s a talent I thought might be repeated. It has been to an extent:

Show Some Millennial Struggles

Most of the characters are paycheck to paycheck and living in (by sitcom standards) ramshackle apartments. They’ve thankfully stopped the whole “we represent a generation” shtick. That always felt forced for a series that avoided many pressing social issues, though now it does feature a few. The second season builds plots around lacking health insurance for mental health care, and Sophie selling a photograph to a Men’s Rights cult leader.

There’s a clearer focus. When an issue is featured it’s more of a situation than a throwaway one-liner. This means we’re not just recognizing something in passing, but seeing characters experience it – even if it is just according to sitcom rules. I wouldn’t say it engages these issues as more than window dressing, but it’s also stopped pretending these aren’t part of the experiences its characters would face. The show’s also clear about which side the characters land on.

In other words, the series stopped tiptoeing around naming things, which always risks filling in the gaps with stereotypes. Now it at least names these ugly experiences and has characters look directly at them. It doesn’t dive into them with particular depth, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the show do more. From “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to the 2017 “One Day at a Time”, we’ve seen the format’s perfectly capable of it, but just getting the baseline to showing struggle instead of naming it for recognition points is a marked improvement.

Duff Gets Accompanists

Too much was asked of Duff in the first season. Shows like this need someone like Duff, who can anchor what’s happening to a specific place and set of consequences. They also need someone like Raisa. As Valentina, Raisa can showboat and extend the plots into absurdity. Both require and take skill, but in the first season Duff was asked to showboat in her semi-isolated plots, while Raisa was asked to anchor Ainsley’s showboating. They each played against their strength and it didn’t work.

The two play best friends, so it’s natural for them to share more consequential plots together in the second season. It means Duff can more consistently embody that Straight Man role while Raisa can let loose. A running joke in the show is how bad Sophie is at being the wild card, so why they asked her to fill that role throughout the first season is beyond me.

In fact, after that first season I felt Raisa should’ve led the show with Duff playing the best friend. As their roles have hewed closer to who the show’s told us they are, this feels like less of a problem. I do still wonder, since Sophie and Valentina can be self-involved and Raisa does more to evoke empathy…but this may have more to do with Duff playing close to script. Like Ted in the original “HIMYM” and Ross in “Friends”, Sophie’s early coding as the main character means she lacks the kind of growth we see the rest of the ensemble enjoy. As in those two examples, a show doesn’t have to overcome that to work, but it’s always a nice bonus if it can.

Christopher Lowell Gets a Plot Arc

Up top, I pointed out how Lowell and Tran are the show’s two best actors as brother and sister Jesse and Ellen. Lowell knows how to work a stage and the camera. Season 1 revolved his story around the will-he/won’t-he with Sophie, which didn’t give him a lot to work with. It’s her show, so doing this isn’t the issue – but Lowell spent a lot of time in the first season as part of others’ plotlines. He does great supporting work, with a lot of movement based around affirming what another character is doing, so this is a good use of him. It just shouldn’t be the only use for him.

Jesse was embarrassed when his girlfriend turned down his marriage proposal in a video that became viral. We start the second season with her back in the picture and undermining the potential that was there between him and Sophie. Will Jesse go on tour with their band and leave Sophie and his friends behind? The fractures it creates mean that Lowell has something to work with. Much like Sophie and best friend Valentina finally getting a lot of meaningful scenes together, it also means that Jesse and best friend Sid finally get more than a handful of scenes together. These do a lot to help us understand who these characters are and why they’re forced into difficult situations – legitimizing these situations is what drives the comedy, after all.

Sophie becoming a more consistently realized character also means that a give-and-take can develop between Duff and Lowell as scene partners. The two were embroiled in Sophie and Jesse’s maybe-romance in the first season, but as they play out a more balanced and healthier friendship (with romantic tension intact), they’re much better together this season. Lowell is the cast member who can play Straight Man or Wise Guy depending on the situation, but he smartly limits each extreme, allowing him to serve as a balance in relation to whichever way Duff is playing it.

I felt it a little bittersweet to see him here while “GLOW” was canceled, but you know what, he has a reassuring presence in whatever role you put him in. It’s always a joy to recognize when an actor is this skilled at guiding our eyes to others’ work in an ensemble.

More Tien Tran

This is the first series on which Tran is a regular cast member. The show still doesn’t quite know how to use her, in part because she can make stealing a scene look easy. She’s the most lead-oriented of the bunch, yet feels the least utilized. Ellen should be a smarter Joey from “Friends”: sweet and innocent but prone to misunderstandings that arise from anxious overthinking (instead of a lack of intelligence). They hit this characterization a lot, but never seem to realize this is where the character’s heart is.

Instead, they’re pretty convinced about leaning on Tom Ainsley’s oblivious, disowned royal Charlie for this kind of comedy. That’s a mistake when he’s clearly the sweetheart of the bunch (going by “Friends” roles, he’s Rachel in just about every other way – privileged, rich but slumming it, working at the local hangout, hanger-on to an on-again/off-again main cast flame). They’re increasingly pairing him with Sharma, which gets another Wise Guy-Straight Man pairing on the board and finally gives Sharma something to do.

Even if the show doesn’t know how to use Tran better, she’s using the show better. With a season’s experience, Tran’s comfort with the ensemble work has grown. They still stick her with a lot of one-liners, extended monologues, and physical comedy – Tran’s background is in stand-up, so this makes sense. Yet too often she feels removed from the main cast as leader of the B-plot. It’s hard to tell how much they’re trying to fix this vs. how much Tran is just making up for it regardless. Either way, she’s gotten some of the show’s more absurd moments and her relationship to Jesse means that now he’s got his own plot arc, she has more to interact with.

Tran’s own increased comfort and expanded time with other actors in the ensemble are both improvements, even if there’s still a core issue with the writers knowing how to rotate her into the A-plots.

Playing with Unreliable Narrators

As a frame story, the original “HIMYM” often relied on unreliable narrators, conflicting memories, and characters who disagreed on how an event happened. This is a well of potential comedy, but one “HIMYF” didn’t make much use of in its first season.

The second season unleashes a few unreliable narrator plots, and they’re each pretty successful. As Sophie’s recounting a date Valentina brought to dinner, she realizes she can’t remember his face. It gets replaced with an emoticon, whose blaring visual shoves the overly familiar ‘awkward dinner conversation’ into enjoyably ridiculous territory.

One episode concerns who was judging and bullying who between Jesse, Valentina, and a mutual acquaintance. We see a history of brunch get-togethers from two different perspectives – each dragging the others through the mud.

One scene sees older Sophie subtitle the men’s bro speak. It’s more of a 2010 joke, but they execute it extraordinarily well.

The ability to play with narrative this way is available to any sitcom, but it’s a particularly natural go-to for the How I Met franchise that the second series is finally embracing. These initial forays may even show something it does better than the original, if it’s willing to push further down that path.

It’s More “Friends” Than “HIMYM”

I watched the first season of “HIMYF” as a fascination with botched potential, but the second season is a sharp improvement. It’s still not reliably good, but neither is it bad. It’s intermittently good and very suddenly worth watching as the light comfort food that multi-camera sitcoms like this can be. For this kind of show, there’s something more important than being good: liking the cast and wanting to spend time with them. That’s where they really hook you, and it gives a sitcom time for all that writing and directing stuff to catch up.

Is “How I Met Your Father” as good as “How I Met Your Mother”? No, but it’s also significantly less homework and far less problematic than a show that’s aged in dog years. Is it as good as early-season “Friends”? Not a chance. Is it as good as late-season “Friends”, an era that aged in butterfly years? Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate bead on things, plus it embraces LGBTQ+ characters and relationships instead of presenting rampant homophobia.

There’s a Valentine’s Day episode that manages to keep the entire group in one place the whole time, and this shows off the series’ best strength: the ensemble as a whole. Put everyone in one place and the show suddenly works. It’s the splitting up into groups that gets erratic because some combinations work and some just don’t. When the entire ensemble isn’t together for a while, you need to mix and match to keep everyone rotated with each other. That means at some point you’re going to get stuck with combinations they haven’t figured out yet. Keep everyone together enough and you’ve hit all combinations at once – that means when you split up, you can rely on your strongest combinations without having to rotate the others through.

That gets abstract, so consider a concrete example. In “Friends”, there wasn’t a lot of Chandler and Phoebe hanging out because he was too acidic for her absurdity. It would’ve felt too mean. Instead, the pairing gets coverage when the entire ensemble’s together, meaning each character can stick to their end of the pool when it’s time for more focused pairings. It’s an approach that works really well, but it requires “HIMYF” to go further down the ensemble path. I hope the improvement continues – with a cast like this it really ought to.

I still watch “How I Met Your Father” because I find the gap between its potential and realization to be interesting, but now that interest also rests in just how much that gap’s been closed. Being less frustrated with the show means getting to enjoy its ensemble more and that’s almost entirely where the potential lies. It features one of the best sitcom ensembles out there, but it’s just an OK sitcom. That means there’s still a ton of room for improvement. One or the other’s got to give, and seeing if a show can take that evolutionary leap makes for fascinating viewing.

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