Tag Archives: Elizabeth Berger

Nostalgia, Millennial Alienation, and “How I Met Your Father”

I have to admit that I went into “How I Met Your Father” with low expectations. The series it’s spun off from, “How I Met Your Mother”, veers between holding a special place in our collective heart and exemplifying a lot of what was wrong in 2000s comedy. It was arguably the last great gasp for the traditional, must-see, weekly sitcom. People still argue over whether its finale was any good because it subverted the expectations that risk-free finales from predecessors like “Friends” had offered.

I never watched the whole thing straight through, but I’ve seen the majority of episodes. It was exceedingly reliable. You always knew it would be funny enough, and comfortable enough, and you’d like everyone (except sometimes the main character) enough to get by. Its running jokes rewarded weekly viewers while its flashback-heavy style made sure intermittent viewers like myself weren’t excluded.

More than anything, the original’s cast was near-faultless: Alyson Hannigan, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Segel all came with fanbases and mountains of goodwill for their prior work, while Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders hit the ground running.

Like the original, “How I Met Your Father” is about a lonely single navigating the ups and downs of dating while supported by a group of wacky friends. Its biggest challenge is its pedigree. It isn’t just trying to match a good multi-camera sitcom, it’s trying to match what might have been the last bastion of genuine comfort within a genre that finally seems to have antiquated. Less stagy, single-camera comedies in the style of “The Office”, “Reservation Dogs”, and “Black-ish” have become the norm.

Both the appeal and pitfall of “How I Met Your Father” can be found in its sense of comfortable nostalgia. It’s familiar, which can be reassuring and offers a chance for new twists, but it also runs the risk of being too predictable and repetitive, which can be a waste of time.

Here’s the reality: no one’s going to know whether “How I Met Your Father” can pull this off after two episodes. As a weekly series, it just needs to reach a base camp of sorts that lets us know it has the possibility to keep climbing. If it’s good, that’s a bonus. Most of what I’m looking for is whether it has the foundation to develop. The first two episodes that have aired are strong enough; they show promise. The writing is too generic, but it’s largely made up for by the cast, which is very good.

Sophie is telling this story from the future, just like Ted in the original. Kim Cattrall is good stunt casting as the older version of Hilary Duff, but she’s best bantering with scene partners. Someone like Christina Applegate, Jean Smart, or Olivia d’Abo might’ve been a better choice for something more oriented toward voice-over. Despite the similarity in appearance, Cattrall just doesn’t feel like the same person as Duff the way Bob Saget and Josh Radnor did in the original.

I also wish the future they presented was more than “she’s obviously well off”, but…more on that in a second. She tells the story of the sitcom to her son on a video call, hence “How I Met Your Father”. Unlike the original, we don’t actually see her child. At first I thought it’s because the show was being presumptuous and wanted the opportunity to re-cast in case it goes long enough for a child actor to grow out of the role.

Then I realized why. “How I Met Your Father” poses that we’ve already met the father. It’s one of the men we’ve met in the very first episode; we just don’t know who yet. And unlike its direct predecessor and so many spiritual predecessors, “How I Met Your Father” actually casts actors of color. It’s easy for “How I Met Your Mother” to show us a pair of white children because the entire main cast and nearly all the love interests were white. In a show where two of the possibilities are white, one’s Black, and one’s Indian, showing us Sophie’s son would make an immediate reveal of the show’s entire central mystery.

More importantly: look! A sitcom that acknowledges people of color exist in New York City! A sitcom with a white lead whose best friends are of Indian, Mexican, and Vietnamese descent! This must have just happened. Certainly, all these people of color couldn’t possibly have lived in New York during “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother”. Those sitcoms clearly evidence the city was 95% white.

OK, I’m done. But seriously – it’s about time, and something like this in a multi-camera dating sitcom shouldn’t be so rare. Maybe there’s a reason the genre became antiquated that had more to do with its casting segregation than its technical format.

The shape of the ensemble largely follows “How I Met Your Mother” otherwise. Duff plays Sophie and while the casting can feel too on-the-nose, the blueprint for this franchise has always been that the lead is more of an anchor. They’re the least exciting one, which allows all the exciting people around them to pull them back and forth out of their comfort zone.

Sophie meets Daniel on a long-delayed Tinder date and hits it off with him the same night he’s set to leave the country. By mishap, she ends up tracking down her Uber driver Jesse, and crashing the proposal of his best friend Sid at the bar he owns. Her roommate Valentina, Valentina’s disowned British aristocrat boyfriend Charlie, and Jesse’s adoptive sister Ellen round out the cast.

There are two who immediately stand out. The first is Chris Lowell, who plays Jesse. Like me, you might recognize him without being able to place him. If you watched “GLOW”, he played Bash Howard, the impetuous, closeted heir who funds and announces the series’ women’s wrestling league. He brings a similar energy and charisma here, albeit as someone less impetuous and more world-weary. He looks the exact same, but conveys that similar energy very differently. He gets a few mini-monologues and emotionally grounds the series well.

The other standout is Tien Tran, who plays plays Ellen (his adoptive sister). She’s come to New York for a fresh start after divorcing her wife. She gets a lot of the best one-liners. Given her history in stand-up, she knows how to make everything from the awkward to the enthusiastic work quickly. She immediately has the best timing of the group.

Suraj Sharma’s Sid is strong and has pretty good banter with the rest of the cast. He evokes Jason Segel’s character from “How I Met Your Mother”: a good, consistent mix of stability and dorky comedy. This is even stressed when Sid and fiancee Ashley end up renting the very same apartment that the original’s Marshall and Lily once rented. That kind of reliable-but-goofy character takes time to build, but once you have, it pays off in spades, and Sharma’s definitely in the right place after two episodes.

There is a big problem, though. This is Charlie, the British aristocrat who’s been disowned for seeing Valentina, and who has no idea how anything in the real world works. There was an opportunity here for a more interesting character, but the caricature here seems like one ingredient too many – as if actor Tom Ainsley saw David Hyde Pierce’s portrayal of Niles Crane on “Frasier” and decided the mistake wasn’t playing everything as big as possible. Charlie desperately needs more nuance. Right now, he seems like a one-note character designed to last about three minutes in an “SNL” sketch. To be fair, it’s not Ainsley’s fault. There’s not a whole lot he can do with the writing they give him.

This also boxes in Francia Raisa’s Valentina. As Sophie’s roommate, she’s in a lot of scenes, but they aren’t her scenes. She’s either playing the eccentric, live wire to Sophie or the grounded, straight man to Charlie. I like Raisa’s performance, but there’s no consistency to her character’s writing because she’s being asked to inhabit two very opposite roles without any establishing context. It doesn’t matter how much heavy lifting Raisa can do reacting to others on the show if she’s not allowed to become a character in and of herself.

I have confidence in this cast, if the writing can get more clear-eyed on what it wants to do. There’s enough here to warrant watching the next few episodes, at least to see if some initial missteps are cleaned up and brought into line with a core cast that really does work. Pamela Fryman directs these first two episodes, and she helmed 196 of the original’s 208 episodes. Will the show have more ability to depart its familiar structure as it shifts to directors like Kelly Park, or will it lose its familiar strengths without establishing enough new ones? All I can say is that it hasn’t failed yet, which isn’t saying nothing. Plenty of series show you they’re not worth watching inside of two episodes. This one is at least positioned to improve if the writing can tailor itself to this cast much better.

One other element gives me some hope, and that’s showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker. I had similar qualms about “Love, Victor”, another standalone spinoff of a pre-existing property. It started out feeling awfully generic despite some of the best casting in the industry. Its second season improved massively, honing in on more serious conversations about its themes, writing characters with much more specificity, and giving its actors and directors much better, more consequential writing on both the dramatic and comedic fronts. They identified where its actors could succeed, and what kind of rhythm they wanted the show to have. The result is something that takes 80s teen movies and uses their tropes to expand understanding about sexuality and subvert social expectations with arguments for communication, self-care, mutual aid, and community.

The biggest failure in “How I Met Your Father” is that its story takes place in 2022 and it shows no resemblance to the 2022 we’re living in. Not every show needs to exist in the same universe as COVID, but one of the things that seems to stand out most when I think back on “How I Met Your Mother” is that the era it represented was something of a lie. The promise it conveyed is in some ways comfort now because it’s nice to be reminded of what we sought out to laugh at or be comforted by in those moments before reality peeled away. Even if its reassurances rested on a fault line and we see them differently now, they still hold a place in us that can feel safe for many. As something new, “How I Met Your Father” fails to acknowledge that this aspect of the world it walks into has changed. The original can be a memory we revisit. Something new can’t be a memory we revisit.

The future Sophie calls from looks pretty nice, as if everything’s OK. That’s not the comfort we need right now because it’s not a comfort. There needs to be some acknowledgment in the show that things are different now, because that is the reality of the lives of the generations it’s trying to represent. It looks like everything works out in the future and is even working out now, but that’s very much not what “How I Met Your Mother” conveyed – even when its primary concerns were romance and family.

Yes, it’s a sitcom. You can still acknowledge these realities in sitcoms. As much as it sold out in later seasons, let’s not forget many plots in the early seasons of “Friends” revolved around characters being broke and looking for jobs. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” found hope in both humor and anger that directly tackled racism. The biggest fault in “How I Met Your Father” is that it hasn’t read the room. Granted, we’re only two episodes in. A lot could happen, but the point is that it does need to happen.

The real opportunity for a spin-off like this to be something special is that it can converse with what came before. Repeating is not conversing. Insofar as two episodes offer, this is repeating. Sure, some things are different. The casting is inclusive, and thank god, because I don’t think this show would bring me back without its exceptional casting. Yet Millennials – the ones who latched onto “How I Met Your Mother” and valued it most – are not interested in nostalgia trips for the sake of nostalgia trips. Lord knows we’re offered enough of those. We’re interested in how that nostalgia is used as a lens for comparing the different realities we were presented and then given. We were raised as children with one view of the world. It did not turn out. Nostalgia is interesting to us because it allows us to revisit, compare, and highlight why that is. You can’t just present nostalgia for the sake of it. You have to use it to evoke something about that nostalgia that was true or false.

Nostalgia for us is a personal archaeology for a past that went extinct and was replaced with something very different. Is that a tall order for a sitcom like this? Yes. Too bad. There are so many spin-offs out there recently that are precise and feel genuine about doing this (“Love, Victor”, the “Saved by the Bell” continuation, “Leverage: Redemption”, “One Day at a Time”). It is an expectation.

Nostalgia has a cost because ours did as we lived it. Spinning something off from that era without recognizing how that cost is still being paid in our lives rings false. You can’t speak to an audience that has paid so much for it without acknowledging that. Millennial humor requires nostalgia to be more than a rote recognition of familiar things. For Millennials, nostalgia is a series of holes in our lives. If you want to evoke it, it’s a recognition of what’s missing. It’s a legitimizing that we’re not alone in feeling that. It’s not about being comforted when we recognize thing X or Y; it’s about why we feel so alienated from what we recognize. The comfort doesn’t lie in the recognition itself. It’s found in realizing our alienation toward that recognition is shared. Spin off that era and this has to be a part of your storytelling and characterization in some way. If the characters don’t share that alienation at the nostalgic elements of your show, we’re going to have a much harder time identifying with them.

Every show needs a reason for being. And yes, I know: it’s money. But critically and as a viewer, every show needs a core reason why this story needs to be told now, and “How I Met Your Father” needs to find its reason and make it clear. As a weekly entry instead of one that drops a season’s worth of episodes at once, this is even more important. That reason hooks us. Without it, there are a lot of series right now that do have reasons and are happy to communicate them. I’m going to watch the next few episodes to see if they do this cast justice, but it’s a 50-50 proposition at this point.

You can watch “How I Met Your Father” on Hulu. New episodes arrive on Tuesdays.

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