One of the unfortunate legacies of Friends is that for the next few years, every show featuring a group of compatriots will be compared to it. How I Met Your Mother fell victim before the first episode even aired, courtesy of tv critics who pigeonholed the show without reading the press packet describing its concept. But Mother isn’t Friends, and it isn’t trying to be. Instead the show focuses on a sole character, Ted (Josh Radnor), who is feeling pressure to find his soul mate after his best friend Marshall (Jason Segal) and his gal Lily (Alyson Hannigan) get engaged.
The opening scene of the series is set in the year 2030, as Ted’s two teenage kids sit down to watch a video of their father describing how he met their mother. The story of that meeting unfolds in what will surely become the longest flashback in tv history, especially if the series stays on the air beyond a season. The fact that the kids are hearing the story via video immediately raises questions: where is Ted, and why isn’t he telling them the story in person? Where is their mother? Why does he feel they need to hear this story now?
None of these questions are answered in the pilot. Instead, we get to know the characters and the ground for looks like an epic romance, as Ted’s desire for love is kicked into overdrive when he meets Robin (Cobie Smulders). Ted immediately decides Robin is the woman who will become his wife. Opposing Ted’s quest to win Robin is his buddy Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), who previously made him promise not to settle down until he was 30, still three years away.
Though CBS is plainly relying on tv veterans Hannigan and Harris to attract viewers (this much is clear in the ads), so far, all the characters are predictable types: Ted is lovable and slightly insecure; Barney is the ladies’ man whose ego is larger than his appeal; Marshall is the bumbling, good-hearted second banana; and Lily is the sweet but slightly wild female who spends all her time with male friends. Unlike the gang in most “friends” shows, who share equal story arcs, this group acts as a counterpoint to the protagonist, with Lily and Marshall voicing Ted’s “passion,” encouraging him to follow his desire for Robin, and Barney articulating doubt.
Once establishing Ted’s undying love for Robin and his overwhelming desire to marry her, the premiere cuts back to Ted’s kids watching the video, just in time to hear him announce, “And that is how I met your Aunt Robin.” So, it seems, Robin is not the great love of his life; she is the sister of the woman who will become Ted’s wife. This revelation creates clear problems. First, viewers are now aware that Ted’s chasing of Robin is for naught. This pursuit is continued in the second episode, as Ted throws party after party in hopes that Robin will show up. Since Smulders is listed as a regular, it is safe to assume that their relationship will develop over the series. Perhaps friendship is more interesting than marriage, given that the wife is so conspicuously absent in the narration.
Additionally, Ted’s disclosure raises the questions about Robin’s sister. Since the kids are about 15 years old, it could be years before Ted meets her. Is he going to have an ill-fated fling with Robin while viewers wait for the future Mrs. Ted? Will there be a love triangle? Will Ted settle for her when he can’t get Robin to commit? None of these options is particularly enticing. Granted, Robin’s sister’s identity and whereabouts create a moderate mystery. However, the only foreseeable future involves heartbreak and disappointment, hardly the hallmarks of comedy.
The comedy that does occur in How I Met Your Mother isn’t enough to compensate for its inconsistencies. The jokes are often predictable or lame. For instance, Barney’s insistence that Ted dress up in a suit to go out (“Suit up!”) was instantly tired. Likewise, when Barney plants a kiss on Marshall to make a point to Ted, the joke is too evident to be amusing—look, the ladies’ man is kissing another guy. With the increased presence of gays on television, the shock value of such a scene has long passed. Maybe How I Met Your Mother should have tried to be more like Friends after all.