Monday, October 5, 2009

On DVD: "How I Met Your Mother: Season 4"

How I Met Your Mother premiered on CBS in the fall of 2005 as a combination of the high and low concept: an occasionally complicated time-jumping storyline married with a traditional, multi-camera laugh-track sitcom. The series (and many episodes) begin with middle-aged Ted (never seen, but voiced by Bob Saget—involved, for once, in a long-running series that doesn’t stink) telling his teenage daughter and son the story of how he met their mother. We then flash back to the mid-2000s (though, throughout its run, the series has dipped as far back as the mid 90s and well into the future), where young Ted (Josh Radnor) lives in New York with his best friend Marshall (Jason Segal), Marshall's girlfriend (and later wife) Lily (Alyson Hannigan), and smarmy ladies' man Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), and has an on-again, off-again relationship with Robyn (Cobie Smulders).

The Ted-Robyn relationship provided much of the ongoing story arc fodder for the first three seasons; season one spent most of its time on a Ross-and-Rachel-style build-up, while season two put them together, mined their romantic relationship, and then split them up. Season three kept them that way (mostly), while embarking Ted on a romance with Stella (guest star—and Scrubs regular—Sarah Chalke) that provides that year with a cliffhanger—will she accept Ted’s marriage proposal?

Well, spoiler alert, she does (relax, it’s the first episode of the season). But this stroke of happiness for our Ted is short-lived; their rushed wedding, in episode five, ends with Stella leaving Ted at the altar following a reconciliation with her ex (beautifully played by Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones). Bruised and a little battered, Ted spends the remainder of the season mostly playing the field; this year’s will-they-or-won’t-they involves not Robin and Ted, but Robin and Barney, who slept together at the end of season three, leading to—shockingly and alarmingly—a genuine flush of romantic feelings by the notorious womanizer.

By this point in its run, How I Met Your Mother has settled into a comfortable routine, and I mean that in a good way; the show is in the character-comedy mold of Seinfeld and Friends (its two clearest influences), and like those shows, the situations get funnier, the more familiar we are with the characters. The series’ ingenious structure and inventive narrative tricks also continue to entertain; the hopscotching timelines of the “Three Days of Snow” and “The Front Porch” episodes are outstanding, while the clever flashbacks of “Sorry, Bro” build to some big laughs. Other standout episodes include “I Heart NJ,” which perfectly encapsulates the love/hate relationship between island-dwelling New Yorkers and commuters from the Garden State; “The Best Burger in New York,” a fine portrait of New York foodie-ism (and how to best utilize a Regis Philbin guest shot); and “The Stinsons,” which reveals one of Barney’s more peculiar secrets.

But the season’s finest episode, without question, is “Murtaugh,” centered on Ted’s “Murtaugh List”—i.e., a list of things that would fall under Danny Glover’s Lethal Weapon catchphrase, “I’m getting too old for this shit” (the replacement of “shit” with “stuff” in the story that aged Ted is telling his children is a particularly nice touch). It’s a funny idea (and dovetails nicely with the season-long running theme of aging; there’s 30th birthdays all around this season), well-developed, and the episode’s B-plot includes an homage to Teen Wolf, so what else could you ask for?

Radnor and Smulders, originally the show’s weaker links, continue to develop into engaging, charismatic comic actors. Hannigan and Segal’s chemistry remains one of the show’s biggest assets, though she is guilty of occasional overacting, and Segal sometimes seems underutilized (at least when compared to his work on Freaks and Geeks and in films like I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall). But Harris’ Barney Stinson remains the show’s comic gold mine, and the skilled thespian uses the season-long Robin crush to lend some additional pathos to the character (without ever seeming to pander for sympathy). His desperation reaches a fever pitch in the wonderful “Benefits” episode, in which new roommates Ted and Robin end up sleeping together to end domestic arguments, leading jealous Barney to start dropping by with groceries and pitching in on household chores—all the better to keep tempers smooth and to keep the “friends” out of each other’s pants.

Only two real criticisms can be lobbed at the fourth season. First, the show’s intrusive laugh track continues to distract; with every other quality TV comedy trusting its viewers to know when to laugh, How I Met Your Mother’s post-recorded yukking makes the show feel like a square relic of a bygone era, which doesn’t jibe at all with its narrative gimmickry or its occasionally edgy subject matter. And secondly, the simultaneous off-screen pregnancies of Hannigan and Smulders are poorly masked, to a point of preoccupation—I’ve seen this kind of thing done reasonably skillfully (as on The Cosby Show), but the steady increase of huge purses and peasant blouses are, to be charitable, less than convincing.

But How I Met Your Mother remains one of the most consistently, reliably funny series on network television. Season four finds the show continuing in fine form, taking its characters in interesting new directions and providing its talented cast with a prime showcase for their crackerjack comic skills. In its first year, I wasn’t sure if this was a show that could keep up its ingenious premise without getting bogged down in easy formula, but in year four, How I Met Your Mother shows no signs of slowing down.

"How I Met Your Mother: Season 4" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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