watch

How I Met Your Father - Why We Still Crave Earnest Comfort TV

How I Met Your Father, the gender-swapped update of How I Met Your Mother, is meticulously faithful to the original’s format and its starry-eyed search for love – so why are critics slamming it as missing key ingredients that made the first series great?

TRANSCRIPT

Sophie: “Repeat after me: Today is the first chapter of my next great love story.”

Jesse: “I’m never going to say that.” - How I Met Your Father 1x03

How I Met Your Father, the gender-swapped update of How I Met Your Mother, is meticulously faithful to the original’s format and its starry-eyed search for love—so why are critics slamming it as missing key ingredients that made the first series great?

Both shows are framed by the narration of an older parent telling their kids a convoluted story that eventually leads to said kids’ conception, and center on a group of friends in their late 20s and early 30s, navigating their love lives and careers in New York. The shows even take place in the same apartment.

But while How I Met Your Mother appeared on plenty of lists of the best TV shows of the 2000s, How I Met Your Father has a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, decried by critics as jarringly stale and dated. And its early episodes do lack some elements of How I Met Your Mother’s secret sauce: like the clever, inventive storytelling structures, and a standout character along the lines of the (now untouchably problematic) Barney Stinson. At the same time, How I Met Your Father enjoys a comfortable majority of positive audience reviews on multiple sites - suggesting that— even if it’s not… “Legendary”—the show gets something important right about the nostalgia comfort-food TV viewers really want. How I Met Your Mother was fundamentally about cherishing the good old days with friends, appreciating the hiccups and hijinks along the way to where you’re going, and above all, remaining doggedly sincere in your search for true love, despite a world that’s often far too cynical. How I Met Your Father understands that today, the totally uncynical rom-com sitcom is a rare, if not extinct, relic—but that struggle to keep believing in love is still real if not far more dire. Here’s our Take on why viewers may just be craving How I Met Your Father’s cheesy, comforting antidote to love-hopelessness more than ever.

How I Missed Barney

The cast of How I Met Your Father includes many of the same archetypes as the original, remixed. Josh Radnor’s Ted Mosby, the incurable, hopeless romantic, is gender-swapped into Hilary Duff’s Sophie. The stable long-term couple of Lily and Marshall become bar owner Sid and surgeon Hannah who get engaged in the first episode. Much like Bob Saget narrated as Older Ted making his kids bored and uncomfortable, Kim Cattrall as older Sophie irritates her (not quite as young) son over video chat (making the sex stories a bit less inappropriate, while keeping him offscreen avoids the problem the original had with the kids’ potential aging—a fear which famously made the showrunners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays feel locked into filming the show’s now-infamous ending in season 2).

But How I Met Your Father (which has Thomas and Bays as EPs but is created by This is Us showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger) is missing some of the original’s most memorable elements. Most glaringly, there’s a giant hole in the shape of Barney Stinson. Clearly, not having a Barney was a conscious choice— this self-styled Don Juan and unrepentant misogynist who went to absurd lengths to trick women into sleeping with him was always cartoonishly sleazy, and the show was highly aware of that.

Ted: “This is Barney, I met him the other day. He’s kind of a jackass.” - How I Met Your Mother 3x05

But the show appreciated his charms, felt for Barney’s secret hang-ups, and ultimately enjoyed him a lot— all of which wouldn’t really fly in the 2020s. In How I Met Your Father, the closest thing we get to Barney is a brief cameo from an obnoxious, crass guy Sophie met on Tinder— who’s used as a cardboard example of everything wrong with men, and how hard it is for women online dating today.

Gross-Tinder guy: “I was on another date before this and, uh, let’s just say it went well… Like, I just had sex.” - How I Met Your Father 1x01

The problem is that Barney was also the breakout character of How I Met Your Mother, a huge part of why the series took off in the first place. And most people today are probably somewhat aware of Barney’s many, many catchphrases and the irresistible comic energy Neil Patrick Harris brought to his performance. How I Met Your Father quickly contrasts gross-Tinder guy with its main male characters, Sid and Jesse, who mark themselves as “different” by responding to this story with disgust.

Sid: “He told you that?”

Jesse: “Why would he tell you that?” - How I Met Your Father 1x01

These are guys we can root for because they’re sensitive, trustworthy non-Barneys. Essentially, though, that leaves us with three central male characters who are more-or-less Marshalls (with a bit of Ted).

How I Met Your Father appears to channel some of Barney’s promiscuity and sex-positivity in Sophie’s bestie Valentina. Echoing Barney’s and Ted’s dynamic, Valentina pushes the comparatively prudish Sophie to be less reserved about sex. Still, Valentina liking sex or talking about it doesn’t push taboos the way Barney was frequently over-the-line— and in the very first episode, Valentina’s already in a relationship with posh British guy Charlie. How I Met Your Father may also be channeling some of Barney’s wackiness into Ellen, Jesse’s sister who we do see hitting on loads of women, though so far (like Charlie) she’s mostly hapless and well-meaning, and doesn’t get to express a coherent perspective or philosophy the way Barney constantly voiced his.

By giving Ted’s and Barney’s characteristics to Sophie, Valentina and Ellen, How I Met Your Father appears to be trying to replicate the investigation of sexual “antics” from a more female and inclusive perspective. Yet those antics are tame, even compared to some of what we saw on a network show in the 00s. The “player” side of Barney allowed the show to peer into some edgier “wrong” places, and also reflected a real part of the time’s zeitgeist: In 2005, the year of the show’s premiere, “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists” spent two months on the New York Times Bestseller list, and many people bought into mysterious, dubious-sounding dating and seduction “rules” like those Barney spouted.

Barney: “If she’s this crazy, she has to be this hot. You want a girl to be above this line.” - How I Met Your Mother 3x05

Despite our obviously very different climate now, as Sophie’s date-from-hell reminds us, there are still plenty of modern Barneys who’ve discovered dating apps are their best friend. So perhaps by only including that type of guy as a one-off cardboard villain, the series avoids more honest observation of today’s dating landscape and its gross set of so-called “rules.”

In addition to a Barney, How I Met Your Father is kind of lacking a Robin (who was, in her way, a kind of female equivalent to Barney). Part of the original appeal of How I Met Your Mother was the reversal of traditional romantic-comedy gender roles: instead of the classic starry-eyed heroine pining for a perfect man or having to “tame” a guy, the protagonist was a love-hungry man who’s eager to find his soulmate yet who finds himself falling for a woman who prefers casual relationships and avoids being tied down. By flipping the stereotypical gender attitudes toward romance in Ted and Robin, the show got the opportunity to explore love from a masculine perspective through Ted, (who’s something between the poles of his two best friends— sex-driven womanizer Barney and sweetheart monogamist Marshall).

And it got to explore nontraditional female independence and self-determination through Robin, who reflected the era’s popular ideal of the “cool girl” trope (the hot woman with the stereotypically male personality). Yet whereas most “cool girls” are fake male fantasies, Robin actually didn’t want the domestic fairytale all women were assumed to be after— a fact that caused deep frustration for the men who fantasized about her.

In How I Met Your Father, Valentina has some of Robin’s confidence, independence, and lack of romanticism, but the character who’s really set up as the gender-swapped Robin equivalent is Jesse, Sophie’s apparent long-term love interest. Like Robin, he is skeptical about love, but that’s not because he’s ambivalent about domesticity for deeper reasons like Robin. He’s just been heartbroken after his elaborate proposal was publicly rejected— in a plot that would never be Robin but is classic Ted. The closest love interest the series has to Robin is Ian, Sophie’s tinder match she’s obsessed with in the first episode (just as Ted fell for Robin in the How I Met Your Mother pilot). Ian immediately moves to Australia because he’s choosing his career— showing a clear-eyed realism that was one of Robin’s defining traits, but this quickly removes him from the equation as an inciting incident in order to set Jesse up as a stronger love interest.

The update is also so far lacking some of the original’s storytelling innovation. As How I Met Your Mother stretched out of its conceit of Ted telling an overarching story, this allowed a lot of room for riffing on long-running gags like the slap bet, Ted and Marshall’s swords, and even Barney’s ducky tie. Episodes routinely featured creative devices like elaborate flashbacks, twist endings, shifts in perspective, and cutting between timelines, locations and narrators, sometimes yielding a nesting doll of stories within stories. This formal innovation lent the show’s observations on dating an aura of analytical insight, and made plot points take on greater freshness and narrative surprise.

How I Met Your Father gestures at narrative playfulness, too. The first episode tells us that Sophie does meet the father of her child in the first episode, deliberately diverting from the iconic ending of the original pilot where Ted pivots and reveals the story’s not starting with “the mother” at all. So, while we waited eight seasons to meet The Mother, we already know that we’ve met The Father. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be the obvious choice of Jesse— How I Met Your Father leaves itself room to play, even going out of its way to tell us that Drew, Sophie’s new love interest in the third episode, technically was there and therefore qualifies as a potential suspect. But for the most part, the first episodes have played out in a more linear, traditional sitcom fashion: the gang meets up to discuss the big themes of the episode, splits off into a few different plots, and gets back together at the end.

Ultimately, gender-swapping the show’s initial gender-swap back may lead to a result that’s less clever— what’s new about seeing a cute rom-com heroine-esque young woman looking for love? Yet this lack of complication itself could be refreshing to viewers. In today’s climate, there’s pressure to give us female role models who don’t need a love interest, aren’t defined in relation to a man, or have a love story that’s complicated to avoid clichés.

Kristoff: “You got engaged to someone you just met that day?” - Frozen

Yet as great as all that is, it can be limiting if it’s a rule that we can’t have female heroines looking for love and getting it— especially when there still are plenty of real-life viewers who do want monogamy or to start a traditional family. How I Met Your Father centering the female perspective on straight big-city dating offers the opportunity to dig into what it’s like for people today who are looking for love but find themselves encountering a depressing, transactional dating world full of Barneys and sometimes Teds.

When Sophie talks to a seemingly detached, cool young woman about the frustrations of dating on Tinder, even this girl immediately relates:

Girl: “Actually, I know exactly what you mean. Dating in this city is killing me.”

Sophie: “No. No no, you do not get to be relatable right now.” - How I Met Your Father 1x03

Yet how much is this landscape actually explored in film and TV narratives that still give us hope?

How I Handled Politics

Beyond gender-swapping the protagonist, the biggest difference between How I Met Your Father and the original series is probably the inclusivity of the cast. The main cast of How I Met Your Mother is all white. The most prominent non-white character is Ranjit the driver; and How I Met Your Mother’s cast’s privileged, narrow view of the world would sometimes result in pretty ignorant, callous treatment of people of other races, cultures, and income brackets— including plenty of offensive generalizations and even yellowface.

Ted: “In the South Bronx at this time of night? We’re gonna get killed.” - How I Met Your Mother 3x02

The original series only really engaged with queer characters through bits like Barney saying he wants to pick up a lesbian and guest appearances from Barney’s brother James, who is like Barney in most ways except for being gay and black. The introduction of James, in which the surprise of his identity is a joke, demonstrates one of the fundamental, most dated tenets of How I Met Your Mother: that interpersonal stories could wholly ignore politics.

Ted: “Is he black? I guess I’m the kind of person who focuses on who people are on the inside rather than on the color of their skin. I’m kidding, I just wanted to see your face.” - How I Met Your Mother 2x10

In consistently ignoring politics throughout its run, though, How I Met Your Mother did inadvertently express an outlook— one which, perhaps fittingly for a show that began in the Bush years, was essentially pragmatic, insular and conservative. At the beginning of the series, the characters have career dreams that include making money but are also idealistic: Marshall wants to be a lawyer who protects the environment; Ted wants to build part of the New York City skyline; and Robin wants to be an untethered globe-hopping journalist reporting news that matters. But over the course of the series, they repeatedly give up on the more meaningful and inconvenient aspects of those dreams, and feel they have to prioritize their lifestyles, bank accounts and personal ambition.

Ted: “I didn’t work this hard to be stuck in some crappy, dead-end teaching job.” How I Met Your Mother 4x24

Marshall gives up on his dreams of working to protect nature. Ted eventually endorses the demolition of a building he agrees is a landmark in order to advance his own career. Barney is already shamelessly cynical when we meet him, though in a backstory we see he, too, was once an idealist before heartbreak led him to drop his naive dreams of joining the peace corps and “suit up.” Eventually, all three of the male leads work together at a bank, and though Marshall and Ted don’t like it, it’s framed as the “adult” and “responsible” thing to do. It’s suggested Marshall’s becoming a breadwinner is even necessary to support the family he wants with Lily, especially after it emerges that she’s in major credit card debt.

So there’s a sense that having your domestic perfect family dream (the show’s ultimate ideal) is likely at the expense of being a selfless, global citizen, as it’s only practical to enrich yourself to provide for your own. Robin does finally become the journalist she wanted to, but only because she’s willing to sacrifice domestic happiness (she doesn’t want kids, and basically lets her marriage with Barney die). Meanwhile, earlier in the series she repeatedly disappoints herself by giving up on exciting set-ups in foreign destinations, deciding that her “real” self is just that regular person hanging out with her friends in New York, and even in the show’s controversial ending, she’s back in the city and ready to spend her final days aging with Ted.

Robin: “I thought I wanted that job, but… I want to come back to my real life.” - How I Met Your Mother 4x05

17 years after the original premiered (though less than a decade after it ended), How I Met Your Father arrives in a very different era— one in which it would feel a lot weirder to never mention politics. How I Met Your Father is trying much harder to be diverse in both race and sexual orientation through characters like Ian, Valentina, Ellen, and Sid. It has both class and racial tension in the pilot’s plot of Charlie leaving his hyper-wealthy, presumably old-money family in London in order to date the Latina, significantly-less-wealthy Valentina. And most characters are not nearly as professionally successful or ambitious as their privileged predecessors. Still, How I Met Your Father has a “progressive light” tone to it, limiting its commentary to what feels like a safe consensus in a sitcom setting. Charlie’s superrich background and fish-out-of-water experience as a New Yorker isn’t edgy anticapitalism but frothy, escapist absurdity.

Charlie: “Searching for apartments in this city without access to your trust fund’s impossible. I have no idea how you poors did it.”

Sophie: “Charlie! We’ve talked about using “poor” as a noun.” - How I Met Your Father 1x03

How We Craved Uncynical Comfort

The biggest appeal of sitcoms is that they’re comforting. We’ve always known that sitcom friendships— with the lovable gang that hangs out all the time, always getting up to hilarious hijinks— aren’t realistic. But we watch them as an anchor, perhaps even a substitute for the community we lack in our daily lives. Today, that set-up seems like an even wilder dream, as long grinding hours and tech saturation have made people ever more isolated, while the idea of “dropping by” on friends seems almost rude.

Likewise, sitcom romances offer that comfort and substitute for what might be missing in our love lives. And over time, what fans invested in most about How I Met Your Mother was its sweet romantic core. Though the series famously bungled its ending in many people’s eyes by sticking to a long-planned Ted and Robin reunion the writing had outgrown, this notorious mistake suggests that the team underestimated how earnestly devoted audiences were to the idealistic love story at the show’s center. Audiences really cared about Ted and Tracy (the mother who, somehow, lived up to the hype of so much anticipation) as well as about Robin and Barney, who organically, over the seasons, revealed themselves as great together. Most of all, audiences cared about the answer to the series’ original question— can we still find mind-blowing, ideal true love today in a world that feels more isolating and cynical than ever?

How I Met Your Father doubles down on that romantic earnestness of the person who wants to believe in love, even in the face of a lot of counter-evidence. And perhaps by making both Sophie and Jesse more like Ted (instead of Robin), they’re trying to build an endgame between the updates to the Ted and Tracy characters— thus attempting to right the wrong of the original ending by being even more earnest. As Robert Lloyd wrote for The Los Angeles Times, How I Met Your Father “is not for cynics. That’s its best quality.” Above all, the series pretty much promises us from the start that— if we put in the time— it’s going to deliver what we desire most of all: a happy ending.

Future Sophie: “Get together? Oh, that’s a much longer story.” - How I Met Your Father 1x01

The disconnect between critics’ and viewers’ response to How I Met Your Father so far tells us something about what viewers do secretly want. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, viewers flocked to nostalgic, reassuring, comfort shows like Friends and The Office (and yes, How I Met Your Mother)— which, in any year, still are watched more than many new shows. And while many of the reviews describe How I Met Your Father as “stale,” it’s intentional that How I Met Your Father preserves so much of that dated sitcom format— down to the laugh track, the multi-camera look, the sets, and the old-fashioned style of punchlines. The first two episodes are helmed by Pamela Fryman, the long-time director of the original. It’s supposed to be familiar and well-trodden because that’s what makes it comforting.

Sid: “All I want is some regulars coming in and ordering the usual, you know?” How I Met Your Father 1x02

Conclusion

In the original show, Ted is desperate to fast-forward to his rom-com ending, but in retrospect he has endless nostalgia for what, he now realizes, were “the good old days.” How I Met Your Father tries to deliver that same present-nostalgia to our anxiety-ridden, future-obsessed population. It reminds us that much as we want to get everything resolved, the whole point is to enjoy the ride, while keeping the faith that the dream-that-you-dream will come true, in its own time.

Sophie and Jesse [at the same time]: “Today is the first chapter of my next great love story.”

Jesse: “Hell yeah!” - How I Met Your Father 1x03