Probably the first thing you’ll notice about How I Met Your Father is how much it feels like a throwback. Deliberately, even self-consciously so; despite having been made for a streaming service (Hulu in the US earlier this year, now releasing on Disney+ in the UK) it feels for all the world like a standard network sitcom you’ve been half-watching in reruns for a decade.
That’s the point, of course. On the off chance that you’ve not made the connection, How I Met Your Father is somewhere between a sequel to and a spinoff from the earlier How I Met Your Mother, a series that ran for nine years from 2005 to 2014. (Sequel, spinoff, remake - it’s the same idea, basically, with some returning elements and references to the previous version of the show, but you don’t need to be more than the most casual viewer of the Josh Radnor/Cobie Smulders version to get what this is going for.) In the present, Sophie (Hilary Duff) goes on 87 failed tinder dates; in 2052, Sophie (Kim Cattrall) reminisces about the past and explains to her son how she met his father.
So this show is trying to fit into that same mould: it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, or even really keep pace with where television comedy is at in 2022. How I Met Your Father is quite happy to be the third or fourth best (or seventh or eighth best) show you saw a few years back – whether you find that flat and unengaging or gentle and familiar is going to come down to personal taste more than anything else. It’s not always the wittiest programme – one of its more memorable early punchlines is ”what did you polish it with, dork juice?”, which says a lot – but it’s easy enough to key into its basic wavelength.
In a lot of ways, it almost feels nostalgic. A big part of that comes from its casting, with Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) in the lead and Josh Peck (Drake and Josh) in a significant supporting role; they’re both former child stars of the early 2000s, and the show is clearly catering to an audience who grew up with them. “The early aughts are back,” a character remarks at one point, and you can see they certainly hope that’s the case, with the show offering hat-tips to plenty of other 2000s cultural references. But Duff’s casting isn’t just a nostalgia ploy though – she’s still a sharp comic talent (watch Younger, she’s great in that) and really holds the whole thing together.
For all that How I Met Your Father is nostalgic, though, it feels a little cautious too – immediately hedging against some of the criticisms levelled against its parent show. Most notably, it alludes quite strongly to who the father might be, ending the first episode by revealing it’s one of a handful of people Sophie (and we) met that night. How I Met Your Father stops just short of holding up a big signpost reading “trust us, we know where we’re going”, but it’s clearly meant to reassure people who disliked How I Met Your Mother’s finale. (Interestingly, the attempted Greta Gerwig/Meg Ryan iteration of this, 2014’s How I Met Your Dad, made a similar choice in its pilot episode too.) Will it? Hard to say – it feels like a misdiagnosis of the main thrust of those complaints, if nothing else – but it’s obviously on their mind here.
Sometimes, actually, it’s hard not to feel like this might’ve worked better if it weren’t connected to How I Met Your Mother at all anyway. In part that’s because this show doesn’t take as much advantage of its frame story as its predecessor did; where HIMYM routinely indulged in different narrative conceits, HIMYF is considerably more straightforward in its presentation. Moreso, though, it’s because Kim Cattrall is the show’s obvious weak link – maybe it’s because the older Sophie is acting to camera rather than just narrating as Bob Saget did on HIMYM, but Cattrall is visibly out at sea on set on her own, phoning a son who sounds more like a stand-in than an actor. Cutting those scenes would improve the show a fair bit: as it is, the obligation to mimic How I Met Your Mother is a shackle for this show.
In a roundabout way, though, the real underlying issue to How I Met Your Father – what all of its problems trace back to in the end – is that it’s a throwback in almost every way but for the one that it needed to be. As we’ve established, it’s got the pacing and style of a network sitcom (something that aired on a normal television channel, basically), from the way its staged right down to the laugh track. Its streaming home means that they can be a little freer with the language (they swear mildly and make stronger innuendos than before) but otherwise it’s all identical to any given sitcom.
Except it’s also only 10 episodes rather than 24. What quickly becomes clear is how much this style of comedy benefits from the extended runtime – more room to breathe, more room to get to know the characters, more room to evolve and self-correct within the first series alone. How I Met Your Father has six main characters (already one more than HIMYM), and a few more important supporting characters too, but not enough time for any of them bar Sophie to make much impact beyond an initial sketch. What you end up with is a show that’s almost consciously avoiding making much impact, something that seems to want to grow on you first and foremost – but barely gives itself the space to do so.
How I Met Your Father will be available as a boxset on Disney+ from Wednesday 11 May. I’ve seen all ten episodes before writing this review.