Though neither is of the caliber or class of the departed hit "Everybody Loves Raymond," both "How I Met Your Mother" and "Out of Practice," premiering tonight, should keep CBS safely dominant in the Monday-night sitcom business for the foreseeable future. Then again, futures aren't as foreseeable as they used to be.
"How I Met Your Mother," at 8:30 on Channel 9, suffers from such liabilities as a plasticized leading man (more of a misleading man, really) and formulaic writing. Its central gimmick is lame and intrusive: that we are hearing about a young man's mating misadventures from his perspective as a much older chap (the voice of Bob Saget) recalling things that happened "way back in 2005."
You could jettison the narration and that gimmick and have essentially the same show. Or it could be narrated by our hero, droopy and indecisive Ted (Josh Radnor), in the present. Either way, it's the same setup as the classic musical "Company": Married or engaged friends try to get their hapless pal Ted, the bachelor, hooked up and tied down -- for his own good, of course.
The premise as constructed does allow for some jumping about among the years, but big deal. It would help, of course, if we gave a hoot whether Josh gets married and lives happily ever after (too much to hope for these days). With Radnor trying to play Ted both cool and klutzy, we don't. The earnestness and enterprise of his friends can be funny, however, and as a history of good intentions oft going awry, the Saget saga at least has a few ingratiating touches, one of them a genuinely sweet moment near the premiere's end. And truth be told, it is a little better than most other sitcoms, past and present -- especially those featuring wacky urban friends in their twenties experiencing the bittersweet mysteries of life.
"And there she was," Saget says in narration as Ted spots this fabulous babe in a bar. "It was like something from an old movie." Yes indeedy -- like something from an old romantic comedy, only not a really truly good one.
Neil Patrick Harris, always to be known as "once Doogie Howser," co-stars as one of Ted's close and interfering friends. However likable, Harris is saddled in the pilot with a weak running gag about his fondness for wearing suits and the expression "suit up."
Among the women in Ted's life are Alyson Hannigan and Cobie Smulders, both snappy and attractive assets. The object of Ted's affection loves Scotch and dogs and hates almonds, he learns, which is fine, but the notion that any sane woman could or would keep five dogs in a New York City apartment is too far-fetched even for farce. Besides, it brings to mind those quixotic souls, now and then in the news, who after complaints from neighbors about marauding odors are found to be harboring several dozen kitty-cats in their homes, not all of them alive. Too weird, dude!
"Out of Practice," which ambles along at 9:30, boasts the strongest cast of any new sitcom, if only because Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler are in it, amusingly playing a divorced pair of doctors (she a canny cardiologist, he a gastrointestinal guy) whose son, a marriage counselor named Ben, feels inferior because he's not an MD, which certainly is a feeble bit of character motivation to say the least. Or, er, the most.
As a further mundane complication, he's approaching "the big three-oh," as in turning 30, tee-hee. What Ben really should worry about is the fact that he was born without a personality. Maybe he could find one on the Web.
Christopher Gorham, who plays the lanky lad, looks as though he wandered in from Anywhere, USA, and that a gust of wind would blow him right back there (and just as well). But as his plastic surgeon brother, Ty Burrell gets the kind of big laughs that only the best of second bananas can earn. He probably has the sharpest, most daggerlike dialogue, so that helps. He launches his little missiles with deadly (but lively) aim.
Words like "dyke" and "knockers" in the pilot tarnish the show and indicate that the producers and writers are too willing to grovel. CBS should remember that "Raymond" sailed through all its happy years veritably smut-free and devoid of cynicism. It's easy to get a laugh comparing a blue French horn to a Smurf's phallus (don't ask), harder to do it without a cheap little shock.
Neither "How I Met Your Mother" nor "Out of Practice" is likely to be your dearest most favorite comedy -- unless you happen to be Les Moonves, Mr. Happiness, the president of CBS Entertainment and mastermind behind the network's return from oblivion. But both shows are off to fairly good starts tonight. A few major improvements and CBS could turn its Monday-night lineup into the kind of "Must-See TV" bill of fare that NBC once offered on Thursdays.
Whatever -- any new series that isn't about monsters from below or above or somewhere in between, and not an attempt to clone ABC's "Lost," gets a few bonus points right off the bat. Silly sitcoms, like silly love songs, may have been seriously undervalued commodities.
How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice premiere tonight at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively, on Channel 9.