If you’d asked me eight years ago, when “How I Met Your Mother” went off the air, when I’d be nostalgic for the long-running CBS sitcom about an all-White group of friends drinking and dating in a decidedly monochromatic New York, I’m pretty sure I would’ve said never.
And yet, once Hollywood started looking for HIMYM spinoff ideas, it never stopped. CBS passed on something called “How I Met Your Dad” that would’ve starred, head-scratchingly, an ascendant Greta Gerwig, who’s since gone on to become the Oscar-nominated writer and director of “Little Women” and “Ladybird.” And now we’ve got the multi-cam “How I Met Your Father” on Hulu, starring Hilary Duff and Kim Cattrall, which may well be a psy-op to rehab the reputation of the original series.
Like most successful sitcoms, HIMYM boasted zippy scripts, enviable cast chemistry and earnest showmanship to spare. But “How I Met Your Father” underscores what made the earlier show so distinctive: its particular friendship dynamic. Like so many well-to-do urban 20-somethings, Josh Radnor’s Ted built his adult support system through his college pals and random people he’d encountered at his local bar. The characters were raconteurs who couldn’t help mythologizing their youth, their city and their relationships. And some of the series’ best observations were about how they’d sometimes fudge the truth to make their romances sweeter, or themselves more attractive or better-seeming people than they actually were.
From the hindsight of 2022, it was a prescient look at how young people would use social media to turn experience into neat, self-flattering images as a way of presenting oneself to the world. Ted et al. could also be smug as hell about the specialness of their friend group — their conviction that they were the protagonists of the story of New York — but the show delighted in puncturing their occasional insufferability, too. HIMYM’s greatest triumph was in spinning a cocoon of friendship based on long-running in-jokes, spontaneously invented words and games, and shared narratives they’d reference or revise, inviting viewers to feel as if they were one of the gang, too.
It’s not entirely fair to compare what “How I Met Your Mother” did with nine seasons to what little “How I Met Your Father” does in its initial four episodes, the portion screened for critics. (The debut season contains 10 chapters total.) But I can say that not a trace of the graceful aplomb that HIMYM exhibited even in its pilot episode is present in the early installments of the Hulu series, which looks and tastes like a cake on “Nailed It.”
“How I Met Your Mother” may not have been everyone’s pint of beer — and boy, did some of those Barney gags about tricking women into bed not age well — but it was never afraid to have a point of view. “How I Met Your Father” (created by the writing team of Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who also adapted the TV series “Love, Victor” from the film “Love, Simon”) simply feels like a void — an absence where interesting characters or relatable scenarios or effective attempts at wit and charm should be.
The bones of the old show are there. A surprisingly miscast Duff — too bland as the ingenue, with little of the spark of her scheming scene-stealer on “Younger” — plays 29-year-old Sophie, a photographer who’s gone out with practically half the guys on Tinder in her search for the One. Sophie lives with her sexually adventurous bestie Valentina (Francia Raisa), who brings home her version of a stray puppy: a cartoonishly out-of-touch British aristo (Tom Ainsley) cut off from the family purse strings who refers to his new friends as “you poors.” Just like your 20s, right?
The ever-breathy Cattrall replaces the late Bob Saget as narrator, appearing with a glass of wine in hand from the year 2050, her (unseen) college-age son blanching at the TMI of his mom’s overshares about her wild-oats years. Winking at the improbability of the framing device doesn’t make it any more believable. And in the thicket of reboot culture, when our eyes are constantly redirected toward the greatness of the past, it’s hard to be persuaded that anyone in the future would be nostalgic for our derivative decade.
The reboot’s sole smart decision may be to refrain from mapping the new characters onto the older archetypes. But we’ve still got hopeless romantic Sophie in a will-they-or-won’t-they with love cynic Jesse (a solid Chris Lowell), the accidental star of a viral video in which he’s rejected after a public proposal. Jesse lives with Sid (Suraj Sharma), the owner of the bar where the gang will hang out, and his adoptive sister Ellen (a promising Tien Tran), who’s eager to make New York her new home after finalizing her divorce from her wife back in Iowa.
Sure, “How I Met Your Father” is a lot more racially and sexually diverse than the original. It may superficially appear more like New York, but it doesn’t really feel like … anywhere. If “How I Met Your Mother” triumphed in finding a balance between capturing the zeitgeist and achieving a timeless quality, “How I Met Your Father” doesn’t seem to be channeling any era. Certainly not 2022; the clubbing scenes gave me an imagined omicron scratchy throat. But not exactly 2019 or 2023, either, with its not-quite-right references to Tinder and its squeamishness about porn. (In one of the few gags that work, a too-modern sex toy that connects to a smartphone sours the mood by playing “The Daily” podcast.) An off-putting prudishness pervades the show; what’s the point of following New York’s most uptight singles?
But the best parts of “How I Met Your Mother” live on in network television, albeit in an entirely different context. Watching HIMYM, one always got the sense that its creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, were chronicling the micro-culture of their friend group — an impression that extends to the newish single-cam comedy “Grand Crew” from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Insecure” alum Phil Augusta Jackson.
Nicole Byer headlines this NBC sitcom about Black wine-sippers in Los Angeles. But the cast is majority-male, and the introductory installment begins with a faux-tweedy treatise on the softer side of Black masculinity. The series protagonist, Noah (Echo Kellum), is a dopey, too-eager-to-get-married Ted Mosby type: As a kid, his Halloween costume was “a loving husband.” His sister, Nicky (Byer), calls him “soft like baby butt,” and their pals from their high school and college days (Justin Cunningham, Aaron Jennings and Carl Tart) pile on. As on HIMYM, the prevailing love language is letting friends know exactly how well you know them through endless, intimate taunts.
Arguably the buzziest midseason replacement show on broadcast TV, “Grand Crew” starts off strong and only gets stronger. It feels contemporary and specific in a way that “How I Met Your Father” could only dream of being. Arguments take place over group texts. Debates ensue about whether it’s more embarrassing to be a Black man caught by friends crying or naked. A stack of Ben Carson books in a romantic prospect’s home gives Nicky doubts about their long-term future. A future story line about the difficulties of dating as a vegan bypasses all the usual lazy jokes. If “How I Met Your Father” is about nobody nowhere, “Grand Crew” feels like the kind of show about the guy behind you in line at the coffee shop.
The writing and direction has a little ways to catch up with the cast, which comprises mostly unknowns who have already solidified into a slick ensemble. In the second episode, the show adds Grasie Mercedes’s Fay, a quirky young bartender with more (hilariously improbable) life experience than the rest of the characters put together. Refreshing as the character is, she’s an inevitable reminder that “Grand Crew” has some trouble finding its tone in its early outings. But, along with the rest of her new friends, she does what a show like this is meant to do: make us look forward to hanging out again next week.
How I Met Your Father premieres Tuesday on Hulu with Episodes 1 and 2; new episodes will stream weekly.
Grand Crew airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.