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.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
How I Met Your Mother: Season 4 arrives on Blu on three 50GB discs, with the season's 24 episodes and special features split evenly across all three discs. Bad packaging fans will be relieved to know that Fox is sticking with that cover-card-glued-to-the-plastic-wrapping thing; it's handsome and not at all annoying!
Season 4 is the show's first on Blu-ray, and the 1080p image (via the MPEG-4 AVC codec) looks slightly better than in the series' high-def airings. Preserving the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the image is crisp and well-saturated, with skin tones natural and black levels deep and strong. Backgrounds sometimes lean to the fuzzy side, and the show's reliance on medium and wide shots keep us from getting much of a look at small details. But overall, it's a first-rate TV-to-Blu transfer.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is surprisingly active for a TV sitcom, with directional effects and music well-spread across the surround channels, and dialogue (and that damn laugh track) sharp and clear in the center. However, one wishes for more use of environmental sound in the rears (all those bar scenes could be a bit livelier), and the LFE channel is likewise underserved.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Well, they clearly put some effort into the bonus features, but they're still a bit underwhelming when compared to the previous season sets. First up, we have Audio Commentaries on five episodes. Show creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas appear on "Do I Know You?," and "The Best Burger in New York," while guest actors David Ellis Duncan and Evan Rock take on "I Love NJ" and writers Chuck Tatham, Joe Kelly, and star Radnor cover "The Naked Man." While not as strong as the platter of commentaries for season three (which had more cast involvement), these are funny, easygoing, and frequently informative.
Disc one includes a helpful "Season 3 Recap" (2:43), which concisely sums up the previous year's plotlines. Each set to date has included a very funny Gag Reel (7:26), and this one is no exception; it kicks off the disc two extras with some big laughs. We also get the "Barney Stinson: That Guy's Awesome Music Video" (1:04), a fuller look at the self-promo clip from the episode "The Possimpible."
The most substantial extra comes on disc three: "A Night With Your Mother" (15:25) is a panel discussion from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, with cast, producers, and writers. There are some smart (and funny) insights, but after watching similar, basically unedited, discussions on the Freaks and Geeks and The Wire, this heavily-edited piece (the actual discussion is even shorter than the 15 minutes, due to the feature's reliance on clips from the show) will leave you wishing they'd left more in. That said, the closing bit (I won't spoil it, but it'll remind you of The Naked Gun) is pretty damned good.
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.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.