You'll forgive me for getting too personal with How I Met Your Mother--but we have some history, this program and I. Its third season DVD set was among my first reviews for this very site, and it provided an excuse to finally catch up with the show; to prepare for that review, my wife and I marathoned the first two seasons, for the first time, over the course of two previous weekends. So that review was written in the flush of early fandom, but I don't think that had anything to do with my enthusiasm for the show--I compared it favorably to Seinfeld, and meant it. I remained a fan, but by the time I was reviewing season five, two years later, the show's quality was perceptibly lower: my review ended with a shark-jumping reference. I did not hold out much more hope for HIMYM.
And let's not overstate the case: the show has not made a full recovery. There are some major problems with the show's seventh season, and we'll get to them presently. But it is a relief to report that the program has come back from the brink, and while it may be showing its age in ways that set it apart from those early glory years, and while its writers are running laps around the same track a bit too transparently, there is some life left in this program yet--season seven is sweet, and likable, and often very funny, less vintage Seinfeld than late-run Friends. That's a description that, for some of us, is descriptive without being pejorative.
The plot remains the same: in the 2030 wrap-around segments, middle-aged Ted (never seen, but voiced by Bob Saget) is telling his teenage daughter and son the story of how he met their mother. We then flash back to our viewing present, 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).
By this point in the run, they're making jokes about how long this device is dragging things out--in the very first episode of the season, middle-aged, voice-over Ted tells his kids that "We're totally, almost, not that close to the end." This sense that the show's writers are yanking our chains is the primary source of irritation for long-time viewers; in an early episode flashing ahead to Barney's wedding, Lily tells Ted, "the bride wants to see you." See, that's just fucking with us--they won't even tell us who Barney is going to end up with?
Well, no, because that would keep them from continuing to drag out the Barney/Robyn/Ted love triangle; both of Robin's potential pairings are taken out for another spin this season, in what feels like either desperation or an attempt to cut the costs of guest cast. Both match-ups have been flogged too often, and they just feel, at this point, like the show's increasingly desperate attempt to create a series-long Ross-and-Rachel arc without settling on who the Ross is going to be.
So those are the complaints. The good news is that the series continues, in many instances, to do what it does well. They've had a knack, since season one, for the Seinfeldian coining of expressions, and there are several good ones here ("pregnancy brain" leaps to mind). There is some welcome experimentation with the show's basic structure, with episodes turned over to other narrators--Robyn takes over one in the form of a therapy session and another in a Ted-style story to her children about she met their father, while Marshall gives his recently departed father a graveside update on another show.
The show's writers remain savvy at intercutting the A/B plots in the forms of stories told while another is unfolding (the "Ducky Tie" episode, set at a teppanyaki restaurant, is a highlight), and will occasionally blow up the structure altogether in interesting ways (see the "Burning Beekeeper" episode). Though it is--like Seinfeld and Friends, admittedly--one of those New York-set shows that's shot in Los Angeles, they continue to nail the little details of NYC life, from the experience of riding out a hurricane to the pull of living in the suburbs to the pick-up bar nature of late-night commuter trains. It's a show that hasn't always done right by guest-star stunt-casting, but Kal Penn (in a nine-episode arc as Robyn's new, good-guy boyfriend) is a good, snug fit with the ensemble, and the periodic appearances by Martin Short and Chris Elliot are welcome. And while some of the show's earlier attempts to balance comedy and pathos were a touch clunky, they go down smoother this year, particularly in the lovely New Year's Eve episode.
Video & Audio:
As usual, we get a broadcast-quality anamorphic widescreen image, clean and crisp with the kind of pleasant saturation and dimensional quality we've come to expect from the series. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is likewise adequate without dazzling--we don't need to be dazzled by a dialogue-heavy sitcom--though there are a few moments of genuine immersion and LFE engagement, most of them music inspired (the ninjas during Barney's version of Julius Caesar, the pounding music of Marshall and Lily's stereo during their home's takeover by a neighbor kid).
English SDH, Spanish, French, and Chinese subtitles are also included.
Audio Commentary is offered up for three episodes: "The Best Man" (by co-creator/executive producers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas), "The Drunk Train" (by writers Craig Gerard and Matthew Zinman), and, the best of the bunch, "Karma" (by actors Harris and Becki Newton). Deleted Scenes are spread across all three discs for the corresponding episodes: "The Naked Truth," "Ducky Tie," and "The Slutty Pumpkin Returns" on disc one (4:02 total), "Disaster Averted," "Tick, Tick, Tick..." and "The Drunk Train" on disc two (2:46 total), and "No Pressure," "Karma," "Good Crazy," and "The Magician's Code, Part 2" (5:26 total) on disc three.
"Neil Patrick Harris Gets His Star" (4:32) follows NPH to his ceremony receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Segel and Joss Whedon are seen giving testimonials to Mr. Harris, who gives a charming and funny acceptance speech. "Guest Star Powers" (3:32) briefly interviews some of the season's guest stars about their special skills. "How We Wrote Your Mother" (9:48) takes a look at how the show's writers use their own lives and stories in the show, while "How We Make Your Mother" (9:05) goes behind the scenes on the season finale. And finally, we have the Gag Reel (4:42), always a highlight of these sets; this one is no exception.
Your feelings about How I Met Your Mother at this point in its run may well hinge on how attached you are to its central conceit. For many of us, the titular gimmick and accordant structure were what set HIMYM apart from it's four-camera, laugh-track brethren, but it does often feel like they're just being coy and cruel by now, using the promise of an eventual pay-off to enable the kind of break-ups and cheating and almost-but-not-quite-getting-back-together shenanigans that we've all gotten quite tired of in Sitcom Land. Get too attached to this idea that we're ever going to find out who the mother is, and you'll make yourself crazy; it's better to just relax and enjoy the fun of a slightly aged but still enjoyable comic ensemble.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and 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. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.