Now and again a sitcom comes along that undermines all “The form’s broken” hand-wringing about multicamera-and-couch comedy. Having managed that trick two years ago with “Two and a Half Men,” CBS does it again with this bright, cleverly constructed half-hour that features a topnotch cast and a sly, too-good-to-give-away twist. It’s not often that a pilot has the polished feel of a show that’s been around for a while, but “How I Met Your Mother” should be a solid bridge between “King of Queens” and the aforementioned “Men.”
Told in flashback as the off-camera dad (voiced by Bob Saget) addresses his two disengaged kids with what he promises will be “a long story,” the series pops back to present day, where Ted (Josh Radnor) is on the prowl for the perfect woman. The self-imposed pressure mounts when buddy Marshall (Jason Segel) pops the question to g.f. Lily (Alyson Hannigan, in another scene-stealing comedic turn along the lines of her “American Pie” role).
The major breakout here, though, is Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie!) as Ted’s peculiar friend Barney, who delights in wearing suits and fixates on strange trends, such as the hotness of Lebanese girls, who have somehow supplanted “half-Asian girls” on the hot scorecard.
A romantic at heart, Ted is convinced that he’s been struck by the proverbial thunderbolt when he espies Robin (Cobie Smulders), though his honesty about that instant infatuation goes from cute to a little worrisome. And just when he decides she might be “the one,” as Lily so eloquently puts it, Ted loses his nerve and runs away “like a little bitch.”
Series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have assembled a smart and funny core of characters, but what makes the series most fascinating is the promise of how the title will unfold through this season and possibly beyond. In that respect, the structural device proves more than a gimmick in that it actually helps skirt some of the “Will they or won’t they, and if they will, then when?” questions that have historically plagued episodic romantic comedies in the past.
CBS has also smartly reconfigured its Monday block to maximize its “Raymond”-less lineup, though it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see “How I Met Your Mother” take a one-hour excursion post-“Men” should the less appealing “Out of Practice” falter.
Like the elder Ted says, it’s going to be a long story, so just consider this a very promising prologue.