Show finds group vibe

For a while, the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” could have been retitled “How We Remet Neil Patrick Harris.” The actor’s portrayal of Barney, a chauvinistic, self-centered dating machine, earned him an Emmy nomination last year and, more importantly, assured that he wouldn’t go to his grave saddled with the nickname “Doogie.”

But the third season, which wrapped in May, proved that the show is truly an ensemble effort with the other actors — Josh Radnor, Alyson Hannigan, Jason Segel and Cobie Smulders — given more opportunities to show off their inner goofs.

“I think at first the writers felt they understood Barney so well that they delegated the big laughs to him,” says Radnor, who plays Ted, the sitcom’s closest thing to a leading man. “But now I think they’ve decided all the characters can be heartwarming but also laugh-out-loud funny.”

It’s helped both the series and Radnor’s profile that the writers have all but abandoned the show’s original hook — who in the world is Ted’s future wife? — and focused on the camaraderie and chaos among five tight-knit friends.

“The notion about a guy trying to find a lady was an interesting concept, but over the long haul, it wasn’t sustainable,” Radnor says. “Ted was pretty sensitive early on, but they loosened him up and allowed him to be more complicated. At the beginning of this last season, I got to go over to Barney’s dark side, and that was terrifically fun to play.”

Radnor’s desire to make sure his character didn’t come across as an emotional sap made him hesitant about a scene that would turn out to be one of the show’s finest moments: Ted’s two-minute wooing of his tattoo remover (Sarah Chalke) through a breathless series of sidewalk “dates,” a single take, heavily choreographed routine that ranks as one of the sweetest moments of any show this past season.

“I couldn’t sleep the night after we shot that,” Radnor says. “I was really excited about having had the chance to exercise all my acting muscles.”

The cast’s other three stars also had their chances in recent months to shine: Smulders morphing into a giggily schoolgirl at the sight of her teenage crush and getting the chance to revive her Tiffany-inspired alter-ego, Robin Sparkles; Hannigan wrestling with her addiction to clothes shopping; Segel panicking over losing both his job and his self control.

“We said from the beginning that this was an ensemble show,” says Carter Bays, who co-created the series with his writing partner, Craig Thomas. “It’s exciting to have such a deep bench that’s capable of big comedy and big emotion.”

For better or worse, though, much of the attention to “Mother” this year was on a certain guest star, not the regulars. Britney Spears’ two appearances as a lovesick receptionist gave the series some significant spikes in the ratings and helped guarantee a fourth season. But Bays says the set is not about to install a revolving door for the flavor of the month to stop by.

“Our core audience turns in to see those five characters,” he says. “We’re not ‘The Love Boat.’”

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