Aughts nostalgia is in full swing as of late. There’s a Matrix film in theaters next door to a Spider-Man movie featuring Tobey Maguire. “Gossip Girl” is back, “Sex and the City” is back, “iCarly” has somehow returned. The kids on TikTok even brought back the Mountain Goats for a hot minute. Crimped hair has yet to show itself again but at this point it just feels like a matter of time.
While the “Lizzie McGuire” reboot never made it past the pilot stage, Hilary Duff headlines the latest ‘00s nostalgia grab anyway as Sophie, the protagonist of the new Hulu series “How I Met Your Father,” the gender-flipped “sequel” to “How I Met Your Mother.” Now, “sequel” is in quotes here because the press notes indicate this is the preferred nomenclature and I endeavor to respect their wishes, even when, as in this particular instance, I do not understand them. There is only the most tenuous of ties to the original series, which I will not specify as aforementioned press notes also requested critics not give away this “spoiler.” Still, unless there is a deeper link to the original series yet to be revealed, “How I Met Your Father” is a sequel to “How I Met Your Mother” the way 2022 is a sequel to 2005—it comes later chronologically and that’s just about it.
Directed by the remarkably prolific Pamela Fryman, who helmed a whopping 196 episodes of “How I Met Your Mother,” the new iteration looks the part on a superficial level. However, to speak to the actual contents of the show, or at least the first four episodes made available for review, the most fitting term is perhaps not sequel or even reboot so much as regurgitation. As it turns out, gender-flipping a story like this does not actually change the game all that much, considering dating in modern-day New York City sucks really hard regardless of your gender or sexual orientation. The cast equivalencies are at a nearly one-to-one ratio, and the pilot in particular follows the formula of the original more than a little too closely for its own good.
Showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger pull out the most problematic elements of Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ original pilot without finding anything substantial to replace them. Instead of racist jokes about half-Asian women, there are no jokes. It is here, in the yawning chasm between identifying the problem and actually finding a solution, that “How I Met Your Father” primarily resides. There is, in a sense, nothing fundamentally wrong with the show, but there’s also nothing right about it either. It’s just a great big nothing.
This larger point is perhaps most succinctly illustrated by the 2050-set frame narrative, which, keeping on trend, does nothing. Actually, one small correction—the show has Kim Cattrall playing the older Sophie, which counts for a whole lot. Where “How I Met Your Mother” had older Ted off-screen, addressing his two children in frame, “How I Met Your Father” only shows us Cattrall, wandering around a rather generic apartment with a glass of Chardonnay in hand, FaceTiming a son we cannot see. Even Cattrall’s charisma can’t trump the inertia and flatness of the setup, which seems to exist for one reason: as some of Sophie’s potential love interests are men of color, the show clearly wants to keep the mystery of the father’s identity going as long as possible. It’s commendable that this new iteration aims to be less aggressively white than the original, but there’s no need for that to feel like it comes at the expense of the storytelling—these two things are certainly not mutually exclusive and should not feel as such.
The 2022 of “How I Met Your Father” feels like an alternate universe, not just because of the lack of Covid as much as all the other things about it that are totally untethered from reality. It’s a 2022 where a video of a public mortification still goes viral on Youtube, not TikTok; where hopeless romantic Sophie, a 29-year-old long-time resident of New York City, is constantly looking for Her Person—on Tinder. I believe every single episode screened for critics repeats a joke about Sophie having gone on “87 first Tinder dates” in the span of a year, as if the absurdity there was the 87 and not the fact that in the year 2022 a tech-aware Millennial is looking for a Serious Boyfriend on Tinder. It’s like going to a cabbage patch and being surprised when you can’t find a pumpkin.
Perhaps one of the most significant differences between the “sequel” and the original series is that instead of centering a longstanding group of friends, “How I Met Your Father” features two friend groups who promptly merge after best friends and roommates Sophie and Valentina (Francia Raisa) cross paths with fellow best friend-roommate pair Jesse (Christopher Lowell) and Sid (Suraj Sharma). While modern dating is Hell on earth, making new friendships as adults is hardly the easiest thing either. However, “How I Met Your Father” quickly crushes one of its few avenues for a divergence into something of significance. In the pilot, the foursome are strangers, but in the blink of an eye they’re the chummiest of old pals, organizing each other’s birthday parties and their go-to SOS call in times of trouble. The show just tosses all of the material it could have worked with—the merging of two friend groups into one, the opportunity to explore a dynamic that actually set itself apart from its predecessor—straight into the scrap heap. What it does explore is an entire episode built around the premise of a club in Manhattan featuring a seemingly infinite number of themed rooms. In Manhattan, where space is so famously easy to come by.
The funniest character in “How I Met Your Father” is Valentina’s recently disowned aristocratic boy-toy Charlie (Tom Ainsley), a solid new entry in the himbo canon. When Valentina advises him to tone down his posh-ness to try to blend in with average American guys, he attempts to start a conversation with the opener, “What’s your favorite entry-level sedan?” It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, but at least it does not feel quite as derivative as the rest of the show.
While “How I Met Your Mother” also had plenty of multi-cam sitcom cheese to it, there was authenticity, a connection to reality buried deep beneath the laugh track when the show was at its best. “How I Met Your Father” misses all of that spark and feels like watching the copy of a copy of a copy. It’s enough to fulfill a nostalgic craving in the most superficial sort of way, but far too flimsy to do anything else.
“How I Met Your Father” premiered on Hulu on January 18th. The first four episodes were screened for review.