A reboot comes with built-in warm feelings attached — nostalgia, fandom, general goodwill, brand recognition. The downside is that it also often arrives with some penance to do. Maybe the original had its problematic moments, maybe everyone always hated that one character even though they loved everyone else. Or maybe, just maybe, the creators had a magical thing going, lightning in a bottle, that rare combination of cast chemistry and strong characters and zippy writing, and then they went and squandered it with a twist ending that made some fans so mad they forgot how much they loved the series as a whole.
“How I Met Your Father,” Hulu’s new twist on the 2005-2014 series “How I Met Your Mother,” arrives knowing that the latter is the sin for which it must atone. Alas, at least based on the first four installments of a 10-episode season, it’s hard to imagine caring enough about the ending for it to matter. This version doesn’t clear the first significant hurdle: It has none of the alchemy of the original that kept us invested for nine seasons.
In fact, the strongest feeling it conjures is profound appreciation for how special the “Mother” iteration was. Remember discovering the blinding charisma of Cobie Smulders as Canadian pop star-turned-news reporter Robin? No wonder our sappy main character, Ted, fell for her immediately! Didn’t Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan, as Marshall and Lily, make being married look delightful? And, my God, Neil Patrick Harris’ dazzling turn as womanizer Barney! It revived a career that had languished for a decade after his teen breakout hit “Doogie Howser, M.D.”! The entire cast meshed so well, and was having so much fun. So were we.
So were we. Sigh.
But we’re here to talk about the new one. “How I Met Your Father” concerns Sophie, an almost-30 New York photographer, and her 2022 quest for love. As the narrator, we see Sophie in 2050, played by Kim Cattrall, telling the tale to her unseen son on a video call. (Who knows what life will be like in 2050, but this seems … like an awfully long story for a video call? Are they in another pandemic lockdown with nothing to do?) In the present day, she’s played by Hilary Duff, who starts the saga rushing to a Tinder date. She befriends her Uber driver, Jesse (Chris Lowell), and his riding-along friend, Sid (Suraj Sharma), who happens to be proposing to his fiancé that night. The date doesn’t work out in the end, but Sophie is forced to find Sid and Jesse later, at Sid’s engagement party, because of a contrived phone mix-up after which they will start being best friends.
The set-up gets even lazier from there. Added to this mix are Jesse’s adopted sister, Ellen (Tien Tran), who just moved to the city after leaving her wife in Iowa; Sophie’s sexually adventurous roommate, Valentina (Francia Raisa); and the British guy Sophie impulsively brought home from an overseas Fashion Week trip, Charlie (Tom Ainsley). “One thing led to another, and now he lives with us!” Valentina explains to Sophie, in what feels like a parody of establishing a sitcom premise. This sixsome are heretofore each other’s only main chums and proceed to hang out together constantly at the bar that Sid conveniently owns. This is the series’ first major misstep. There’s little of that sense of shared history that made the original, or a predecessor like “Friends,” feel so lived-in. Seeing the series’ one major nod to the original — that Sid and Jesse now live in the old “How I Met Your Mother” apartment — only underscores the lack of that feeling.
This is the third attempt to make a female-led spinoff of the original, with a 2014 version starring Greta Gerwig (and Meg Ryan as the future-her in 2044) coming the closest to fruition. That script’s writers, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, served as co-creators of this version as well, with original creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas executive producing. The various previous drafts might explain why some of the references feel outdated (FOMO, PBR, and a #fail viral video feature prominently).
But it doesn’t explain why we get so much awkward, sitcommy dialogue that feels more like it’s from the ‘90s, the awkwardness underscored by a laugh track that thinks the show is funnier than it is. Sophie, in exchanging text messages with her potential Tinder date, tells him Buzz Lightyear was her first crush. His response: “An astronaut made of plastic. Freaky!” (Cue laugh track!) Valentina asks Charlie if he knows why she fell for him. He replies, “Because my charm is all boy but my body’s all man?” (Cue laugh track!) Some lines sound literally like jokes rejected from the original run of “How I Met Your Mother,” like when they yell “trademark!” whenever someone coins a term — i.e., calling it “kegfit” when they have to haul heavy kegs upstairs for a party. (Laugh track!)
The first few episodes do contain glimmers of hope. There are moments of genuine bonding among the characters, as when Charlie and Ian connect over Ian’s admiration of Charlie’s favorite cufflinks. Sophie starts a promising romance in the third episode with a vice principal named Drew played by the irresistible Josh Peck, who has some solid lines. (“I make overnight oats,” he says when she asks if he’s as mature as he seems. “I’m an extremely together person.”) In fact, the cast is full of some of the most watchable and likable stars around, including Duff, Lowell and Raisa.
But they all deserve better than this. The best that can be said about “How I Met Your Father” is that it makes us want to go watch “How I Met Your Mother.” We didn’t appreciate what we had then until we saw this.
“How I Met Your Father” debuts on Hulu on January 28.