At the moment, there are more good comedies on the air than during any given year in the last decade, but for the most part, these shows are filmed single-camera style—meaning one camera captures each take, in the manner of a movie or a TV drama. This breaks with TV comedy tradition in a number of ways. There have been popular single-camera comedies in the past (The Andy Griffith Show and M*A*S*H, for two), but most sitcoms were essentially filmed plays. The actors performed in front of a live studio audience, and their performances were captured on three or more cameras. The format was invented for I Love Lucy, and it didn’t change much over the decades; if Desi Arnaz were to drop in on a taping of According to Jim, he’d have no trouble following along.
CBS is the last real hold-out on the multi-camera front. All five of its sitcoms are filmed at least partially with multiple cameras, but the one that stands out is How I Met your Mother (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), which blends both single-camera elements (a lot of the show’s cutaways and flashbacks are filmed in this manner, and the production schedule also mirrors a single-camera sitcom, allowing more time for more scenes and complicated camera set-ups) with multi-camera elements (the scenes that take place on the show’s standing sets). Tapes of the completed episodes are shown to an audience, and their reactions are recorded for the show’s laugh track. It’s surprising that the hybrid approach hasn’t become more pervasive; it combines the versatility of a single-camera show plus the safety net of a traditional sitcom.
How I Met Your Mother (or HIMYM) is a sterling example of the hybrid sitcom. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it has a nearly perfect ensemble cast; indeed, in the show’s first season, the actors elevated weak material just by playing the hell out of it. All five of the show’s lead actors (Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris) are precisely cast to fit the their incredibly specific roles within the ensemble. In that way, the show earns comparisons to Friends, another sitcom about young single New Yorkers. Also like Friends, HIMYM traffics in soapy plotlines, and its characters have evolved in increasingly eccentric but believable directions. For instance, just as Joey started out as a sort of dumb guy stereotype and then graduated to a very specific kind of overly sensitive himbo on Friends, thanks largely to Matt LaBlanc’s portrayal, Jason Segal has taken a fairly stereotypical sitcom role (the best friend in a committed relationship) and turned it into a marvel of specificity. His Marshall is the kind of guy who spent much of high school reading back issues of Fortean Times and being lonely, only to find himself out in the real world and capable of landing both a pretty girl and a dream job.
Segal’s colleagues have likewise filled out some pretty basic parts. Smulders is the Jennifer Aniston of the group—pretty, but able to play funny when needed (even more so in Season Two, which hasn’t required her to dance through the show’s soapy contrivances as much). Hannigan, who has one of the most expressive faces on TV, finds the right combination of alluring and slightly nerdy. Harris’ Barney, the lovable freewheeling cad of the group, invests every line with casual glee. Radnor’s Ted, the center of the show, was seen as the weakest link by many in the first season (including myself). His performance was good, and his joke delivery improved as the season went on, but his character had a propensity toward stalker-like behavior. What’s more, Radnor just seemed a little bland. In the second season, though, Ted has entered into a relationship with Smulders’ character, Robin; his brand of romanticism plays better within the confines of a relationship than it did when he was single. Now that Ted’s not required to continually drive the show’s central plot device (the question is in the show’s title, and, in an interesting bit of sitcom fatalism, we know Ted doesn’t marry Robin), Ted is free to play straight man, something Radnor’s better at than being a joke machine. And somehow, Radnor and the writers have made “bland” a persona. Ted’s a precise type of bland, the kind that can get away with lying to a girlfriend or wronging a friend just by being vaguely affable.
The more effective use of Ted isn’t the only Season Two improvement. The writers have also buckled down and figured out a way to make the comedy work, driving it from their characters rather than generic punchlines (in the first season, the jokes would occasionally sound like jokes and look like jokes without quite landing). Now a lot of the laughs come from the show’s cutaways, which have always worked; but the writing has also expanded character quirks (like Marshall’s fear of Bigfoot—or Sasquatch, as he insists on calling the creature) and added elaborate running gags (like Barney being mis-named Swarley at a coffee shop, only to find the nickname catching on).
The series also has a more confident voice. HIMYM is a long, rambling story told to Ted’s future children (Bob Saget narrates) and there are digressions and bits and pieces that loop back on themselves. The break with conventional format sometimes borders on gimmicky, but mostly it works, and in a genre that too often feels hidebound by structure, it sets this sitcom apart. The best episode to date is still season one’s “Drum Roll, Please,” a love story told through a series of interconnecting flashbacks that segue via an identity mystery and a fantastic cake. But Season Two has employed structural variety in nearly every episode.
HIMYM is the sort of thing that NBC would have turned into a massive, massive hit 15 years ago, but for all its charm, it’s not indispensible TV. That may be why, despite its likeability, it manages to attract fewer than 10 million viewers every week. It doesn’t help that CBS is probably the wrong venue. Many of show’s references seem pitched to those born between 1975 and 1985; not a lot of people in that demographic watch the older-skewing CBS. And in the first season, the show probably suffered from not delivering the sitcom revolution viewers might have thought they wanted. But in its second season, it’s worth catching week in and week out; it’s a perfect example of its (rapidly dying) genre, and it’s at the top of its game. Even a weak episode is worth watching just to see the ensemble members ping-pong off each other.