CBS’s Sharper Image

You can’t exactly ignore the central device of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother: It kicks off each show. We see a couple of bored-looking kids from the year 2030 listening to their offscreen dad (Bob Saget’s voice) tell a story about his 20-something days that — voilà! — cuts quickly to a 30-minute flashback to 2005, which often contains a tantalizing clue to the origins of a great love. But really, does it matter? When you tune into a sitcom, you just want it to get to the good jokes — in this case about dating. In the long run, a sitcom’s setup means little. The big starting hurdle for any 30-minute network comedy is being funny. About anything. Audiences didn’t begin watching Friends because it was a case study in close-knit camaraderie, or Everybody Loves Raymond because they were thirsty for a look at the problems of adult children and their prying parents, or Sex and the City for the how-tos of newspaper-column writing. Only a handful of sitcoms in television history can tie an aspect of their greatness to a clever premise — Mary Richards’ single womanhood springs to mind — but for the most part it’s like this: The bar is just the bar, but when you assemble the right cast, sharp writers and likable characters, you get Cheers.Fortunately, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the creators of How I Met Your Mother, seem to understand that their bracketing from-the-future gimmick is nothing without the smooth-as-silk timing, sharp actors and well-crafted gags needed to win over viewers. (And so far, so good: The show has decent ratings and a full-season order.)Bays and Thomas aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, either; the recognizable roar of audience titters in this anti–laugh track era is the surest sign of that. They just want to crank out a polished, pleasing romantic comedy each week. The only detectable ambition is of that peculiar Hollywood variety, which isn’t about originality but about trying to re-create what’s worked in the past. So it goes without saying that the breezily charming How I Met Your Mother would love to be the next Friends — blowing up the minutiae of life to big comedy proportions while simultaneously sowing Ross-and-Rachel-like seeds. What’s been welcome so far is that they’ve kept that all-too-common stench of copycat envy off their otherwise modest enterprise.One reason is that this ensemble has already proved to be out-of-the-gate tight, a well-chosen mix of newish faces and familiar ones. Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders, as the will-they-or-won’t-they Ted and Robin, are immediately appealing actors who dutifully meet cute in the pilot and have successfully handled their “just friends” chores ever since. Rounding out the gang are the wonderful Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel, as a recently engaged pair whose coupledom spurs Ted to ramp up his perfect-mate-searching skills, and whose goofy romantic bliss plays like the perfect union of the sillier comic sensibilities from their respective alma maters: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaks and Geeks. And perhaps most consistently amusing is a business-attired Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser!) as the clique’s loudmouthed oddball: a serial skirt chaser and unspoken pickup failure, not to mention an unflagging source of dating-related theories (“Lebanese are the new half-Asians”) and wannabe catch phrases (“Suit up!” “Legendary!”). Time will tell if viewers take to this quintet as completely as they did the Central Perk crew — I already like that it’s a bar, not a coffee shop, that unites this gang, because it’s about time the trendiness of over-caffeination gave way to good old-fashioned alcohol-soaked shenanigans — but it seems as if How I Met Your Mother is the most legitimate knockoff yet of that youthful-urbanite juggernaut. The other bright sitcom on CBS is Out of Practice, which comes from a couple of seasoned Frasier hands — Emmy-winning executive producers Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd. Their brand of clashing-manners and clinking-tumblers wit is a welcome quality bump up for a CBS sitcom lineup seemingly ruled by harried, big-belly husbands and blue-collar hokum. But for Keenan and Lloyd, this new show is a deft lateral move, from one high-rise of well-heeled dysfunction to another, namely from Dr. Crane’s Seattle digs to the Manhattan apartment of just-turned-30 couples counselor Ben Barnes, played by Christopher Gorham. Ben’s a new divorcé who must contend with an M.D.-studded family of neurotics — Stockard Channing’s cardiologist mother, newly split from Henry Winkler’s gastroenterologist father, plus Ty Burrell’s womanizing plastic-surgeon brother and Paula Marshall’s gay ER-doc sister — who are all unable to stay out of his and each other’s lives. The implicit irony of each episode is that while Ben’s family dismisses his profession as anything but real doctoring, they’re all classic physician-heal-thyself cases. Ben’s job, the classy sheen and the creators’ pedigree do make Out of Practice a close kin to Frasier, but there’s a touch of Everybody Loves Raymond theatrics, too, in the general notion of feeling hopelessly tied to and desperate to escape one’s gene pool.The actors who make up the Barnes clan are lively, fun company because there isn’t that sense of gamesmanship you get from more guffaw-craven sitcoms where the one-liners aren’t just punch-ups, they’re delivered like actual punches. In Keenan and Lloyd’s world of dizzy, barb-tossing sophisticates, this group is confident and well-armed: Channing’s patented ladies-who-lunch tartness, Winkler’s nervous defensiveness, Burrell’s blasé arrogance, Marshall’s droll delivery and Gorham’s frustrated sensitivity all mix like a well-shaken cocktail, even if it’s the kind that gets tossed in somebody’s face. Only Jennifer Tilly’s bubble-voiced, boobied secretary — Dad’s new girlfriend, and basically a receptacle for airhead wisecracks — feels like a stale holdover from some ’50s Tom Ewell movie, which is a shame, since Tilly is a gifted comic actress. (She was even nominated for an Oscar 10 years ago for playing a ditz in Bullets Over Broadway; isn’t there an early-release program for actors trapped in this plight?) And while I’ve been waiting to see Channing rock her own sitcom since her self-titled series in the late ’70s, right now Burrell is my favorite, as mentioned in these pages a few weeks ago. He effortlessly ladles wolfish smarm over his line readings. After counseling a frequent lipo client by phone to do her part in losing weight, he hangs up and witheringly vents out loud, “In other words, I can suck the fat out of your ass, but I can’t get it out of your refrigerator.” Thankfully, Out of Practice isn’t a show in need of surgery, and may in fact bag a clientele of insult-humor aficionados addicted to its swift, cutting ways. How I Met Your Mother | CBS | Mondays, 8:30 p.m. Out of Practice | CBS | Mondays, 9:30 p.m.


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