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The TV Rom-com Has Evolved and Left ‘How I Met Your Father’ Behind

In the eight years since ‘How I Met Your Mother’ concluded, television has expanded the scope and ambition of romantic stories. The result is a spinoff that feels frozen in time.

Hulu/Netflix/HBO Max/Amazon Prime/Ringer illustration

On March 31, 2014, CBS aired the final episode of How I Met Your Mother, the nine-season, 208-episode answer to the titular premise. Seven years, nine months, and 18 days later, Hulu premiered the first two episodes of How I Met Your Father, a show with an identical concept and only slightly altered execution. Much like its predecessor, How I Met Your Father turns the genesis of a relationship into a guessing game, narrated by an older version of its protagonist in the semi-distant future. The main difference is that in this iteration, the protagonist is a woman, and her future partner is a man.

Eight years is a lot of time, especially in the fast-changing landscape of 21st-century TV. Much of that change is summed up by How I Met Your Father’s distribution hub: While How I Met Your Mother aired on broadcast network CBS, its informal spinoff streams on Hulu. The shift to streaming, a pivot that’s rapidly reshaped an entire industry, has also led to narrower trends in subgenres like the relationship comedy—ones that influence the legacy of How I Met Your Mother, but apparently not the wisdom of rebooting it with such minimal changes.

How I Met Your Mother ostensibly traces how architect Ted Mosby meets the mother of his children, whom he addresses via voice-over. (The elder Ted was voiced by the late Bob Saget.) Before long, though, the demands of a hit show began colliding with that central promise. As long as audiences wanted more episodes, How I Met Your Mother kept producing them—which required postponing its long-awaited reveal. Cristin Milioti didn’t even make her first on-screen appearance as the Mother, née Tracy, until the penultimate season finale. How I Met Your Mother was an enjoyable sitcom about a group of friends in the big city, but it wasn’t really about the defining encounter implied by its title.

Just a few months after How I Met Your Mother ended its run, FX premiered You’re the Worst, which made the prior show’s destination its starting point. How I Met Your Mother built up to single meet-cute; You’re the Worst understood the meet-cute for what it is: the beginning of a much larger, more complex story. For five seasons, ending in 2019, You’re the Worst tracked the highs and lows of a single relationship between misanthropes Jimmy and Gretchen. It was a first in a series of projects, including Amazon’s Catastrophe and Netflix’s Love, to use television’s length to their advantage, tracing bonds more complex and enduring than a typical get-together plot. What How I Met Your Mother treated as a denouement, such series took as a rich text. Finding a soulmate doesn’t have to be the end of one’s story—in fact, quite the opposite.

This cluster of shows was part of a larger migration. Throughout the late 1990s and early aughts, romantic comedies were the province of films and the movie stars that led them. With the decline of the mid-budget, adult-oriented feature and the rapid expansion of TV, that balance started to shift. (Remaking High Fidelity as a show felt especially symbolic.) The trend was further accelerated by the rise of limited and anthology series, which offered a happy medium between a one-off story and a multi-season exploration. From the second installment of Fleabag to the latest edition of Love Life, the rom-com has proved every bit as well-suited to the season-length story as crime or horror. Not that the genre couldn’t also thrive in a more conventional TV structure: Lovesick flourished once it ditched the name Scrotal Recall, and Starstruck will return for a second season next month, at least in the UK.

In light of all this progress, the addictive hook of How I Met Your Mother looks less and less novel in hindsight. Which is inevitable, even good—a sign of how much TV has embraced and built on the idea of centering a romantic connection. It also raises the bar for an update, which has to reckon with not just its inspiration, but everything that comes after it.

How I Met Your Father wasn’t supposed to take this long. Back when How I Met Your Mother was first winding down, studio 20th Century Fox TV produced a pilot called How I Met Your Dad, cowritten by How I Met Your Mother creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas—Emily Spivey shared script credit—and starring Greta Gerwig. (Gerwig taking a lucrative TV gig at the potential expense of making Lady Bird is one of Hollywood’s great Sliding Doors scenarios.) Though that pilot never made it to series, the concept was revived in 2016, first helmed by partners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, then by Alison Bennett, a former producer on You’re the Worst. Finally, Aptaker and Berger rejoined the show and created the version we see today.

All that behind-the-scenes upheaval ate up the better part of the decade. The result is a show that feels almost frozen in time. How I Met Your Father may gender-flip the basic setup, but protagonist Sophie (Hilary Duff) is still white, heterosexual, middle class, and in possession of a glamorous, creative job—in this case, photography. There are some updates to the original’s formula: We actually see the older version of Sophie, played by Kim Cattrall, and she explicitly tells us one of the men in the pilot is her son’s father, suggesting How I Met Your Father doesn’t intend a similarly drawn-out mystery around the title character’s identity.

But otherwise, members of How I Met Your Father’s ensemble map neatly onto the original show’s blueprint, which in turn map onto stock sitcom archetypes: Sophie’s roommate, Valentina (Francia Raisa), is the raunchy, adventurous best friend, à la Barney Stinson; music teacher Jesse (Christopher Lowell) is the clear love interest. Much like Robin Scherbatsky, even if he doesn’t end up having kids with Sophie, he seems fated to end up with her in the long run. The show has diversified its supporting cast: Jesse’s sister Ellen (Tien Tran), for instance, is adopted and gay. Yet the foundation remains untouched, preserved in amber first poured back in 2005.

Cattrall’s presence instantly calls to mind And Just Like That … , the Sex and the City revival she pointedly declined to be a part of. For that show’s many faults, it at least makes an effort to modernize its themes, with some attempts (the indignities of aging) more successful than others (Che Diaz). The third season of Master of None was a rom-com told from the perspective of a gay woman, hardly the genre’s typical protagonist. Catastrophe followed its primary pair into the depths of married life, examining how a connection stands up to the tests of young children and difficult in-laws. The rom-com has adapted in content as much as its form, which makes it all the more striking when How I Met Your Father sticks to an increasingly dated template.

But form, too, has its own role to play. It’s not unheard of for streaming services to produce multi-camera comedies, despite the style’s historic association with broadcast. (Netflix aired three seasons of One Day at a Time, a reboot as thoughtful and extensive as How I Met Your Father is not.) It’s still unusual to see such an old-school structure on a new-school platform, and the laugh track instantly evokes a retro feel that’s hardly helped by tired jokes about dating apps and FOMO. Prior to the events of the pilot, Jesse’s claim to fame is starring in a viral failed proposal video, making How I Met Your Father the latest show to display a tenuous grasp on what goes viral and how long people remember it. I scroll past videos of bungled stunts on my TikTok feed every day; I wouldn’t necessarily recognize their subjects on the street, as Jesse sometimes is.

In the end, How I Met Your Father has neither throwback charm nor a fresh take on its material. For the former, one could simply rewatch How I Met Your Mother, which is also streaming on Hulu; for the latter, one could choose from any one of the many shows that have carried the rom-com torch into a new, more sophisticated, often auteur-driven era. After such a lengthy hiatus, the How I Met Your … concept has reemerged into a much more crowded ecosystem. It simply can’t compete.

A previous version of this piece misstated the narrative link between the spinoff and the original series.