DURING TV PILOT season in Hollywood earlier this year, Vancouver actress Cobie Smulders had to choose between auditioning for a legal drama or a situation comedy. To anyone following TV trends, it would have been a no-brainer—after all, crime is hot and sitcoms are dead. “I had to decide,” says Smulders, “it’s funny, it’s sweet and I love the characters, or I’m going to be a detective. So, I made my decision, and it was a pretty easy one.” She chose the comedy and landed the role of Robin, the perfect woman, in How I Met Your Mother, about twentysomething New Yorkers. The pilot was picked up, and just last week the show got the green light for a full season—one of four early-season hit comedies, including Everybody Hates Chris, My Name is Earl and The War at Home. Turns out, audiences, like Smulders, were in the mood for something light—resulting in a miraculous rebound for a genre that in recent years has been nothing but a disappointment.
Some blame goes to the networks, responsible for train wrecks like Whoopi and The Mullets. But the realityand crime-dramaobsessed audience was negligent too. This year, both parties have smartened up. Networks have taken a risk with non-traditional series like My Name Is Earl (trailer-park criminal goes straight after winning the lottery) and Everybody Hates Chris (embarrassing childhood of Chris Rock), despite the fact they have the same single-camera/no-laugh-track feel as the low-rated Arrested Development. Audiences, meanwhile, committed early on to these series, even though the creators are still working out the kinks. It’s only with How I Met Your Mother that neither party has had to compromise.
Mother is a formulaic sitcom, canned laughter and all, that from the start has been a knee-slapper with lovable characters. Think Friends minus Phoebe. Among a gang of five buddies, Marshall and Lily are engaged (like Monica and Chandler if they hooked up in their early 20s). Their roommate Ted (a less whiny Ross) is on a mission to find “The One.” Robin (a less ditzy Rachel) seems to be it—but just wants to be friends. And Barney (Joey in a suit) is the
to write about our lives -lo and behold, it ends up kind of looking like Friends'
obnoxious fifth wheel. “It’s sort of unfortunate,” says Carter Bays, co-creator with Craig Thomas, “because we wanted to write about our lives, and as it happens we were twentysomething white guys living in New York. Lo and behold, it ends up kind of looking like Friends.”
It’s doubtful, though, that Friends would ever have considered making one of the leads a foreigner. “I was told today,” says Smulders, 23, “that they may be making Robin Canadian. They’re doing a Thanksgiving episode and I’m not going home and they’re like, ‘Why?’ and she’s like, ‘Because I’m Canadian.’ That would be awesome.” Smulders, once a teen model, was on the short-lived ABC drama Veritas in 2003. This year, she’s surrounded by cult faves. Co-star Jason Segel comes from much-adored high school drama Freaks and Geeks, and Alyson Hannigan played Willow, the lovable lesbian witch on Buffy the Vampire Slayer— though her Mother character is closer to her band-camp sex-fiend role in American Pie. And there’s Neil Patrick Harris, who’s defied all laws of TV stereotyping by going from Dr. Doogie Howser to the smarmy Barney. Smulders and Josh Radnor, who plays Ted, are the newbies—despite Radnor’s Tour Guide turn in Not Another Teen Movie.
This is Bays and Thomas’s first series, though they were writing collaborators for David Letterman, and on Quintuplets, Oliver Beene and American Dad. They were around when sitcoms were out of favour. “I went through periods where you’re just sort of writing things that are supposed to be funny and things that look like a sitcom,” says Bays, 30. “Now we’re writing about real life and things that we care about. That’s one of the things that a lot of these new shows have in common, like Everybody Hates Chris— he’s writing about his life.”
Of course not everyone’s with the program, and for now these smart, funny shows remain an exception to the sitcoms-suck rule. The War at Home, Twins, Freddie, Out of Practice and Hot Properties are fighting hard to keep the status quo. Mother help us all.
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