Posts Tagged ‘HIMYM’

Last Forever Part One

I would issue a spoiler alert, but something has to be of value in order to spoil. Instead, we have the final episode of How I Met Your Mother, in which everything the show has been building to is tossed aside with callous abandon and the only characters to get out unscathed are Marshmallow and Lilypad.

Truly, I’m more upset right now than I was after watching the Red Wedding. Senseless violence sounds like a warm blanket after what now feels like a nine-year emotional manipulation.

Sorry, I’ll try and get it together. Let’s begin.

On May 16, 2011, the How I Met Your Mother season 6 finale aired on CBS. In that episode, fans learned that the predestined wedding where Ted Mosby would meet the future mother of his children was actually that of his best friend/wingman Barney Stinson.

In the three years that followed (THREE YEARS!) audiences watched the evolution of Barney Stinson from a philandering cad to a more mature and loving adult who was ready to commit and marry Robin Cherbowsky. Their wedding took place last week, in a very touching episode that was hopeful and nostalgic for fans of the show.

In 15 minutes, Monday’s series finale laid waste to that relationship, showing us a future in which Barney and Robin enjoy three tumultuous years before calling it quits, allowing Barney to revert entirely back to his philandering ways and rendering the progression of the last three years moot in the process. Those feels you feeled during the wedding episode? Pointless.

But that was nothing, because the minute the couple’s eventual divorce was made known, the proverbial writing was on the wall for our protagonist and the titular mother. We were already teased that her life would be cut short by disease a few weeks ago, and with Robin and Barney’s union dissolved it was readily apparent how the show would end.

In 15 minutes the writers of How I Met Your Mother undid three years of character development for Mr. and Mrs. Stinson, and cheapened a nine-year search for Mrs. Mosby.

Sure, Ted gave a lovely monologue about how much his time with Tracy (*scoff*, Tracy) had meant to him and how he valued every moment with her. It’s a nice sentiment and not hard to believe that in the reality of the show is true. But as a viewer, forced to consume a loving couple’s entire 10-year relationship over the space of an hour through a rapid-fire series of vignettes, it felt like lip service.

The Mother was not the end of Ted’s story, but another diversion on a circular road that led him right back to where we began, blue french horn in hand, looking up into Robin’s window. The final statement of HIMYM is that Ted’s journey leads to Robin, and in another life they may have arrived there 20 years earlier without the necessity of killing off a very pretty brunette bass player.

The foundation of hope that supported the run of HIMYM, knowing that no matter how many times Ted fails he will eventually find the love of his life, crumbles. In fact, it’s a lie.

Ted wasn’t searching for the love of his life, he was merely looking for a fertile vessel to sire his children. The love of his life was there the whole time, and those of us who spent 9 years of Monday nights following along were dupes to expect otherwise.

It’s especially crushing when last week’s penultimate episode offered the perfect series sign-off. We watch the Stinson nuptials, we pass through the updates on our secondary characters, we see Mr. and Mrs. Mosby sharing their perfect “sometimes you just find things” exchange under the yellow umbrella, and that kids, is how I met your mother.

Beyond the flash-forwards the viewers had already seen (Marshall’s judgeship, the first date, Barney and Robin waking up from a hangover in someone else’s hotel room) the future would exist in the minds of the viewer, free to individually create the story they saw fit. Hopeful. Legendary.

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*The following grades refer ONLY to premiere episodes. In addition to a letter grade, I will also suggest — based on what the episode suggests for the season to come — that you “Subscribe” on Hulu, “Keep your eye on” for the odd episode here and there or “Kill and Bury,” which should be self-explanatory.

The Blacklist

James Spader is Raymond “Red” Reddington, a former Navy Man turned “Concierge Criminal” who tops the FBI’s most wanted list. One morning he inexplicably turns himself in to the authorities, offering to help track down the world’s nastiest criminals in exchange for a little hospitality and the chance to work with a hand-picked rookie Elizabteh Keen, played by Megan Boone.

What motivated Red to abandon his life of crime and help the authorities? What is his connection to Elizabeth? What’s up with Elizabeth’s husband? Those are among the many mysteries promised in NBC’s newest, shiniest thriller, which is probably the most cinematic piece of broadcast television I’ve seen since Lost.

Blacklist will either evolve into a rote case-of-the-week procedural that never delivers on its promises, or it will be a pulpy treat of international intrigue and mystery. It’s too early to tell, but for the time being Spader is clearly having a ball, and it’s infectious to watch.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

Hostages

The night before Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) is scheduled to operate on the president of the United States, she and her family are taken hostage in their home by a team of mercenaries led by Dylan McDermott, who is also a whatever-it-takes FBI agents with a daughter and hospitalized wife. Sanders is given a simple choice, either kill the president during surgery, or they kill her family.

Hostages is touted as a 15-episode story, rather than the beginnings of a new series, but it probably would’ve been better off as a late-summer feature film starring B-list talent. For a show about a conspiracy to kill a U.S. President, Hostages delivers the most boring 44-minutes I’ve ever seen. The central premise doesn’t manifest for 25 minutes — instead we see a laborious amount of setup establishing that each family member has a dark secret that DRAMA will probably be revisited at some point — and just when you think something might happen at the end, nope, nothing, nothing at all.

Grade: C

Class: Kill and Bury

Mom

Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory, has become the reigning champion of creating derivative comedies that score ratings gold for CBS. While the quality of his latest, Mom, is on par with those previous entries — qualitatively falling somewhere between 2.5 and TBBT — the tone of the show is an awkward mishmash of dramatic plots violently buried beneath the thunder of a laugh track.

Anna Farris stars as the titular mom, she’s 6 months sober and working to heal the broken relationship between herself and her two children. Her mother, played by the always-game Allyson Janney is two years sober and working to repair her relationship with Anna Farris. Oh, and Farris’ teenager daughter is apparently pregnant and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

So it’s a multi-camera sitcom about intergenerational social ills? HILARIOUS! The pilot isn’t so much filled with jokes as it is commentary on the failures of modern society (sample: “My mother taught me how to beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady”) that would be more at home in a two-hour docu-drama on Lifetime than the light-hearted stuffing on CBS’ Monday comedy block. I still don’t know why it’s funny but at least the in-studio audience (who sound like they’re being paid by the chuckle) let me know when I’m supposed to laugh.

Grade: D

Class: Kill and Bury

How I Met Your Mother

The long-awaited Mother has arrived and she’s…actually quite charming. I’ll admit I bristled at the reports that HIMYM’s final season would unfold in the 55-hour leadup to Barney and Robin’s wedding, but having now seen the premiere my fears are assuaged. Showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have not confined themselves to a jail cell, but are using the same time-jumps we’ve grown accustomed to give us just enough peaks at Ted and the Mother’s future bliss to satisfy fans without sacrificing the show’s central premise. And, with a long weekend wedding promising a host of cameos from past characters (Ranjit!) it looks like we fans may just get the happy ending we’ve been waiting for.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

Castle

After six seasons, the team over at Castle pretty much have their formula set in stone. While that stays true, the writers have at least given themselves something of a challenge now that Beckett is living in D.C. working for the FBI on classified cases Castle can’t help her with.

Last season’s cliffhanger ending is dealt with quickly and satisfactorily before a quick two-month time jump. Castle is struggling with the long-distance nature of his relationship with Beckett and naturally inserts himself into Beckett’s latest case. Typical shenanigans ensue.

The show is as charming as ever but it’s beginning to show signs of age. Now that CasKet are officially a couple, I think it might be time to focus on one good season and send our heroes off with a thank you and goodnight.

Grade: B

Class: Keep and Eye On

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Things with “Marvel” on the poster tend to be liquid gold, so it’s natural that the superhero machine’s foray into television is the buzziest new entry of the fall season. Starring a resurrected Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and a rag-tag team of special agent misfits, this show is about the decidedly human arm of the organization that helps The Avengers save the world.

So far that buzz appears to be satisfactorily met, with the first-hour laying the groundwork for what could be a winning formula. Joss Whedon’s signature blend of action and wit is ever-present (as is his pension for recycling actors, like Firefly’s Ron Glass), the set pieces are grand, the gadgetry is eye-popping and the sexual tension between our requisite will-they-won’t-they-couple is present, even if Brett Dalton has a face like a block of wood.

The first half of the pilot is considerably better than the last, which rushes to wrap-up the freak of the week plot introduced in the opening seconds. And if you haven’t seen the preceding Marvel films, particularly The Avengers and Iron Man 3, you may be lost by one or two things in the pilot, but I don’t see that as being a serious problem or one that will persist beyond the first episode.

Grade: B+

Class: Subscribe

The Goldbergs

Take HIMYM, Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years, put it in a blender on high and then pour it out on top of a screaming Jeff Garlin and you have The Goldberbs, a comedy about a quirky family navigating the 1980s and told from the perspective of the youngest son, who’s adult-alter ego Patton Oswalt narrates via voice over.

Perhaps it was the low expectations bred by the promos but I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the pilot. It’s more of a riff on the 80s than a family comedy, which IMO is a good call because the 80s were ridiculous and family comedies typically aren’t that funny (I know there’s people out there who enjoy Raising Hope and The Middle, I just don’t know why). At some point the writers may run out of roller rink and slinky jokes to tell, at which point The Goldbergs will have to deal with awkward teen pregnancy and drug abuse plotlines. I hope I’m wrong, but at least the pilot made me laugh.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep and Eye On

Trophy Wife

Malin Akermin is Kate, the cute blonde who – for reasons I can’t explain – meets and marries an older man (Bradley Whitford) who is twice-divorced and a father of three. It’s not that the show is particularly bad, or woefully un-funny, but Trophy Wife carries a sense of utter pointlessness. I can’t imagine what audience is asking for a show like this, or what niche ABC thinks they’re serving that isn’t already watching the much-better Modern Family.

Speaking of Modern Family, watching Trophy Wife made me realize exactly what makes MF work. Yes, the Pritchett-Delgado clan is one of the best ensembles ever put together, but that includes the child actors. If Luke, Manny and Lilly weren’t able to deliver a line, their characters would be the cloying dead weight that drags the whole ship down.

That, in essence, is Trophy Wife’s problem. The four adult actors are likeable enough, but every time one of the children spoke I found myself eyeing the magazine on my coffee table. I would suggest a remedy, but I don’t think Disney-owned ABC would be interested in my modest proposal.

Grade: C+

Class: Kill and Bury

Lukcy 7

Lucky 7 is about a group of convenience store employees who win the lottery. I would write a synopsis of each character’s plot, but this show simply isn’t worth the time that would take. Looking beyond the shoddy acting and plot pacing, there is absolutely nothing compelling about anyone on screen. By the end of the episode, I honestly didn’t care if the characters lived or died. As far as I’m concerned, a Sharknado struck the city the second the closing credits rolled, wiping out everyone and everything.

Grade: D-

Class: Kill and Bury

Modern Family 

In probably the least surprising “twist” of the new fall premieres, Mitch and Cam respond to the recent SCOTUS decision on Prop 8 by…getting engaged (duh!). Here’s hoping co-creator Steve Levitan makes good and his offer to let Anne Romney officiate the ceremony. It’s not like Mitt has a political future she could damage, plus it would be ratings gold.  All in all, a solid but hardly earth-shattering episode for the recent Emmy winner.

Grade: B+

Class: Subscribe

Back in the Game

The uber-charming Maggie Lawson is all-but-unknown to anyone who doesn’t watch Psych on USA, which is a shame since I doubt that this half-hour little league baseball comedy is the vehicle that will launch her into the mainstream. The pilot, which sees Lawson’s down on her luck single mother move back in with her surly father (James Caan) and take over coaching duties of her son’s band-of-misfit team, suffers no grave sins but instead is largely innocuous, faint praise in the “Golden Age of Television.”

The table-scraps baseball team (called “The Angles” due to a typo on their jerseys) could make for some good family-friendly fodder and for now they’ve avoided the typical child-actor curse of being comedy anathema (see: Trophy Wife). I don’t have high hopes, but who knows, I’ve been wrong before.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

The Michael J. Fox Show

MJF has to be one of the most likeable men alive, so it’s hard to find fault with his return to television in the eponymous multi-camera NBC sitcom about a TV news anchor with Parkinson’s disease. The comedy isn’t particularly groundbreaking but it, for the most part, lands, thanks in large part to the talent of Fox, Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce. Your typical dumb-husband-sage-wife trope is present, but it never quite sinks to the depths of a Tim Allen/Raymond retread.

After being burned by NBC’s recent attempts at relaunching it’s Thursday comedy block (Whitney and Guys With Kids, anyone?) it’s comforting to see the peacock sticking with a winning formula, even if it is a formula we see a lot.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

The Crazy Ones

I’ve never been particularly fond of Robin Williams’ brand of humor, especially when you consider what we know him to be capable of as a dramatic actor (see: Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, etc.). BUT I’m also not a fan of the CBS multi-camera sitcom machine and was intrigued that the Eye was venturing into laugh-track free, single camera comedy.

But much like McKayla, I am not impressed. Despite a healthy bench of supporting players (including The Newsroom’s Hamish Linklater and Mad Men’s James Wolk) this father-daughter workplace comedy about an eccentric advertising genius just doesn’t sell. We’re supposed to believe that behind the outbursts and facial contortions, William’s character is a brilliant marketing mind, but where Mad Men’s Don Draper gave us “It’s Toasted” and that haunting pitch for the Kodak Carousel, William’s lightbulb idea is a shot-for-shot remake of a bad McDonald’s commercial from the 70s, featuring a jingle to be sung by — fingers crossed — Kelly Clarkson.

This is what happens when a network known for its geriatric audiences tries to be hip. Pass.

Grade: C

Class: Kill and Bury

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

In her first film since The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, Rooney Mara joins Casey Affleck and the indie-ubiquitous Ben Foster in a near-modern day Western about a pair of Texas criminals. After a job goes south, Affleck’s Bob takes the fall for his wife shooting a police officer, allowing the pregnant Ruth to raise their child in freedom, waiting for the day they can be reunited.

But then Bob springs loose after four years, and things get complicated as both the law and a trio of underworld scum come looking for him at Ruth’s doorstep.

The film is a taught, quiet, slow-burn thriller, showcasing the acting chops of all three of its leads. Affleck is particularly good as the tortured soul, hardly remorseful for his past sins and motivated by a singular goal of joining his family. Mara, who despite her A-list making role in the aforementioned David Fincher adaptaion is still relatively unknown to audiences, gives us a wholly new side of herself, adopting a convincing Texas drawl and the emotional subtlety of a woman torn between past and present.

Grade: B+

In A World…

Most Sundance comedies come with an asterisk, some sort of dark element or imbedded creation that toes the line between laughter and tears. How surprised I was, then, to see a bona-fide, low stakes comedy and, what’s more, a really good one at that.

IAW follows Carol – played by writer, director and star Lake Bell – the daughter of a Hollywood voice-over legend struggling to break her way into the business. The film is set after the real life death of “The Voice of God” Don LaFontaine amidst a fictional trio of voice actors vying to take over the now empty throne of movie trailer narration (hence the title, i.e. “In a world, where no one is safe…”).

The movie is structured as an ensemble comedy, with the plot playfully and effortlessly hopping between several sub-plots involving marriage problems, daddy issues, and a bit of romance. Most notably, Bell has so carefully and expertly rounded out her cast with a who’s-who list of underrated comedy actors (Rob Corddry, Demitri Martin, Nick Offerman, etc.) that essentially everything that takes place on screen zips and buzzes with perfect timing and chemistry.

The final five minutes over-extends the movie’s welcomes, and the ultimate climax leaves a little to be desired, but overall In A World.. is one of the more sincere and effortless laughs I’ve had in some time.

Grade: A-

Afternoon Delight

In this riff on the bored housewife tale, Afternoon Delight gives us HIMYM’s Josh Radnor and Girls’ Kathryn Hahn as a married couple with a flickering flame. After a spice-it-up date night at a local strip club, Hahn’s character develops a sort of curious fascination with a stripper/sex worker (Juno Temple) who she then hires as a live-in nanny.

Her justification for doing so is a new-feministic desire to help a fellow sister out of a bad situation, but it becomes increasingly clear that the wife’s motivation lies in some vicarious obsession with the danger and raunch of the young woman’s taboo life.

The characters in Afternoon Delight never seem fully realized, and their motivations similarly dip into convenience from time to time. The resolution after the inevitable crises is also swept up with a little too much haste, quickly arriving at catharsis without really demonstrating exactly how, or why, anything has changed.

But, the film is nothing if not interesting, lingering in the quiet moments between words and the hidden meanings behind the actions and routines shared by friends, lovers and strangers. Radnor and Hahn are enjoybale as an extremely everyday alt-Hollywood portrayal of a married couple and while the premise is not likely something most people will encounter in their own lives, the characters seem like an amalgam of everyone you’ve ever known.

Grade: B

Ass Backwards

With a cast that includes the amazing Casey Wilson (Happy Endings), June Diane Raphael (New Girl, as well as my favorite podcast How Did This Get Made), Bob OdenKirk (Breaking Bad) and Jon Cryer (Sixteen Candles — I refuse to acknowledge his more current role) it’s somewhat baffling how AB could have gone so terribly, terribly wrong.

To simply say that this “comedy” fails would neglect the physical discomfort you feel while watching it. It’s a lot like watching two hours of bad high school improv.

Written by Wilson and Raphael, Ass Backwards follows the dimwitted Chloe and Kate as they make a road trip home to participate in a pseudo-reunion of a beauty pageant they lost as children. The structure is essentially a female Dumb and Dumber, as an incessant series of implausible and contrived errors lead the pair to a community of uber-feminists, an amateur night at a strip club (gee, no one’s ever done that joke before), the hovel of a crack addict and finally, to the beauty pageant where the audience is ultimately put out of their misery.

Grade: D-

Very Good Girls

In VGG, Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play a pair of 17-year-old besties in their final carefree summer before the onset of college-aged adulthood. They’re portrayed, a little heavy-handedly, as a perfectly joined yin and yang, with Fanning the daughter of a rich mansion-dwelling nuclear family and Olsen the hippie offspring of gluten-free and free-range dining Richard Dreyfous and Demi Moore (who, oddly, is given almost nothing to do in the film).

One day, while biking the boardwalk on Coney Island, they meet David, a grumpy but beautiful ice cream vendor. He is the poster child of cliched YA fiction male romantic interests, with his gruff and sullen exterior hinting at a gentle and artistic center that both women immediately pick up on and swoon over.

David’s lazy creation is but the most egregious of the film’s two-dimensional character and plot constructions. The plot ambles along well-traveled paths, briefly arriving at an impressive union of sight and sound in the middle section, only to lose itself in a swamp of inexplicable character actions and forced conflict as it limps its way to the finish line.

It’s not that Good Girls is particularly bad, it’s just that its coming-of-age retread is aggressively mediocre.

Grade: C+

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*Since 666 Park Avenue was the only new show to premiere last week, we’ll also take a quick look at returning favorites that premiered during week 2.

666 Park Avenue (ABC)

The seemingly perfect love child of two recently resurgent TV genres, 666 blends the soft-spooky “horror” (a loosely-defined genre when it comes to television) of hits like American Horror Story, Walking Dead and Grimm with the primetime soap success of fellow ABC sister-show “Revenge.”

While it has neither the delicious fun of Revenge nor the genuine thrills of Walking Dead, 666 manages to pull of a nice cocktail of sexy and scary, infused with the small screen chops of Lost’s Terry O-Quinn and a supporting cast of easy-on-the-eyes recurring characters.

The show focuses on young couple in the big city Jane Van Neen (worst name ever) and Henry, who take over manager duties for luxurious UES apartment complex The Drake after the post’s former occupant runs out the clock on a deal with the devil and is sucked into a sort of hellish wormhole in The Drake’s front door. While it’s never stated explicitly, we understand quickly that O’Quinn is the devil, or some sort of demonic middle man, who strikes deals for peoples souls in exchange for power, fame, beauty and riches.

What the devil wants with our young lovers is unclear, but its certain that something is afoot as O’Quinn casts his sidelong glances and lusting grins while the more-clearvoyant Jane beings receiving visions of warning, seemingly from the building itself.

I don’t think I’d go as far as some critics who have called the show “Devilishly-good fun” but 666 is better than its ratings would suggest. It is extremely well-produced and has a certain je nai se quois that makes for a great 44 minutes. It also dances perfectly on the line of just enough naughty and nice to entice without incurring the wrath of one million moms for its Disney-owned timeslot.

Grade: B+
Class: Subscribe

30 Rock (NBC)

Season 6 of 30 Rock — despite being a brilliant masterpiece too good for broadcast television audiences — had it’s ups and downs. The plotlines began to feel strained and you could not only see but smell the cold fingers of death inching around the show’s creative throat.

And so we find ourselves in yet another NBC farewell season and if the season opener is any indication, it could be the best 30 Rock we’ve seen since the powerhouse seasons 2 and 3. The premiere fires on all barrels, fast-forwarding us up to speed since the summer hiatus while delivering some of the best laughs we’ve had in a while and also some of the most pointed NBC-jabs we’ve seen. (Jack has decided to intentionally tank the network. “How long has this been going on?” Liz asks. “7, 8 years?” “6 Weeks” he replies. Rim shot. Score).

Like the best things in life, I’ll be sad when 30 Rock is gone but I’ll love watching it walk away.

Grade: A

Class: If you haven’t subscribed yet, slap self in face 10 times and rectify the situation immediately.

 

Castle (ABC)

When we last saw our dynamic duo, Castle and Beckett were in the throes of passion, having finally confessed their mutual affection.

When we see them in the premiere, they’re STILL in the throes of passion, the morning after Becket turned in her gun and badge and walked (rain-soaked, natch) into Castle’s arms.

Sure, there’s an assassin out to get Becket but that’s end-of-season drama, not beginning-of-season shenanigans, so the writers waste no time dispelling the shadows of seasons past to make room for a few weeks of casual romanticism.

As an episode, not the best, but it does get points for finally giving us what we’ve waited years for (on two different, spoilerific fronts) and not pulling some “Gotcha!” nonsense like an episode of House, Bones or — yes — moonlighting. Casket’s love is here to stay and a new Big Bad (perhaps the Biggest Bad?) should give us plenty to do come May sweeps.

Grade: B

Class: Subscribe

 

How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

For being one of my favorite shows on TV, HIMYM sure seems to be running on fumes. The lengths to which the writers will go to NOT introduce the mother have left frustrating for exhausting territory and what used to be clever non-linear plotlines have now digressed into a quagmire of Inception-level complexity where events unfold in flashbacks, flashforwards and flash-sidewayses all simultanesouly.

Seriously guys, just give us the darn mother and let Barney and Robin get married already.

That said, HIMYM is still comedy gold and the lone proof that Multi-cam comedy doesn’t have to be poison. This season is potentially the series’ last, so the expected onslaught of revelations and go-for-broke gimmickry should be a hoot to watch.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep and Eye On

 

New Girl (Fox)

Oh Schmidt, how I’ve missed you.

2011’s best new comedy (remember when I hated it? Funny how things can change) came back in roaring fashion, giving us the cockneyed adventures of Gladys Night and The Pips (there were 3 Pips, right?) we craved over the summer hiatus.

There’s some plotline about Jess getting fired (who cares) which pales in comparison to the big news of Schmidt having his penis cast removed and holding a re-branding party. The theme is “Danger” and the scene where Schmidt slaps his putrid cast on the kitchen table had me laughing out loud and dry-heaving at the same time. Max Greenfield is a God of physical comedy and all I can say is “Thank you, more please.”

Grade: B+

Class: Subscribe

 

Modern Family

I hate to say it but “TV’s Best Comedy” is starting to feel a little rote. The show stopped being groundbreaking a long time ago and has since become thoroughly mired in a pattern of “Introduce conflicts A, B and C; resolve conflicts A, B and C; Grouphug for emotional finish”.

The premiere ties up the loose ends from the finale with a few chuckles (Claire is obsessed about how Gloria’s pregnancy will affect her body) before sweeping through the worlds most awkward fast forward (in the form of a 360-degree shot of Jay and Gloria hugging), bringing us to the “present” where Gloria is showing, Cam and Mitchell are at peace over not getting a baby and Phil has grown a beard (Ty Burrell continues to be pure. bottled. genius).

It’s still great and its unfair to even compare MF to most TV sitcoms but still the bigger you are the harder you fall and I need a little more to keep my appetite wet.

Grade: B-

Class: Subscribe-minus

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*This is a re-posting of a review I wrote in February after attending the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in light of Liberal Arts’ current theatrical release. It has received minor revisions for the sake of historical accuracy.

Fans of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother — and casual passers-by marginally aware of the show — will notice how the cast has begun to diversify their portfolios. It started with Neil Patrick Harris becoming the default host of the world, followed swiftly by Jason Segel inching away from stoner-comedies to more mainstream box office fare. Cobie Smoulders picked up a rather decent supporting role in this year’s The Avengers and Allison Hannigan will always be the most successful thespian from the American Pie family.

That leaves “star” Josh Radnor, whose quest for his soulmate is the keystone of HIMYM’s dramatic setup and who has, for the most part, remained largely unknown to those outside of the juggernaut of CBS’s Monday comedy lineup. Turns out, Radnor has been cementing his status as “The New Zach Braff” by not only focusing on his breakout sitcom role — that of a quirky hopeless romantic everyman — but also padding his resume as an up-and-coming writer and director of Independent Film. Much like how Zach Braff had his Garden State, Radnor has given us HappyThankYouMorePlease — a 2010 Sundance award-winner that saw a modest theatrical release to mixed reviews — and now Liberal Arts, a light dramedy about the romance of academia and the unstoppable passage of time.

Radnor — again writing, starring and directing — is Jesse, a mid-30s New Yorker numbed by his job as a University admissions counselor. When he’s invited back to his Alma Mater for the retirement dinner of a friend and former professor his memories of unhindered youth and the adventure of learning are revived and in the ensuing glow he falls into an ill-advised romance with a 19-year-old sophomore (played by the Indie girl-of-the-moment Elizabeth Olsen, of Martha Marcy May Marlene).

What unfolds is a charming cautionary tale about accepting the changing times, learning to act your age and enjoying life, all personified by a small but delightful supporting cast — Richard Jenkins, Allison Janey and Zac Efron against-type as a hippie stoner.

If I were to name a fault, it would be that the plot moves forward along a natural — I hate to say “predictable” — path with few earth-shaking surprises but even that comes with a caveat: how often in life is our earth shaken? While yes, the movie stays mostly above water, resisting the urge at a number of occasions to plunge into darker depths, the result is story that from end to end would plausibly exist in the universe of a boring 30-something’s life. That he learns something and that the audience gets some well-deserved laughs is gravy on the 2-hour slice of life.
The comparison is inevitable and Liberal Arts falls short of Garden State, but Radnor still crafts a worthwhile tale that is sweet, clever, sincere and relatable to anyone who has ever been to college or who has ever aged. He avoids the pull of a lurid, hard-to-watch-romance, instead allowing his character the sense to recognize the disaster of loving a teenager, while being tortured by a believable attraction to her. What’s more, the movie is shockingly tame toeing the line between PG and PG-13 — Sundance movies aren’t rated — which, to anyone who’s been to Sundance, can be a refreshing surprise. B+

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