On TV, to paraphrase Jane Austen, a young man in possession of a new sitcom is generally considered to be in no need of a wife. Not so on How I Met Your Mother (Mondays, 8:30 p.m. E.T., CBS). On the face of it, Mother is a pretty conventional sitcom. There’s a laugh track; there’s no single-camera movie look to it; there are young characters who make witty-cute remarks and hang out in a bar. But there’s one difference: the lead character, Ted (Josh Radnor), feeling left out by his roommate’s recent engagement, wants to find a nice girl and get married. Earnestly. Hungrily. He is, frankly, a bit of a girl about it.
In most sitcoms, young guys want to have sex, yes. To date, maybe. They might surprise themselves and fall in love. But rarely do we see a young guy on a sitcom actively trying to acquire a wife. On sitcoms today, marriage for men is like worm pills for dogs: it’s good for them, sure, but it requires a certain amount of subterfuge to get them to take it. Ironically, CBS has made its sitcom reputation by spreading this image. From Still Standing to Yes, Dear to The King of Queens to the just-departed Everybody Loves Raymond, the husbands in its sitcoms are bemused prisoners, much better off for their beautiful wives but chafing at the binds of marriage — the rules, the obligations, the in-laws. They’re sitcom young guys ten years later: captured, declawed and domesticated.
Probably the closest antecedent to Ted is Ross on Friends, but Ross’ serial matrimony was a running joke on the show. Two and a Half Men, TV’s most popular current sitcom, balances Charlie Sheen’s committed bachelor with Jon Cryer’s divorced sad-sack: one who won’t be tied down, and one who let himself get tied down and got screwed for it.
Ted, on the other hand, essentially takes the girl role on Mother — listening to his biological clock, trying to find a woman willing to commit — yet the show doesn’t unman him for it. It makes fun of him, sure (this is a sitcom). But he’s still the hero: he’s romantic and appealing, and we cheer for him in the quest that — as we know from the title and the flashbacks that frame the show — will eventually leave him happily shackled with a wife and two tax deductions.
The idea that men never want to commit and settle down is as facile a generalization as any that women face, and an especially stupid one since the fact that so many of us were born disproves it. Mother is holding up well after two weeks in its time slot; if it can become a hit by flipping the CBS-sitcom gender formula, it’ll be as subversive as any edgy HBO sitcom. So far, it looks like Ted is man enough — and girl enough — to pull it off.