Whitney Pastorek
September 07, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

8:00-8:30PM · CBS · Returns Sept. 24

Let’s say you could create the perfect sitcom. Start with the chummy New Yorkers of Friends, but have them hang out in the bar from Cheers. Try the experimental structure of The Office, but add the comfort of a laugh track. You’d want the pop culture references of Gilmore Girls, the random in-jokes of Arrested Development, the sweetness of The Wonder Years. Definitely the overstuffed pace of Seinfeld or The Simpsons. Hell, maybe even give it a mystery, for the Lost fans. Impossible, right? Not so fast. This show actually exists. It’s called How I Met Your Mother. And it is, to borrow a phrase, awesome. Now in its third season, HIMYM follows Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and his friends as they cavort through their 20s in Manhattan. Ted lives with newlyweds Marshall (Knocked Up‘s Jason Segel) and Lily (Buffy‘s Alyson Hannigan); in May’s season finale, he’d just broken up with the supposed love of his life, Robin (Cobie Smulders). And we borrowed that ”awesome” from Barney, a fifth wheel played with panache by Neil Patrick Harris.

As told in flashback by Future Ted (the voice of Bob Saget), the show is essentially one long, non-linear tangent, complete with freeze-frames, revisionist history, sword fights, laser tag, vomiting, pineapples, and the ability of several characters to communicate telepathically. But good news, kids: For season 3, the story gets back on track. ”We’re really, actually starting the story now of How I Met Your Mother,” co-creator Carter Bays announces. ”This could be the pilot of a new show.” And sure enough, there in the season premiere, we’ll meet the woman of Ted’s dreams.

Okay, fine. We see her umbrella. But it’s a start.

A visit to the HIMYM set reminds you that, amid all the ratings and revenues, making a TV show should still be fun. Stage 22 is brimming with personality; jokes are rewritten on the spot, then cackled at with wild abandon. ”I think our camaraderie is part of what makes the show work,” says Segel. ”We’re genuinely laughing at each other.” On the first day of shooting, a scenic artist is repainting the walls of Ted’s apartment, and a prop guy deposits an armful of yellow umbrellas on a table. Segel strums a guitar while Bays picks out songs on the piano. Radnor wanders in and out with constantly morphing facial hair — first mutton chops, then a porn-stache. This could be the set of a ’70s variety show.

”What I love about Ted is that it’s a coming-of-age story, not this fixed persona,” says Radnor, and in fact the facial hair represents the evolution of Ted’s ”breakup beard,” a crabby little accessory born from his split with Robin. Apparently, he’ll be going through something of a dark phase this year. ”Basically, this is Ted’s lost weekend,” says Mother‘s other creator, Craig Thomas. And who can blame the guy for acting out? Since they’ve established Robin is not the mother (no matter how many the kids are adopted/Robin has a twin-style loopholes you think you’ve figured out), we’ve witnessed their breakup — for good. This advances the story line, but it won’t be easy to finesse. ”We like the writing gymnastics that are now required,” Bays says semi-sarcastically of the struggle to justify why Robin would stick around. ”We had that debate over the summer,” admits Thomas, ”and then we realized they’ve been friends for two years. You don’t have to explain why they hang out. They just all love each other.”

More importantly, Robin’s presence should guarantee another appearance from Robin Sparkles — her ’90s Canadian teen-pop-star alter ego and possibly a touching breakup ballad shot in black and white on a beach. The fact that so much effort has gone into the backstory of a so-called supporting role isn’t lost on Smulders. ” I think that’s a testament to our show,” she says. ”It’s about [Ted] trying to find this woman — but at the same time, it’s become about this ensemble.” To that end, Marshall and Lily will take tentative steps toward adulthood — including a disastrous experience with buying an apartment. We’ll learn more about Barney’s sordid hippie past, plus he may land a girlfriend of his own. And all the characters will face what Bays calls a ”life-changing moment,” playing into ”the ideas of this show, about destiny and free will and how little control we have over our own lives.”

Destiny, schmestiny: There’s also the continuation of the Slap Bet, a running gag from the Robin Sparkles episode in which Marshall retains permission to slap Barney three more times (out of an original five). Bays and Thomas have even installed a ”Slap Countdown” on the CBS website that’s ticking down to the last moment of the Nov. 19 episode. It’s these sorts of gags that make HIMYM so endearing — and addictive. ”We always wanted to just dork out and milk things dry,” explains Thomas. ”As is evidenced by our tendency toward catchphrases and twists on the catchphrases and building catchphrase houses of cards where ‘Penguin suit up!’ has to suddenly make sense.” Due to the complexities of all the dorking out, HIMYM is a technical puzzle, one whose solution everyone credits to Pamela Fryman, a sitcom vet (Frasier) who’s directed all but three of the show’s 44 episodes. Bays calls her ”the DNA code of the show,” able to wrangle episodes containing as many as 60 scenes. The average multi-camera comedy, by comparison, shoots around 10. ”I’m a little fearless,” Fryman smiles. ”There isn’t anything they can say that would make me go, ‘Oh, guys, I don’t think so.”’

At 9 a.m. that first day, Fryman asks a sleepy Bays what he’d like to do with the scene at hand, and he mock-dismisses her. ”I don’t know. We’re out of ideas,” he grumbles. Fryman turns away from her bank of monitors — lovingly labeled ”Pamavision” — and sighs, ”Care this season, Carter. I need you to care.”

That could be said about a lot of people. So let’s add another wish to our list of perfect-sitcom traits: It should have the ratings of, say, Two and a Half Men. At about 8.5 million viewers per week, HIMYM is tracking more like My Name Is Earl. The third-season pickup is encouraging, but it also means expectations just got higher. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ The New Adventures of Old Christine — which had even better ratings — got shoved off to midseason.) According to CBS programming head Kelly Kahl, the show has been charged with no less than ”holding down the fort” with young adults in the 8 o’ clock hour this fall, opposite NBC’s highly anticipated Chuck, Dancing With the Stars, and Prison Break. ”Obviously, the time period’s gotten a lot tougher,” Kahl says. ”But we’ve been fortunate to have real strong comedies there kicking off the night, and this certainly fits that mold for us.”

Thomas knows there’s a ratings problem — but it doesn’t apply to just HIMYM. ”I don’t know any sitcom on TV that can actually exhale,” he says. ”We all kind of sleep with one eye open to make sure the bad men aren’t coming. Everyone says the sitcom is dead? I think the crappy sitcom is dead.” And folks on the HIMYM set seem increasingly certain they’re not one of those. ”We all love it so much, but that’s why we get sort of protective. Like ‘Guys, catch on, because we do want to keep doing this,”’ says Hannigan, one of only two cast members who’s experienced a third season before. The other, Harris, says, ”I know that CBS has high hopes. We certainly do.” Then he adds, somewhat poignantly, ”Deal or No Deal moved away.”

That helps. So will the attention-grabbing events of summer ’07, like Segel’s role in the $148 million-grossing Knocked Up, or Harris’ first-ever Emmy nomination. (Hannigan confides the actor is now demanding he be called ”Neil ‘Emmy’ Harris”; when confronted with these allegations, Harris is shocked. ”That’s weird,” he responds testily. ”Because it’s ‘America’s Emmy-nominated Neil Patrick Harris.”’) Finally, two fabulously unexpected guest stars have signed on for the season premiere: Enrique Iglesias as Robin’s Argentinean boyfriend, and Mandy Moore as a tattooed one-night stand for Ted. ”This time last year, Mandy Moore would have been like, No,” says Bays. ”And now, people are actually taking our calls, which is cool.”

We’d hate for that to go to their heads. You see, as an added bonus to the whole ”perfect show” thing, the creators of HIMYM already have a good idea of how it’s going to end, when the time comes. In fact, one scene has already been filmed. While it’s hard to imagine Ted with anyone but Robin (and they blew a doozy of a guest star in season 1’s Ashley Williams), Bays and Thomas will find the perfect woman for their man — and that’s where things get dangerous. ”It’s gonna suck when we turn around and it’s Nicole Richie,” laughs Bays. ”Giant screw you to the entire audience. Here she is! Paris Hilton! The mom!”

Ladies, we beg you not to take that call. Although, to borrow one last phrase from Barney: It certainly would be legendary.

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