Thursday, March 27, 2008

Britney Wasn’t the Biggest Guest Star on “How I Met Your Mother” This Week

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

It was the most hype the modestly-watched sitcom had ever faced. The media breathlessly reported that Britney Spears was going to make her latest comeback with a guest appearance on “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern). If you asked me immediately after I watched the episode, which aired on Monday, “What did you think of Britney?”, my response would have been, “Britney was in this episode?”

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but you have to understand that despite the middling ratings, “Mother” has a strong fan base who appreciates this smart, innovative comedy that manages to balance wacky time-shifting plot lines; clever, conversational dialogue; and well-developed, interesting characters with quirks that are both funny and real. As a proud, charter member of the “Mother” fan base, I watched the hype and hoped that Spears’s appearance wouldn’t put a damper on one of my favorite programs, which was only just returning from its strike-imposed hiatus. But when the episode aired, I got an unexpected surprise, and it had nothing to do with Spears. Because in the opening scene of the show, I, and I’m sure many “Mother” fans, immediately realized that the press had seriously buried the lead. At least for us.

Monday’s episode, for “Mother” fans, didn’t turn out to be about a supporting part played by a fading teen pop starlet. No, Monday night was all about the guest star turn of Sarah Chalke (Dr. Elliot Reed on “Scrubs”) playing, believe it or not, yet another doctor, albeit a far less neurotic one than the woman who can be heard yelling “frick!” in the halls of Sacred Heart Hospital. On “Mother,” Chalke played Stella, a dermatologist with a tattoo removal practice, who is the latest potential love interest for Ted (Josh Radnor). Series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas knew exactly what they were doing in pulling off the Spears-Chalke bait and switch. The episode opens with a shot of Ted seemingly looking at Spears (as Stella’s assistant, Abby, who has an unrequited crush on Ted), while Bob Saget (as future Ted) talks in a voice over about how sometimes you see someone and instantly know that she is the person for you. Only, just when you’re sure Saget is talking about Spears, Chalke comes through the door, grabbing Ted’s attention (and ours).

Since I am also a huge “Scrubs” fan, putting “Scrubs” and “Mother” on the Mount Rushmore of current sitcoms with “30 Rock” and “The Office,” watching Chalke effortlessly banter “Mother”-style with Radnor was kind of like a sci-fi geek watching Princess Leia making out with Counselor Troi. Two worlds colliding in a most pleasing way. Chalke fit in seamlessly with the stellar “Mother” cast, enjoying entertaining scenes with Jason Segal’s Marshall (he goes to check out Stella for Ted, but quickly becomes sidetracked by an iffy mole on his neck) and Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney (Stella confesses her "foliculaphilia" -- mustache fetish -- to Barney, even if the conversation later turns out to have never really happened, part of a lie told by Barney to trick Ted). With “Scrubs” finishing its run this season, it would certainly be good news if Chalke were to join the cast of “Mother” for next season. I am sure that Stella interacting with the girls, Marshall’s wife Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Ted’s ex Robin (Cobie Smulders), would be equally entertaining.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the worship of the show and tell us about Spears! Fine. While I certainly wasn’t happy about someone as talentless as Britney potentially muddying the pristine waters of the “Mother”land, I was pretty excited at all the attention the sitcom was getting. After all, it has not yet been picked up for next season, so anything that helps put the show on the radar is a good thing. And in fact, the episode garnered more than 10 million viewers, by far its highest tally of the season. So it was a positive experience.

I know, you’re now saying: No, the performance! How was her acting? Was she any good? Was she a train wreck? Did she flash the screen while going commando? Okay. I suppose I have to talk about her acting. Did the presence of the questionably sane Spears bring down the show? No. Her part was small, and while she certainly wasn’t good, delivering rushed, over-the-top, gimmicky line readings that were out of step with the rest of the cast, the damage was minimal. Her character was meant to provide comic relief, not carry the plot forward. And even with her amateurish performance, some of her lines got laughs. Oh, and she kept her nether regions covered at all times. So at least we had that going for us.

Despite the risks, Spears’s appearance was worth it. If people tuned in to see if she would make a fool of herself (come on, few people were watching and hoping that she was good) and came away with an appreciation for this top-quality comedy, then that’s a good thing.

“Mother” asks more of its viewers in terms of remembering past episodes than any other comedy on the air. The show routinely pays off jokes set up episodes earlier, and does so without any explanations, expecting its fans to get the reference. And yet, amazingly, anyone who tuned in for the first time on Monday night to catch Spears was perfectly able to enjoy the action on its own terms. Whether it was Barney ruining one of Ted’s 10 chances to impress Stella by tricking him into growing a mustache just to win a bet, or Lily sending Barney for a “time-out” at their regular bar when he performs a magic trick involving fire, the moments worked on their own, even if you’ve never seen a minute of the program before. And yet die-hard fans were treated to call-backs that added another layer to the humor, like Ted’s mustache and the gang’s regular taxi driver (and his signature “hello!”) chauffeuring Ted and Stella on their date.

While Monday’s episode, as a whole, did not live up to the standard of “Mother” at its absolute best, it ended on a very positive note, featuring one of the sweetest and cleverest moment’s in the program’s history, one I hope will charm newbies into coming back. Knowing that Stella only has two minutes to eat lunch and no other time to socialize, Ted arranges a two-minute date that includes dinner, a movie, a walk and dessert. (You can watch it here.) Set to “Thirteen” by Big Star, the sequence is heartwarming in the way the best movie romantic comedies can be, and yet contained a flurry of lines to make you laugh (like, after watching about five seconds of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” Ted says, “Worst movie ever,” to which Stella replies, “Yeah, I almost walked out, like, five times.”).

(In case you are wondering what I consider to be the classic episodes of “Mother,” there are so many to choose from, but I always go back to the first season’s what-happened-to-Ted-last-night yarn “The Pineapple Incident” and the second season’s “Slap Bet,” which introduced us to both Robin’s teen pop incarnation Robin Sparkles and, well, the concept of a slap bet.)

Maybe I’m so blasé about Spears’s turn on the program because “Mother” fans are used to guest stars who you would not expect to see on a sitcom with not-so-great ratings. Past episodes have featured Mandy Moore, Heidi Klum, Wayne Brady, Enrique Iglesias, John Cho, Bryan Cranston and Jane Seymour. So you’ll forgive us if we don’t get too excited about Spears’s few minutes on “Mother.” But if the appearance of one tabloid sensation brings new viewers and some much-needed time in the national pop culture spotlight, well, it’s a small price to pay.

Maybe I have a new answer when people ask me, “How was Britney?” Rather than saying, “Who cares?”, which is how I’d like to respond, maybe I’ll just say, “She drew more than 10 million people to the show.” Ultimately, to those of us who love “How I Met Your Mother,” that statistic, and the improved chance of surviving for another year, is far more important than the level of suckitude of Spears’s performance. Now, if someone would just ask me, “How was Sarah Chalke on the show?” That would put a smile on my face.