'How I Met Your Mother' Season 9 premiere - 'The Locket'/'Coming Back': Strangers on a train

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how-i-met-your-mother-s9-the-locket-mother-lily.jpgThe final-season premiere of "How I Met Your Mother" was not just the first real look at Cristin Milioti as the mother, but also the first glimpse at a big structural change to the show.

The present-day action this season will all unfold over the course of Barney and Robin's wedding weekend, a space of just 55 hours, as established in a title card in the first of Monday's (Sept. 23) two episodes. There are a couple of potential problems set up in the premiere and some pitfalls with this kind of format -- see a few paragraphs down -- "The Locket" and "Coming Back" were ... pretty good. For all the trepidation about how the show would handle this change, the early returns are for the most part promising.

For starters, it looks like the "HIMYM" team got it very, very right with the casting of Milioti as the mother. She has a seemingly effortless chemistry with Josh Radnor* and Alyson Hannigan, her two scene partners so far, and showcased a whole lot of charm -- even when she was talking about picking croissant crumbs out of her bra in the flash-forward scene at the end.

(*Whatever problems Ted the character may have had over the years, Radnor's work with his regular castmates and the guest stars who have played his various girlfriends hasn't been one of them. He seems to have an innate ability to work well with others.)

Part of what a contingent of "HIMYM" fans (including yours truly) wanted from this final season was to see Ted and his future wife together, and their first scene together hit a lot of good notes.

Barney and Robin are also in a fairly good place at the moment, give or take one extremely uncomfortable limo ride to the Hamptons. The "could we be related?" bit is pretty standard sitcom stuff, but it was nicely played by Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders, with the "ring bear(er)" stuff and Robin's super-Canadian conversation with her grandma providing the right kind of character-specific jokes.

Those two have been whipsawed around in the past season or two as "HIMYM" sacrificed consistent characterization for jokes and whatever the story needed at the time, but I like this version of them -- maybe a little apprehensive about what's coming, but still very much in it together. If they can stay that way for most of the rest of the season, the audience will probably be pretty happy.

Which brings us to one of the potential problems with the way this season is set up. Playing out two-plus days over the course of 22 to 24 weeks means a couple of things. One is that it could be tougher to sell big emotional turns among the characters. A wedding weekend will naturally heighten emotions, but if characters are veering wildly between happiness and despair, anger and joy, episode to episode, everyone's going to seem like they went off their meds at the same time. While we know Barney and Robin each get cold feet right before the ceremony, it would be nice to see a slow, steady build to that rather than a roller-coaster ride.

Another possible issue is that with so little time passing in each episode, a subpar joke or storyline that might just naturally fall away in the normal course of a season has the potential to stick around for several episodes. Marshall is currently off in his own story with Sherri Shepherd's Daphne, and it played out reasonably well over the course of the hour. But since it's so separate from the rest of the action, it could get old fast. (It does, however, allow some flexibility for Jason Segel to go film his movie "Sex Tape.")

Then there's the possibility that Ted Will Ruin Everything with his quixotic mission to find and return Robin's locket. We'll reserve judgment for a week or two to see how his trip to L.A. plays out, but warning bells went off during his airport scene.

That aside, though, "How I Met Your Mother" got its final season off to a pretty solid start. A couple other notes:

  • Wayne Brady (James) and Marshall Manesh (Ranjit) are at the head of the parade of returning "HIMYM" guest stars. One would expect Brady to be around more during the season, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Ranjit popped up again either.
  • Roger Bart's overly empathetic desk clerk also worked well -- the bit played for just as long as it needed to without overstaying its welcome. If he returns, let's hope the show finds a couple other notes for him to play.
  • The best part about the decorations Barney put in James' room wasn't the erotic cake. It was the slow-jam version of the "Bangity-bang" song playing in the background.

What did you think of the "How I Met Your Mother" premiere? Do you like what Cristin Milioti brings to the show? Did you enjoy the new setup?
Photo/Video credit: CBS