The fourth season of the charming sitcom How I Met Your Mother
to fans) remains as inventive yet as heartfelt as ever. The writers pull off all kinds of narrative tricks, and though events are sometimes absurd, they never feel gimmicky--the show has a solid grip on its characters and keeps everything grounded in their ongoing lives. Devoted womanizer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris, riding a wave of popularity in the wake of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
) can't understand why he's having actual feelings for Robin (Cobie Smulders), whose career as a TV anchorwoman is floundering. Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) struggle with holding on to their youthful passion under the pressures of getting older. And Ted (Josh Radnor) struggles to follow through on his engagement to Stella (Sarah Chalke)--a relationship that (spoiler alert!) capsizes midway through the episodes. While the season-long story lines are carefully teased out, each episode is flush with clever or daffy ideas, among them a list of Canadian sex acts, Barney trying to pick up hot chicks while disguised as an 80-year-old man, multiple interventions (culminating in an intervention intervention), Marshall's charts and graphs, Barney's fake family, wooo! girls, the cheerleader effect, the front porch test, and the Naked Man, among many others.
Attentive fans will be rewarded with a wealth of small references to past episodes. Though there are moments when the fundamental premise--that this is all part of an unbearably long story that a future Ted is telling to his children--feels obnoxiously stretched (toward the end of the season, one episode in particular builds up to a false revelation), for the most part HIMYM is a sterling example of a well-sustained sitcom; the characters have successfully grown over the four seasons without losing everything that made them funny in the first place. The number of extras is surprisingly small--only a few show commentaries, an enjoyable group interview, and an extended version of Barney's video resume. --Bret Fetzer