Hilary Duff leads an overcrowded ensemble through an extremely unlikely 2022 dating scene.

Back in 2014, How I Met Your Mother's creators developed a gender-swapped spin-off called How I Met Your Dad. It never made it past the pilot stage, and How I Met Your Father (debuting Jan. 18 on Hulu) is allegedly a new project. So there's no obvious reason why the jokes all sound eight years old. Helpless romantic Sophie (Hilary Duff) faces Tinder horrors. Jesse (Chris Lowell) goes viral in a #fail video. Everyone says "FOMO," like, out loud. And the PBR joke was already ancient in 2014. There is much talk about "having the perfect profile photo," comedy material that was on fleek back when people still said "on fleek." There is also, I am sad to say, an unboxing joke.

Father pushes the structural premise of Mother to the forefront. While the late Bob Saget stayed offscreen as the previous show's future narrator, Kim Cattrall swans around a 2050 apartment as Sophie's older self. She's on a boozy video call with her son, and the wine gets her talking about 2022 — when young Sophie has been on 87 Tinder dates in one year.

That means means 87 Mr. Wrongs, but Mr. 88 is Ian (Daniel Augustin), a nice guy who genuinely cares about the procreation of the coral reefs. On the way to meet Ian, Sophie gets in an Uber driven by Jesse, a teacher gone cynical from broken heart syndrome. Jesse lives with Sid (Suraj Sharma), who owns a bar and struggles with a long-distance engagement. And Jesse's sister Ellen (Tien Tran) just moved to New York, freshly divorced from the only other lesbian in her small Iowa town, hoping to reconnect with the brother she barely knows. Charlie (Tom Ainsley) is also a new arrival, an English aristocrat who impulsively left his family fortune behind to non-exclusively date Sophie's roommate, Valentina (Francia Raisa).

You follow? Father overstuffs itself with elaborate backstories, yet it's barely clear why the ensemble wants to hang out together. Contrivances pile up. Sophie is a photographer, so she'll make sure Jesse has an excellent Tinder pic. Sid gets a sex toy from his fiancée, and Valentina can help with that, because Valentina really knows sex. The first episode turns on the kind of cell phone mix-up that happens often in the minds of screenwriters and never actually. When the gang finally just hangs out, the dialogue is bleh. A joke about Postmates and Porn Hub leads to the following punchline: "You got kung pao shrimp in one hand, your man shrimp in the other hand!"  Man shrimp, man shrimp, man shrimp, man shrimp: There, now you can't get it out of your head, either.

Lowell's an acerbic delight, but there's no chemistry between any of the characters, and every scene seems to have one more person than necessary. Hot British Charlie has one joke, which is hot Britishness. The cool friend says "I'm the cool friend," like, out loud. Cattrall looks like she's having fun avoiding the general mess of And Just Like That, but her prominent presence makes Father feel even more all over the place.

How I Met Your Father
'How I Met Your Father'
| Credit: Patrick Wymore/Hulu

How I Met Your Mother ran so well for so long, and it's easy to forget how unlikely its success was. Creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas took the time-twisting boldness of experiments like Lost and Arrested Development and used it to resuscitate the whole multi-cam Friends model of young metropolitans. (A model which, it should be noted, needed serious saving one year out from the bland final phase of Friends.) Josh Radnor's Ted was looking for true love in the mid-2000s, an era of High Bro hedonism symbolized (and sneakily undercut) by Neil Patrick Harris' pickup artist Barney. Cobie Smulders was the new discovery, taking a love interest part and running it into deadpan comedy gold. And Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel frequently made a show theoretically about dating feel like a show about a generally happy relationship. All this on CBS, the network airing three different CSIs and throwback men-are-like-this junk like Yes, Dear.

Oddly, Father just feels more like a Friends rip-off, one of those Single Guy-ish wannabes where everyone is identically sweet-sarcastic-sexy-nice. I've seen four episodes, and the time-hopping gimmicks fade quickly into easily resolvable conflicts. Valentina is a free spirit and Charlie wants to be in a relationship: Whatever will they do? (Something lame.) How will Sid fix his long-distance relationship malaise? (Fly a lot, apparently.) Duff's smiley intensity feels totally disconnected from Cattrall's la-di-da sauciness. A guest arc from Josh Peck will thrill any kids who ever wrote Disney-Nickelodeon fan fiction, though his character crowds the main ensemble even further.

Creators Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger put a new twist on the titular mystery, but that added complication feels like one more bit of overthinking on a show that badly needs to just let its characters get to know each other. I do wonder, too, if Father missed a big opportunity. I'm guessing literally no one currently writing a frothy comedy ever thinks, "I should really do more with COVID!" But big-city dating life has been disrupted beyond all reckoning the last couple years, and the new normal's total vanquishment makes Father's New York feel like a flavorless fairy tale. Would a bit of reality really be so depressing? "Tomorrow you turn 30," Valentina tells Sophie, "And we will be drinking so many 40s you'll be hung over 'til your 50s!" Now that line is depressing. C-

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