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‘Seinfeld’s’ hip replacement

Times Staff Writer

“How I Met Your Mother,” which premieres tonight on CBS in a cozy spot between “The King of Queens” and “Two and a Half Men,” is a considerably above-average Generation Y sitcom that manages to be both sharp and sentimental, like “Seinfeld” with feeling. And like that show, and “Friends” as well -- another series whose influence is felt here -- it’s that very desirable thing: a three-camera comedy that also seems moderately hip and potentially attractive to the worshipped 18-to-34 set. And it’s not even on NBC.

That it is narrated by an unseen Bob Saget from 25 years in the future is basically just a cute, dispensable device to make this relationship comedy seem less like other relationship comedies. (The more accurate title would be “How I Didn’t Meet Your Mother Quite Yet.”) “Is this going to take awhile?” the kids ask as voice-of-Saget Dad begins his apparently long-untold family tale. “Are we being punished for something?”

What makes the series immediately notable -- and certainly has much to do with its quality -- is a cast that includes Neil Patrick Harris, who was TV’s Doogie Howser, and at 32 is what passes for an old pro here; Alyson Hannigan, who played Willow in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; and Jason Segel, who was Nick on “Freaks and Geeks.” It’s a Crosby, Stills & Nash of 1990s cult television. (Oddly, Fox’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which runs opposite, also includes in its cast “Buffy” and “Freaks” vets, respectively Nicholas Brendon and John Daley, but they have less to do.)

The romantic pairing of Segel and Hannigan is especially felicitous, and it finds them more or less playing characters they already know. He’s a big, helpless doofus -- it’s a little hard to buy him as a second-year law student, as we’re asked to -- and she’s capable and sensible, although still girlish and a little goofy.

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“Did you know there’s a Pop-Tart under your fridge?” she asks Segel after they’ve made love on his kitchen floor, by way of sealing their engagement.

“No, but dibs.”

Nominal protagonist Josh Radnor has played the Dustin Hoffman part in the Broadway adaptation of “The Graduate,” and his role here isn’t far different, as a young man waking up to the seriousness of life, amusingly.

News of his friends’ engagement puts him in a sudden rage to love, and by the end of the pilot, he has disastrously declared it to cast member Cobie Smulders (who will not be his wife). It’s the hardest part to play: Radnor has the burden of being “real,” where everyone else can fall back on being cute or quirky. But he stays afloat.

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As his needy second-best friend, Harris has the Kramer role, the clown who takes himself seriously.

Kramer-like, he is full of dubious theories -- that “Lebanese girls are the new half-Asians,” that life is better when you wear a suit. (“Suit up” is his catch-phrase.) When he blackmails Radnor into putting one on, he says excitedly, “This is totally going on my blog.”

They all hang out in a bar, rather than in a coffeehouse or a diner, which may say something about where the young are these days, and engage in the sort of pop-cultural, personal shorthand I am pretty sure was invented on “Seinfeld” and has since come to permeate the language of TV comedy: “the signal,” “the olive thing.”

It’s the language of shared experience. Series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas (whose shared writing credits, for better and for worse, include “American Dad!,” “Oliver Beene,” “Quintuplets” and “Late Show With David Letterman”), have ostensibly based the Radnor and Segel characters on themselves, with Hannigan standing in for Thomas’ wife, which may be “How I Met Your Mother” works as well as it does. The show glows with belief.

*

‘How I Met Your Mother’

Where: CBS

When: 8:30 to 9 tonight

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Ratings: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for language)

Josh Radnor...Ted

Jason Segel...Marshall

Alyson Hannigan...Lily

Neil Patrick Harris...Barney

Cobie Smulders...Robin

Executive producers Rob Greenberg, Carter Bays, Craig Thomas. Writers Carter Bays & Craig Thomas. Director Pamela Fryman.


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