How I Met Your Mother did not have a good season last year, and a lot people quite justifiably wrote it off. When a show is five seasons old and starts bouncing around aimlessly, rehashing old plot points and going to broader sources of humor, it’s generally a bad sign. Sometimes, though, shows do recover, and HIMYM has done that this year. The season has, admittedly, been a bit hit or miss, but with the exception of the stellar second season, HIMYM has always struggled with inconsistency. A lot critics and fans have been slow to welcome the show back into their hearts, but the last several episodes have been uniformly strong, successfully mixing some very funny episodes with some painfully sad moments.
“Legendaddy” continues that trend. The episode is about gaps, those things that are, for whatever reason, missing from our lives. Most of these missing pieces are little things. Maybe we mispronounce a word. Or struggle a bit separating mythical lands from actual geographical places. Or have terrible aim. Or don’t know how to use a screwdriver. And usually it doesn’t go any farther than that. It’s just this odd bit of personal trivia. But sometimes a little gap is symptomatic of a larger a gap. Sometimes a person doesn’t know how to use a screwdriver because there was no one around to teach him how. Such is the case with Barney, whose father abandoned him when he was just a young child.
Barney has always very nearly been a cartoon character come to life–and a borderline repulsive one at that–whose sense of morality is badly skewed and whose behavior falls well outside what are generally considered to be acceptable norms. Part of his appeal is, once again,* his persona as an escapist hero. He’s wealthy, serially dishonest, tactlessly blunt, and has copious amounts of inconsequential sex. And despite all of this, he still has friends who like him and want to hang out with him all the time. It’s not hard to see how a show with a character like this can fit comfortably alongside CBS’s cadre of Chuck Lorre sitcoms. But HIMYM has always been careful to ground Barney in personal tragedy and remind us of this tragedy from time to time. Whereas something like Two and a Half Men never explicitly acknowledges how broken its characters are, HIMYM frequently points out Barney’s fundamental brokenness. But not so frequently that we can’t enjoy his excesses. And as a result, not only do his friends like him, but so do we. It’s a fine line to walk, and it requires good writing and an even better performance.
(*I keep coming back to this. It’s all Charlie Sheen’s fault.)
Fortunately, HIMYM has Neil Patrick Harris, who is consistently terrific even when the writing isn’t, as was the case for much of the fifth season. This season, though, has seen the reprisal of Barney’s search for his long-lost father, and “Legendaddy” brings that search to a close, when Jerry (played by John Lithgow) shows up at his door. Jerry’s introduction is a clever bit of storytelling, in which Barney calls his building’s super asking for a screwdriver and gets a father instead. A father who later in the episode shows Barney how to use a screwdriver. It’s vintage HIMYM: a little on the nose, but emotionally affecting enough for that not to matter.
Harris and Lithgow are predictably excellent throughout, both in the two versions of lunch at the bar and in the dinner at Jerry’s house. In each case, we see Barney’s frustration at his father’s stodginess. If Barney was doomed to have an absent dad, after all, couldn’t he at least be awesome? Or, as Barney puts it later, “If you were going to be some lame suburban dad, why couldn’t you have been that for me?” After spending the whole episode trying to be what he thought Barney wanted him to be, Jerry responds with frustration of his own. But ultimately, all he can do is go get his tools and try to be that lame suburban dad he should have been all those years ago.
It’s a powerful scene, and not the kind of thing most sitcoms are capable of pulling off. And it’s also how HIMYM has managed to be so well loved despite its inconsistency. It’s highs are very high.
- Barney’s sibling rivalry with Jerry Jr. was uncomfortable, but funny.
- This episode could very well earn Harris an Emmy, but the real standout of the season has been Jason Segel, who gets yet another great moment here. When Barney insists that he’s never going to talk to his dad again, Marshall steps forward and says, “No, Barney, I’m never going to talk to my dad again. But your dad is alive, and he lives just down the road.” In a lesser actor’s hands, that might seem manipulative. In Segel’s, it just feels achingly honest.
- Everyone’s gap was amusing, but I really hope to see more of Lily throwing things all over the place.
- Cobie Smulders’ embarrassed laugh is one of those great acting tools for a comic actress. Christine Woods’ has an equally great nervous laugh in Perfect Couples.
- HIMYM has gotten a lot of mileage out of the intervention conceit. It’s not an inherently funny situation, but it’s useful in getting the whole gang together and focusing on a single idea.
- “Oh my God, that took you five seconds.” “Was it that long? Life’s too short for chatty chicks.” *Tears up phone number.*
- “His name might as well have been Daniel Cham-a-leon.”
- “Robin, reindeer: real or fake?” “OK, I’m not an idiot. Reindeer are obvious ffrrreal?”
- “Hey, guys. This is Rex. He’s a opossum. I found him in the trash. He lives with us now.”