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Posts Tagged ‘How I Met Your Mother’

I ranked all the second season episodes of Community to demonstrate how consistently good it was this year. I’m ranking all the sixth season episodes of How I Met Your Mother for a somewhat different reason.

After a poor fifth season, HIMYM desperately needed a comeback. And for the most part it had one. It started off solid, but inconsistent, only to rattle off a string of very strong episodes in the middle of the season. Unfortunately, it completely fell apart at the end, and that’s likely to be the thing fans and critics remember heading into next year. Which is a shame, because HIMYM produced an awful lot of good episodes this season, and at least a couple classics. To wit, the list:

24. The Exploding Meatball Sub: An unmitigated disaster. There are elements of “The Exploding Meatball Sub” that could be funny and elements that could be touching, but the writers ruin them all by playing them against each other in such a way that not only undermines the emotional impact of the episode, but also of the whole season. This is the episode that completely reverses the show’s upward momentum and leads into a final stretch of episodes that more or less destroys the season’s reputation. Given its impact on the season and the future of the show as a whole, I would consider this the worst episode of the series.

23. Challenge Accepted: There are some decent beats toward the end–Lily’s pregnancy, Barney and Robin’s conversation in the taxi, Barney’s future wedding–but mostly “Challenge Accepted” just didn’t feel like a finale at time when the show desperately needed to show some sense of focus.

22. Landmarks: The penultimate episode of the season focuses squarely on the end of Ted and Zoey’s relationship, which is a glorious thing. Actually watching it, however, isn’t, as both Zoey and Ted are just terrible, terrible human beings.

21. Canning Randy: Will Forte’s character has always been too broad by half, and that’s the case here as well. Much more disturbing, however, is the humiliation the episode heaps upon Robin, whose arc has gone in some pretty problematic directions in general. The reveal at the end here–in which we discover that Robin has played a sexy nurse in an adult diaper commercial–is frankly inexcusable.

20. Unfinished: There’s a heavy focus on Robin’s fifth season boyfriend Don in this episode. And that’s basically all you need to know about it.

19. The Perfect Cocktail: The cocktail device is fun, but the narrative at this point in the season–all about Ted, Zoey and The Arcadian–had completely lost me. The cockamouse deserves better.

18. Architect of Destruction: This episode features a lot of dick jokes and the introduction of Zoey. The dick jokes are sporadically funny. Zoey, however, is the destroyer of all things good and holy. Her awfulness far outweighs even the best of the penis humor.

17. Oh Honey: HIMYM first became a genuine hit when they stunt cast Britney Spears back in season 3. “Oh Honey” feels like an attempt to recapture some of that ratings magic. It didn’t really work, but the episode’s funny enough, and Katy Perry’s giant eyes do a decent enough simulating naivety to make her seem passable as an actress.

16. Baby Talk: Like “Oh Honey,” “Baby Talk” is a silly, funny episode. How much better would the season have been if Ted had stayed with this attractive, infantile blonde instead pursuing the other attractive, infantile blonde that featured so heavily this year? It also further establishes Marshall’s relationship with his father, which becomes important later on.

15. The Mermaid Theory: The best thing by far about the Ted-Zoey relationship was Kyle MacLachlan’s The Captain, who features prominently here. Throw in some classic HIMYM unreliable narration and Robin in a manatee costume, and what’s not to like?

14. Garbage Island: People should start shipping Ted and The Captain. They would make a much better couple than Ted and Zoey. Also, Barney meets Nora. And he likes her. Like likes likes her.

13. Subway Wars: One of the show’s occasional New York centric episodes, full subways and taxis and Woody Allen references. These episodes are generally good–as is this one–so it’s odd the writers don’t do them more often.

12. Big Days: A strong premiere that’s exactly what the show needed after a poor fifth season. “Big Days” also blesses us with the presence of Rachel Bilson.

11. A Change of Heart: Barney lies to Nora about what he wants out of their relationship. Or does he? The subplot about Robin’s doglike boyfriend is stupid, but funny.

10. Hopeless: The return of John Lithgow temporarily gives hope after the disaster that was “The Exploding Meatball Sub,” but the episode title proves an all too apt descriptor for the remainder of the season.

9. False Positive: Built around Marshall and Lily thinking they’re pregnant when they are in fact not, “False Positive” takes the opportunity to send Robin’s character arc in something like a positive direction, even if it does undersell the benefits of being Alex Trebek’s coin flip bimbo. The game show parody is spot-on, and Barney’s Oprah impression is, if nothing else, impassioned.

8. Cleaning House: Ben Vereen guest stars. He’s not Barney’s dad, but he’s really nice about it. Wayne Brady continues to be improbably bearable. Robin sets Ted up on blind date with a women to whom she suggests Ted isn’t awful. This understandably puts Ted under a lot of pressure to be something other than awful, as that is of course his natural state.

7. Desperation Day: Marshall reverting to a child in the wake of his father’s death is funny, but it also feels very real.

6. Last Words: Mining laughs from funerals while still maintaining the emotional stakes seems like a difficult line to walk, but “Last Words” pretty much nails it. If I were the one in charge of handing out Emmys (and I really ought to be), I’d give Jason Segel two, just for that last scene alone.

5. Glitter: The return of Robin Sparkles. “Glitter” isn’t a very deep episode, but it’s almost preternaturally funny. And sometimes that’s enough.

4. Blitzgiving: HIMYM is always good at Thanksgiving episodes (even after all these years, “Slapsgiving” remains the series high point), and this is no exception, featuring a great guest turn from Jorge Garcia as the unluckiest person in the world. Again.

3. Natural History: The episode that kicks off the great middle section of the season and seemed to announce that, yes, HIMYM really was back. “Natural History” does all the things a really good episode of HIMYM does, and does them well. Even Zoey is bearable. And Neil Patrick Harris completely sells the last scene, when Barney finally discovers the identity of his father.

2. Bad News: Not everyone likes this episode. Not everyone thinks the plots are funny. Not everyone thinks the countdown is a good idea. Not everyone thinks the ending is earned. But they’re wrong. Barney’s doppelgänger is consistently amusing, and though Robin’s story is slight, it’s funny and it brings back Alexis Denisof’s always welcome Sandy Rivers. The countdown has drawn a lot of ire, but I think it perfectly demonstrates the way the moments leading up the most important or tragic events in our life feel. Nothing particularly significant happens throughout the majority of the episode, but they gain significance precisely because they are part of the countdown to the death of Marshall’s father. And even if you don’t buy that–which you should–the final scene is still absolutely devastating.

1. Legendaddy: This is a such a great episode of television that it’s hard to believe the show would completely fall apart immediately afterward. Most unfortunately, that collapse makes it all too easy to forget just how great “Legendaddy” is, easily one of the best five episodes of the series and one of the best episodes of television this year. Lithgow is perfectly cast, and his portrayal of the square, middle-class suburban Dad trying to make up for the biggest mistake he ever made is Emmy-worthy. Segel has yet another great moment, convincing Barney to go have dinner with his father. And Harris does what Harris always does and absolutely owns his showcase episode. “Legendaddy” is about the gaps in our lives, the things that we’re somehow missing, be they a word you can’t pronounce, a basketball hoop over a garage, a father you’ve just lost or a father you’ve never known. And it reminds us that HIMYM can still be one of the best shows on television when it really puts its mind to it.

Clearly, the sixth season of HIMYM is not the second season of Community. But on an episode by episode basis, this really is a pretty good season of television. Seventeen out of the 24 episodes are what I would consider good. Here’s a pie chart, because pie charts are awesome:

That’s not a great ratio (Community’s chart would be all blue), but I don’t think it’s an especially bad one either, especially for a show that has always struggled with inconsistency.

The season’s trajectory is more problematic, however.

Keeping in mind that everything below the 18 marker is pretty good, it’s clear that the season started off solid but inconsistent, and then settled into a prolonged stretch of excellence where it really appeared that the show had turned itself around. If the season had ended with “Legendaddy,” I think we’d all be feeling pretty good about the season and about the show going forward. Instead, five more episodes followed, four of which were subpar to awful and focused on plots that were of interest to nobody. Further, the final five episodes aired after a long break, creating a distance from the season’s good stretch that made it all too easy to forget about. As a result, the perception of the season as a whole has suffered, and it will likely make fans and critics less charitable going forward.

The real question, though, is whether that great middle stretch of episodes is something HIMYM can repeat or whether we’re doomed to more and more episodes like “Landmarks” and “The Exploding Meatball Sub.”

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“The Exploding Meatball Sub” is a deeply frustrating episode of television. It comes off of a string of excellent episodes that have very successfully mixed humor with heavy emotional stakes: Ted has broken up a marriage, Marshall’s father has died and Barney has reconnected with John Lithgow. It’s understandable that the show might want to take a step back and catch its breath with a lightweight episode. And I’m pretty sure “The Exploding Meatball Sub” is meant to be just that kind of palate-cleanser.

The problem is that the central joke of the episode is a meta-joke in which the writers set up complicated plots that seem to be heading into the heavy emotional territory of the last few episodes only to pull back and conclude them with a simple gag. It’s the sort of thing that could work given the right circumstances, but is badly mistimed in this case, as it has the effect of undermining not just the potential emotional impact of the early part of the episode, but also the emotional impact of all the episodes leading up to it. And because the stories in the episode are genuinely interesting, throwing them out in service of a cheap joke can’t help but feel like a waste. In all, instead of seeming clever (which I’m sure is what the writers intended), the episode just plays as a series of missed opportunities.

For example, Ted and Zoey’s relationship has consistently been the least interesting part of the season,* but “The Exploding Meatball Sub” presents a concept that I’d love to see a show explore: two characters who really do care about one another but who are gradually coming to realize that they are just too different to be happy in a relationship together. Unfortunately, this show apparently has no interest in exploring that concept, as it reduces it to a few lines of voice-over and a 30-second montage early in the episode. Ted spends the rest of the episode determined to break things off with Zoey, only to get sidetracked by break-up goggles at the end of the episode. The montage at the end with Zoey yelling at Ted and Ted enjoying it–which mirrors the montage at the beginning–is moderately amusing, but not worth losing a potentially compelling arc for.

(*This is the curse of Ted. Though I do love The Captain.)

Lily and Marshall, meanwhile, get a very complicated plot, which goes something like this:

  1. Marshall decides to quit his job at GNB.
  2. Marshall puts on the break-up goggles and has second thoughts.
  3. Marshall reaffirms his desire to quit.
  4. Marshall quits.
  5. Marshall goes to apply for a job with an environmental organization.
  6. Said organization has no openings, so Marshall agrees to volunteer there.
  7. Marshall talks to Lily about this.
  8. Lily tries to act supportive even though it stresses her out.
  9. Marshall agrees to hold a fundraiser in their apartment.
  10. Lily confides in Ted that she’s getting more and more stressed out.
  11. Lily runs away.
  12. Ted is worried about telling Marshall that his wife has run away.
  13. Lily returns during the fundraiser having decided not to run away and determined to be honest with Marshall.

I may have missed a plot point in there, but that’s the basic idea. All of this takes place in the course of around seven minutes of airtime. How I Met Your Mother is, of course, renowned for cramming a lot of plot into its episodes, but this particular subplot seems a bit much even for this show. Likewise, some of this is stuff we’ve seen before; as several people on Twitter pointed out, Lily’s arc in this episode is similar to her arc at the end of the first season. I can’t be positive, obviously, but I think this is all part of the meta-joke and is meant as a self-mocking set-up for the abrupt conclusion in which Marshall simply agrees that he should go look for another job without Lily even having to say anything. The over-complicated plot and the reliance on old character arcs (Lily running away, Marshall pining to help the environment) is supposed to be satirical. Unfortunately, the meta-joke doesn’t really work, not least of all because the story (like Ted and Zoey’s) is one I would have actually liked to see play out over an arc, though hopefully with a bit less rehashing of old plot points. Again, it just seems like a waste.

Barney’s story is the most frustrating, however, because it explicitly references the emotional stakes of his arc this season as part of its meta-joke set-up. The first part of the episode feels like a continuation of the preceding episodes, with Barney upset at losing his best friend just like he lost his father all those years ago. It’s a little on the nose–OK, a lot on the nose–but How I Met Your Mother is always a little on the nose; it’s still effective. And when Barney clears off his desk in rage and anguish with Robin standing right next to him, it’s both funny and sad. But of course it’s all part of the meta-joke, and Barney is in fact just upset that Marshall has robbed him of the chance to use a carefully plotted practical joke by quitting. Once again, Barney’s practical joke would make a perfectly good idea for an episode, but doesn’t work here because the episode makes a false promise. It leads us to believe that we will get a serious conclusion to the story, and so we want a serious conclusion to the story. As a result, an exploding sub sandwich–no matter how funny it would be under other circumstances–just seems cheap as an ending to this episode.

This gets at the big problem with the meta-joke, which is that it feels less like a satire of the show than like a mean-spirited gag at the expense of the viewer. Though the plots are somewhat exaggerated, they aren’t exaggerated enough to work as obvious satire, so the viewer has no choice but to take them at face value. The writers then pull the rug out from under them and laugh in their face: “Ha ha, you thought this was a serious episode when it’s actually a silly episode!” Except, of course, that because of the set-up, the episode really does have consequences: Ted really does kind of hate his girlfriend, Marshall really is unemployed and Barney really does have abandonment issues. The episode just refuses to deal with them because it’s too busy laughing at its fans.

Loose Ends:

  • Robin doesn’t get a ton to do here, but she does make up a pretty great little story in the middle of the episode. I don’t actually remember any details, but Cobie Smulders’ delivery is typically excellent.
  • The exploding meatball sub could legitimately have been a funny gag in other circumstances. The visual of a meatball sub exploding is pretty inherently humorous.

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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.

Loose Ends:

  • 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.”

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