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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How I Met Your Mother: "Bad News"

Illustration for article titled How I Met Your Mother: "Bad News"
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How do you feel about gimmicks?

This was a quiet one—and occasionally clever, as these things go. Numbers counting down from 50 appeared in order on props and in the background of scenes throughout this episode. It might have been a harmless bit of extra fun in a normal episode.

But as the very last scene showed—quite shockingly—this was not a normal episode. That countdown was leading to a moment where Marshall lost his father.  And as we were reminded in a charming, funny montage earlier in the half-hour, Marshall was unusually close to his father. They shared everything, from playing long-distance Go Fish to any kind of good news, no matter how insignificant. (“I found an amazing Viking lamp that fits right on the coffee table as long as you don’t mind stepping over the cord!” Marshall reports to his dad over the phone; “Woooooooooooo!” his father celebrates.)

The dilemma driving “Bad News” is Marshall’s reluctance to tell his dad that he and Lily are having trouble conceiving. They go to a reproductive endocrinology specialist to get Lily’s fertility checked out, then discover that Dr. Stengel is Barney’s long-lost doppelganger (leading Lily to fear a jinx from the universe, since they jumped the gun on the whole waiting-for-a-sign thing). Lily’s not the problem, though, so Marshall has to face the possibility that his plumbing is at issue, which would be even harder for him to confess to his dad.

Meanwhile, Robin learns that the host of the news program whose staff she’s just joined is her old co-host Sandy “We should have sex” Rivers. Worse, Sandy immediately announces to the whole office that they had sex. (It’s the only reason he can think of that he remembers her.) “It’s my first day, and already, I’m the girl who’s slept with the host of the show,” Robin laments to Ted. “Already?” Ted asks. “Were you planning on eventually sleeping with the host?” When Sandy remembers that they didn’t have sex, he also recalls why Robin stuck in his head: her report on carriage horses in New York which ended with her falling in horse poop. Soon the whole office is scouring the Internet for Robin's embarrassment, finding, as Robin puts it, “everything.”

What connects the two storylines is the question of how to respond to adversity. Ted suggests “steering into the skid,” going along with things and waiting for the crisis to pass. For Lily and Marshall, that means not panicking until all the results come in and giving those people whom they fear disappointing the chance to surprise them. For Robin, that means not using the dirt Ted digs up on Sandy (his odd sexual proclivities are no big deal, since everyone in the office knows about the bear in a bra, but the toupee is a bombshell) and letting the focus on office ridicule pass to the next victim in line. But there’s a down side to letting things play out, as it happens; sometimes it can take too long and be too late.  

I was blindsided by the real bad news at the end of “Bad News,” and I’m not at all sure this was well handled. Distracted by collecting the numbers, was it likely we would stay with the themes and feel the connections of the episode? The meta-gag takes us out of the show’s world in a way that makes the final twist feel like an aggressive bomb thrown at us and the characters, a punishment imposed by the same hands that dropped those numbers all over the place, not a real event. Leaving Marshall crying out to the universe that he’s not ready to go it alone without his dad, after playing games with us for 20 minutes? It just seems cruel.

For all the solid comedy on display here (Barney’s dual role, Ted’s karate kicks, Marshall’s dad cheering for Vikings kicker Fred Cox—“Cox! Cox! Cox!”—while Marshall’s trying to provide a sperm sample), “Bad News” goes horribly wrong with its little numbers game. It’s the wrong time to deploy such a gimmick. It detracts from the funny stuff and cuts off the serious stuff at the knees. I’m all for cleverness and meta-gags—check the record. But why here? Wrong place, wrong time. Bad news.

Stray observations:

  • This makes two episodes in a row where the episode title has been a simple, single entendre when we’re used to more of a wink and a nudge.  Give them credit for truth in advertising.
  • OK, here’s all the numbers. 50, 49: pamphlets in gyno’s office. 48: ketchup bottle. 47: laser-tag tourney flier. Stengel is a member of the 46 society. 45 cent hot wings. 44 beers on tap (and a 44 jersey on a MacLaren’s patron). 43-42 on Stengel’s pamphlet. 41 racecar poster. Ted’s 40 buildings book.  Sandy River’s office is room 39. 38 degrees on newspaper weather forecast. 37 on Lily’s “Decadence” magazine. Marshall’s dad drinks Old Number 36 beer. Market up 35.34 points. 33 miners rescued. Lottery numbers are 32 31 30 29 28 27. Marshall’s dad reading “26 Home Shortcuts.” Ted’s 25 bridges book. Metro news 23 and Japanese channel 22 in Robin’s montage. 21 on calendar in Stengel’s office. Sperm collection room 20. 19 on “Nekkid” magazine. Marshall and Lily live in apartment 18. Sperm sample bottle marked 1716. 15 vitamins in Bran Stix. Sandy’s apartment 1413. 12 behind Marshall on couch. 11 on Ted’s book. 10 on Robin Sparkles' jean jacket. 9 on medical chart folder. Exam room 8. Oh, I must have missed 7. 6 on medical chart folder (Barney was holding it upside down). “Motility 5!” The 4 layers of the uterus. MacLaren’s is open till 3. Marshall’s dad’s watch hand is pointing to 2. Lily gets out of taxi 0001.
  • Barney doesn’t get why Marshall is upset about his possible lack of fertile sperm: “You can’t get a girl pregnant; that’s the dream! I’d give my firstborn to not be able to have children.”
  • In fact, give Barney the lion’s share of credit for what works in “Bad News,” from his reaction to Lily throwing bar snacks at him (“You found one of the cameras! I swear that’s the only one. Which one did you find?”) to his version of Ted’s go-with-the-flow advice (“When your friend invites you to a laser tag tournament, you don’t fight it; you just strap on that vinyl holster and charge into that abandoned JC Penney guns a-blazin’!”). And Stengel’s quiet befuddlement at the doppelganger hysteria (“I don’t have time for this,” he sighs after Marshall explains to Lily “I yanked on his beard, he checks out!”) is delightful.
  • Barney couldn’t be moonlighting as a fertility doctor because, according to Marshall, “Between the sexual harassment seminar all morning and the secretary beauty pageant all afternoon, he hasn’t left my sight!”
  • “Remember when his Swedish cousin came to visit?” “Oh yeah, Bjorney.”
  • “If you find yourself inside the elevator, you’ve gone too far.  You’d think I wouldn’t have to say that, but you’d be surprised.”
  • Ted goes after Sandy Rivers: “I just thought he needed to listen to common sense and reasonable discourse.” “Tell me those aren’t the names of your fists,” Robin sighs. “They’re my feet,” Ted confesses. “I’m actually more of a kicker.”
  • “For God’s sake, son, do you have any sixes?”