There’s a method to the HIMYM madness. The rapid-fire, quick-transition, flashback-and-forward style that the show developed in its earliest days has returned of late, much to our delight. But episodes like tonight’s “False Positive” show that the results go beyond big laughs from the pile of juxtapositions created by the style. By increasing the sheer volume of ideas in the half hour, by whipping us back and forth from character to character and timeframe to timeframe, it buries key moments and scenes in such a way that they can be unearthed later, at just the right moment for maximum resonance.
It was clear from the first moments that this was going to be one of those archaeological episodes, where we dig down through repeated scenes to see why Marshall and Lily are wearing Barney-themed tracksuits or Ted is holding a gingerbread house outside the movie theater. And even the fact that we are storing away observations and looking forward to the eventual explanations contributes to the lovely effect of the final reveal. Like a magician misdirecting us with some patently obvious fakery, the creators here pull a beautiful character moment out of a setup that happens right in plain sight, right after the cold open, and before all the business that seemed for 20 minutes to be what the episode was about.
I think I liked “False Positive” because it was about Ted. Ted gets a lot of flack for being the least interesting member of the ensemble, even though he’s the center of the show. What this episode gave Ted for Christmas was a role to play in the group that’s worthy of that much-maligned position. Because “interesting” often means “slightly crazy,” and “slightly crazy” means that someone needs to be around to talk them out of their trees and knock some sense into them when they need it. Robin asserts that Ted doesn’t have what it takes to do that, to be the best man, whose job is to halt the groom’s freakout, put the rifle in his hand, and send him charging up that hill.
But when everybody but Ted starts freaking out at Marshall and Lily’s positive pregnancy test, the whole group starts to go off the rails in misguided efforts first to reinvent themselves as serious people making a difference, then to unreinvent themselves as people so relieved that they don’t have to be serious people making a difference that they behave with stunning frivolousness. Unhappy that the only job opening at Worldwide News is off-camera in research, Robin gets an offer to be the spokesmodel flipping coins for Alex Trebek’s game show Million Dollar Heads Or Tails. But Lily and Marshall’s news makes her think about her niece-to-be: “I don’t want to be sad Aunt Robin, the aging coin flip bimbo that gives her the creeps. I want to be cool Aunt Robin, the respected journalist who gives her beer.” Barney decides to use his massive GNB bonus to give people stuff, starting with his version of Oprah’s “Favorite Things” show in MacLaren’s; the gifts include the aforementioned velour tracksuits, remote-control helicopters, condoms, and limo rides to a strip club (“You get a lap dance! You … give me a lap dance! Everybody gets a lap daaaance!”).
Of course, Marshall and Lily are freaking out too, even as they give the news to their friends. So unnerved are they by the reality of impending parenthood that they overdo the acting-natural (Lily via telepathy to Marshall: “Just keep smiling, maybe wave … no, don’t wave, that makes no sense!” Marshall: “I’m committed. I’m riding this wave straight to hell!”). Then they calm down, realize they have nine months to do everything that needs to be done, make a list of what those things are, and do it all in one night. Crazy frantic montages sometimes come off shrill and false, but I loved this one. Marshall plunging back in to repaint the nursery some color other than blue in case it’s not a boy, putting bubble wrap over all hard things in the apartment, taping speakers and an iPod to Lily’s stomach to pipe classical music into her womb (although a shuffling error meant that the fetus got the Jerky Boys instead).
So it’s a relief when the doctor tells them the next day that they aren’t pregnant. (A nice bit: Marshall’s line “Well, that did it,” which originally referred to his statement in the bar that nothing could ever ruin the moment, gets recontextualized to refer to the searing ball of stress in his chest that doesn’t seem like it will ever go away.) And having gotten their text that the pregnancy is a false alarm, Robin and Barney both swing their pendulums way on back past plumb: Robin decides to be a coin-flip bimbo, and Barney buys a suit with pinstripes made of diamonds.
It’s up to Ted to put everybody back on track. And so he does, with a forceful, no-nonsense drill-sergeant bark that, it turns out, is the perfect demeanor for a best man. After sending Marshall and Lily back to try to get pregnant again (“You will lie together as man and wife until Lily is great with child!”), goading Barney into taking back the suit by alerting New York’s criminal population that they could “retire on the pants alone,” and telling Robin in no uncertain terms that she will take the research job at Worldwide News, Ted gets a phone call from Punchy. “Ted, I can’t get married!” Punchy yells. “Yes, you can, you love her!” Ted yells back. “Yes, I do. Thanks Ted!” Punchy responds.
That’s some highly efficient sense-talking. And it validates Ted’s position in this episode as the only person who doesn’t freak out at Marshall and Lily’s news. (“I should make a Christmas-themed snack for the movie tomorrow night,” he’s thinking while everyone else is obsessing about changing their lives. Hence the gingerbread house.) Somebody has to keep an eye on where the group is headed and periodically herd them back on track. It makes perfect sense that Ted is the guy. After all, he needs them all to move forward to get where he’s going too.
- Lily deflects the question about whether women can aim their pee by asking whether men have that ability either, given how often she has to mop the bathroom floor. “You’re the one who put the Far Side calendar up over the toilet,” Marshall shoots back. “You know I laugh with my whole body.”
- I really like Lily holding up (then knocking back) a fake glass at the toast that we see three or four times.
- Ted’s initial misapprehension of a best man’s job involves “crushing” the flower arrangements, and he does even that well: “That’s exactly the accent of whimsy this celebration of love needs!” Punchy shouts in response to his suggestion of peonies and baby’s breath.
- This episode would be an A-lister for the return of Million Dollar Heads Or Tails alone. The fact that Trebek spells out the ridiculousness of it directly to the contestant—“OK, your practice toss came up tails, and our Vegas oddsmaker tells us that the next toss is still just 50-50”—brought tears to my eyes.
- Barney is always giving to the less fortunate, by sleeping with sixes, chubsters, and over-thirties.
- As far as I'm concerned, HIMYM can put Barney in the bar every week making over-the-top announcements like "It's Robin Sparkles 3, y'all!" or "Tonight—it's Barney's Favorite Thiiiiiings!" Guaranteed hilarity.
- Drunk on the spirit of giving, Barney takes his bonus to God’s strip club—the church run by his half-brother’s dad (Ben Vereen, from “Cleaning House”). When the preacher clarifies that the “charity” Barney’s talking about isn’t the stripper he keeps mentioning in his weekly e-mails (from which everyone is trying desperately to unsubscribe), Barney replies, “Oh no, that Charity is doing Peachy. You’ll see a pic in next week’s e-mail.”
- “Aside from that coin, this is the other thing that’s flipping right now. What is my lid … for you!”
- “You cut a hole in the floor, she reaches into the living room, finds the tree, ohhh holy night …”
- “0, do you take 1 to be your lawfully wedding wife? Uh … I’m freaking out … why did I ask Ted to be my best man?!”
- “I also said I’d never make out with a garbageman. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”