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Note to the whole HIMYM team: When your signature gag is a squadron of miniature Barneys dancing around on a girl's torso in British mountaineer garb, it's time to for a rethink. "Little Boys" is the first real whiff of the season, a Friends-esque pair of premises executed with a tin ear and slack discipline. What's really missing here is timing. And I hate to say it, but part of the problem is the laugh track. Somehow it's mixed too low and comes in too slow. Suddenly the show screams "no studio audience," and the actors seem to have nothing to play against. The episode feels like it's acted against a blue screen by people who just met at the craft services table.

Lame & Hoary Premise #1: Barney and Ted make a bet to see who can score with the random girl at the bar first. Even though Ted claims that he really started to like her and therefore didn't want to play the game anymore, it scarcely saves L&HP;#1 from the rampant misogyny that stalks the show in its darker moments. And it's completely negated by the disgusting Barney-planting-a-flag-in-her-lip-tissue (I confess, I flinched) special effect, which leaves the facade of Ted's attraction to the whole woman coughing in the premise's exhaust fumes. Barney's revelation that it was all a big setup is more like it, but way too little, way too late.

Lame & Hoary Premise #2: Robin dates a great guy whose "big but" is that he has a kid. And Robin hates kids! But she connects with the kid, only to find out that he doesn't like her as much as she thought, and she feels rejected! Oh, snap! Did you catch that reversal? The breakupper has become the breakupee — with a kid! Or something. This is straight out of the twenty-something sitcom playbook. If this is what Robin and Ted dating other people is going to lead to, week after week, I'm very afraid.

The flashes of the HIMYM I love — the one that was on brilliant display last week — seem sad and lonely stranded in the middle of the strained, limping gags and distant canned laughter. "She has a dead tooth" — good writing there. "It's cute that their shoes are real little, but beyond that, what's the draw?" — ring of truth. Barney calling Marshall down for saying "bra" — "it wa a good week, we had fun, but it's over" — true to Marshall's character. (Also, Marshall's idea of game totally is wearing a Dr. Seuss hat. That's insightful, bra.) Other than Alyson Hannigan being cute as a bug this week, though, those were the high points. And far between they were, separated by a sea of floundering and flailing, punctuated by climactic ugliness.

Grade: C-

Stray observations:

- Or maybe I'm just put off by Ted's shock of messy hair in the first scene in the bar. Um, what's with the Thomas Dolby look, dude?

- It's a Marshall-centric episode next week — he gets courted by a high-powered corporate law firm and has to reevaluate his environmental ideals — which gives me hope that the show can regain its footing after this unpleasantness.