From the very beginning, How I Met Your Mother has been a sitcom where style shares top billing with characters and story. It has stubbornly clung to a multi-camera foundation (even as the format seemed to be going extinct all around it) while incorporating complex, single-camera-style editing techniques. It has embraced loopy fantasy sequences and hallucinatory CGI effects. And it’s developed a signature speediness in its editing that counteracts the pauses necessitated by the laugh track. (Just think about how often typical multi-camera sitcoms take a breather for an establishing shot and a bit of theme music while changing scenes or locations or storylines, and how often the same thing is accomplished on HIMYM with a smash cut and a few words from the narrator.)
Tonight’s episode showcases how well that signature style can carry the show. The storylines in this episode, such as they are, range from the sorta disturbing to the entirely inconsequential. Barney interprets his father’s civility to his mother as evidence that he can engineer their romantic reunion, and devotes himself to encouraging them to have sex (eww), only to find himself in competition with his half-brother James who is trying to pull off the same feat for his father. Meanwhile, best man Ted is entrusted with a signed photo of Wayne Gretzky that Barney wants to give Robin, but winds up with a mystery on his hands when it turns up covered in calligrapher’s ink on his desk: Who had the motive and opportunity to frame him for the unforgivable best-man crime?
Much like last week, the promos did “Mom and Dad” no favors. Sure, Barney stranding his parents in an elevator, lowering a romantic silver tray (featuring an iPod playing the slow-jam version of “Bang Bang Bangity-Bang” that we heard playing in James’ room in “Coming Home”), and then dumping water on them to prompt disrobing is (a) crazy-weird and de facto outrageous, and (b) something that actually happened in the episode. But it’s far from central to the comedic tone of the half hour. No, that tone is set by the dueling (and eventually colliding) black-and-white fantasy musical sequences that Barney and James imagine as they envision their parents back together. Fleet, disdainful of laugh-track pacing, designed for rewinding on your DVR and catching all the jokes flashing by in the lyrics (“My wife died parasailing, and I’ve moved on!” Barney’s dad proclaims in his version; “I’m so much sexier than Barney’s dad!” James’ dad retorts in the rebuttal), and far more elaborately choreographed and arranged than the show could easily get away with—those little songs represent HIMYM ambition at its best. When there is an opportunity to inject cleverness and style, even for a gag that passes as quickly as James and Barney’s proxy fight on their dads’ behalf, here’s a show that goes for it full throttle, and then doesn’t bother hanging around to receive congratulations but gets on with the next scene and the next bit.
I feel the same way about Ted’s Detective Mosby schtick (Ted: “Detective Mosby’s the case-crackingest private dick on the scene!” Lily: “Detective Mosby’s the worst.”), which continues the season nine tradition of giving Josh Radnor awesome bits to play, both dramatically and comedically. Certain that someone with a grudge is trying to make him look bad by ruining the photo, Ted accuses Zabka (who has an alibi: “Rocked a 60-minute deep tish”), the shifty-eyed bellhop (who wasn’t aware Ted had douchily complained about him to the bell captain), and Robin’s cousin Claude, the one with neck trouble (whose story about rescuing a Rastafarian parasailer and getting squirted with squid ink checks out). When it turns out that it was Zabka-tage all along (cue the Beastie Boys and the slow-motion chase photography), Ted graciously takes the blame so that Zabka can bask in the approbation of the one person in the whole world who sees him as a good guy.
This B-plot is shot and put together with plenty of flair, but at a lower pitch than the craziness going on in Barney’s plot. It’s all meaningful snap-zooms to close-up, hard-nosed dialogue, and sob-sister backstories. It fits with nine seasons of Ted eagerly embracing the role of obsessive truth-seeker (there’s even a reference to the still-mysterious pineapple of “The Pineapple Incident,” with Ted knocking down his elaborate board of theories in disgust), but also with his nagging, repeated dissatisfaction of this season, as he once again allows someone else to get what he thinks he deserves.
It’s too bad we have to go back to the Hummer, I mean Canyonero, I mean Monstrosity, for what will be the last C-story of Marshall and Daphne’s road trip. It’s almost worth it for the brief moment when Marvin is driving while Marshall and Daphne sing “500 Miles,” and for the classic “I even got you another bag of oranges!” gag, but the sentiment of Daphne resigning herself to letting down her daughter and giving her ex-husband another win in their competition for their child’s love is pretty much standard issue. Let’s just rewind and watch those musical number again. Oh, and John Lithgow reading the suicide note: “I am going to kill my—wait for it—self.” Yeah, there’s plenty here to love if we just decide to blip right over the road-trip plot, and maybe next week Marshall will be back with the rest of the gang. Look at it this way: Nothing much happened in the main plots while we had a stylin’ good time, and in the plot we don’t really care about we moved along enough so that it’s almost over. Either way, this season is on a roll.
- Terrific work from NPH throughout this week’s episode, complete with lots of hilarious dashing out of the room (one of my favorite comic gestures). Two favorites: “Why did you pause?” “…………. I didn’t pause”; and when he mumbles “Right, thank you Reverend,” to Loretta’s reminder that James’ dad is there on emergency officiant duty, he gives an abashed little curtsey.
- Zabka marvels at the fact that no matter where he is being abused by strangers who see him as a bad guy because of his movie roles, they always have popcorn to throw at him. “Twenty-five years of getting crane-kicked in the nuts,” he muses bitterly.
- And that leads to the very best gag in a very funny episode: Zabka calling his mom to tell him about being Barney’s replacement best man. “Mom?” “Boooooooo!”
- Marshall hopes the Scottish twin brothers in the Proclaimers aren’t singing to the same girl. Or to each other.
- When Robin reminds Barney that his dad is already married and therefore shouldn’t be encouraged to hook up with Loretta, Barney retorts, “So what, marriage is just a meaningless piece of paper!”
- “My calligraphy ink! I mean, the Gretzky photo!”