How I Met Your Mother is a work that benefits from overstuffing. Although it’s possible for the show to go wrong in episodes that are elaborately planned and executed, in the majority of cases, more is more on HIMYM. I’m not talking about slapdash excess; the low points of the show come when something is underthought, then overdone. No, the claim I’m making is this: If the creative team has a lot of ideas and gags to pack into a half-hour, they tend to match the extra preparation and work required to get them onto the screen with a snappier pace, crisper transitions, and perhaps surprisingly, a sense of spontaneity that can shade over into elegance and wonder.
Some of the show’s audience no doubt cheered when the Super Bowl promos revealed that this week’s episode would be “Robin Sparkles 4, y’all!” I confess that I was a little worried. Sometimes, these massive running jokes can have diminishing returns. Would this be an obligatory return to one of HIMYM’s greatest hits, one more trip to the well, or worse, something Carter Bays and Craig Thomas felt they couldn’t get away with not doing again? But it quickly became clear that “P.S. I Love You” moves forward important late-season themes, addressing the question of our newly-engaged couple’s sordid past by flipping the gender, while crafting a nifty new example of the show’s signature relationship memes—all in a package that seems fresh and unforced despite an unprecedented heap of independently-filmed mini-segments and celebrity cameos. More is more on this show, pushing the writers and director to find ways to streamline, chop bits down to their essences, and make the most of quick, quippy asides.
Since Barney and Robin got together, we’ve spilled a lot of pixels discussing how the couple is going to move past Barney’s long history of promiscuity. I appreciate that Robin Sparkles returns not just to remind us of the '90s and Canada (inherently hilarious as both might be), but to turn the tables and put Barney in the position of obsessing about Robin’s past. She reveals reluctantly that back in Canada she once stalked a man she was obsessed with, leading to a “teeny weeny 50-meter restraining order.” Cut to Barney using a clearly-labeled PROPERTY OF TED MOSBY drill to break into Robin’s room and read her teenage diaries where she confesses love to her secret crush: “Someday I’ll make you see me, and we’ll be together… P.S. I love you.” Attacking the problem of Robin’s possibly unresolved feelings systematically, as Barney always adorably does, her fiancé flies to Vancouver and meets the boys she once dated in a Tim Horton's, plying them with donuts to get the name of the man she stalked.
It only takes an assorted box to get one of those guys (played by James Van Der Beek!) to point Barney to the Robin Sparkles episode of Canada’s version of VH1’s Behind The Music, MuchMusic’s Underneath The Tunes. Thank goodness Barney restrains his curiosity until he can flourish the tape in front of the gang back in New York, because otherwise, we wouldn’t get their priceless Robin Sparkles video reaction shots as they watch every famous Canadian within reach of the show’s production assistants telling the story of that fateful 1996 Grey Cup halftime show “known in music history as the day grunge was born,” according to Alex Trebek. (“He’s not a music guy,” Marshall excuses the anachronism, followed by Geddy Lee making the same assertion.) Unable to maintain the jelly-bracelet, jean-jacket, candy-colored facade under the pressure of her obsession, Robin unveils an Alanis-Morrissette-referencing, flannel-wearing, riot-grrrl-zine-reading, authority-questioning persona who calls God “she” and screams “If I get married, he’ll always be second to yoooooou!”
Underneath The Music debunks nearly all the theories about who Robin was in love with, except for Alan Thicke (who worked on Robin Sparkles and Jessica Glitter’s math/sci-fi show Space Teens, you’ll recall). After Barney confronts Thicke, who beats him up without interrupting his donut break, Robin reveals the real crush: Paul Shaffer (the P.S. should have been a clue, but maybe Canadians aren’t good at codes). Speaking of messages unreceived, Ted, meanwhile, fails to read the tea leaves as his meet-cute with Jeannette (Abby Elliott) gets progressively creepier. He spots her reading One Hundred Years of Solitude on the subway while he’s doing the same, but Marshall confiscates his legal pad listing the city’s top TMJ specialists that Ted figures she needs because of her crooked smile indicating tooth-grinding (and the backup legal pad with the same list) to short-circuit his known tendency to stalk. Ted thinks he’s a Dobler, but Marshall points out that there’s a fine line between Dobler and Dahmer; his meet-cute with Lily in college was destiny, but Ted’s amazing coincidental reunion with Jeannette outside a classroom building during a fire-alarm-triggered evacuation smacks of Dahmer.
“Could not stand! The idea! Of not meeting me!” Ted smugly repeats to his friends every time he finds out that Jeannette pulled the fire alarm… nope, set the fire… nope, has been following him for a year-and-a-half ever since he was on the cover of New York magazine. It’s a welcome splash of cold water on the idea of fate that sometimes gets cloying as we follow the retrospective trail of yellow umbrellas back to the mother. In fact, you could write a treatise or two on the way that the show undercuts that veneer of inevitability. Everything that led up to the moment of finding one’s life partner is a part of the person that falls in that love and makes that commitment, certainly. But it’s the false starts, wrong turns, dead ends, and yes, eternal forever transcendent passionate love objects of the past that tell the truer story about what that person eventually means to you, even though they lead off in every direction except the one that takes you to the rest of your life.
- Abby Elliott is perfect for this part in a couple of ways: She’s the daughter of Chris Elliott, already on the show in the recurring role of Lily’s dad. And her adorably apologetic persona makes her memorable and believably lovable in even just the few scenes she has here. Since Ted says at the end that Jeannette is his “one final horrible mistake” before the mother, we’ll be seeing more of her.
- People whom Canadians speculated might be Robin Sparkles’ doomed crush: Knowlton Nash, Joshua Jackson, Toller Cranston, Ryan Reynolds, Gordon Lightfoot, Corey Hart, Danny Gallivan, Brian Mulroney, Ed Robertson, Wayne Gretzky, David Suzuki, Howie Mandel, Brad Roberts, Fergie Olver, Mel Lastman, Neil Young
- Canadians who appear in Underneath The Tunes: Robin Sparkles: Jason Priestly, Luc Robitaille, Paul Shaffer, Geddy Lee, k.d. lang, Dave Coulier (Bob Saget as Future Ted makes a Full House joke when he notes that he always liked Dave’s “cut it out” bit), Steven Page, Alex Trebek, and Dave Thomas as Robin’s label head Chuck “Chuck” Gerussi.
- Another reason this is stellar HIMYM: Douchey Ted is awesomely douchey, giggle-stammering as he pulls out his legal pads (including the mini one Marshall forget to confiscate) and huffing, “I’m beginning to think you guys didn’t come here to see my new lectern!” when Marshall and Lily show up outside his classroom to debunk Jeannette’s fire-alarm-pulling story.
- Barney getting annoyed with himself for lapsing into Canadian idiom (“they’re two for a loonie—dollar, whatever!”) is never not funny.
- Everyone in Canada can tell you not only what Tim Horton’s they were in when Robin sang “P.S. I Love You” during the Grey Cup halftime show, but what donut they were eating.
- “Lily never burned anything for you!” Ted tells Marshall triumphantly; “Clearly you never tried her pot roast,” Marshall riffs. And there’s Barney at the door with a rim shot on a marching-band snare-cymbal rig: “Brought it for something completely different, but it worked out, right?”
- “Come back; you’re pretty!”