Something went wrong between the conception and the execution of this complex episode about party failures. This is the kind of setup that this show often knocks out of the park—the multifaceted ensemble situation that can be dissected into its component parts and presented in a reconfigured order to reveal the layers of cause and effect. In fact, HIMYM has made such episodes (with time as the salient variable) into a signature. Time seems to be at the heart of “The Burning Beekeeper”; our narrator Future Ted tells us that the party fell apart in five minutes and gives us a kitchen timer to keep track.
But he also says that in order to understand how many things went wrong, we will need to go room by room. And so we have a three act structure, with each act corresponding to one of the rooms involved in Lily and Marshall’s housewarming party. From right to left on your television screen, those acts are:
1. The living room. There, Marshall finds out that his boss Mr. Cootes expects him to go back to work when the party’s over. Ted gets into a confrontation with Cootes over the disappearance of the vegan spring rolls (provided especially for Cootes, a vegan) from the buffet. And Barney waxes rhapsodic to Robin about how much he loves his penis (“If I could kiss it I would, and don’t think I haven’t tried”).
2. The dining room. Barney eats all the spring rolls and makes an assignation with a crazy divorced neighbor who tells him about her kitten bar mitzvah and thinks Barney is secret agent Gary Powers (“I do need to intercept those asteroids,” he muses). Marshall tries to psych himself up for a confrontation with Mr. Cootes about working that night by asking Robin to scream at him, “you know, like you do the strangers on the street at the slightest provocation.”
3. The kitchen. Ted and Robin continue an argument they were having when they entered about the way Robin snatched a kugel out of an old woman’s hands in the store. Barney finds out that the crazy divorcee cut off her previous lover’s penis with a cheese knife. Lily knocks the special Internet gouda onto the floor, where it is immediately assaulted by the mice that Mickey Aldrin had earlier noted his bees were keeping under control. Marshall has his confrontation with Mr. Cootes, who concludes that he needs a hobby, fortuitously provided by Mickey who has a beekeeping outfit, like, right there.
All three acts end with someone in a beekeeper suit, on fire, running through the house. In act one, we think it’s Mickey, who told Lily and Marshall in the cold open that he was keeping 10,000 bees in the basement to make organic honey (“I’m a job creater”). In act two, we see that Mickey is making bad bee puns in the dining room as the fiery apiarist appears, so we know it’s not him, but who is it? Finally, in act three, we find out it’s Mr. Cootes, who dons the outfit and is about to descend to the basement when the five-minute timer goes off for the kugel in the oven. He catches on fire pulling it out.
It’s all clever stuff, but I have two problems with it. First, it’s too clever. Its whole reason for being is its cleverness. This is a fine line, admittedly, but in the most elegantly effective HIMYM temporal ballets, there’s something fundamental going on underneath all the orchestration—something meaningful or exhilarating or screamingly funny, at least. Here, it seems as if the machinations of the thing, like hearing Blue Oyster Cult start up on the stereo in all three acts, or having Lily freak out at the sight of the gouda emerging from the kitchen and only later learning why, are the whole point. In other words, the cleverness is shallow. It’s thin. It would be self-congratulatory if it didn’t feel so desperate.
Second, the writers and director can’t make it work according to its own rules. We don’t stay in the rooms where the acts are supposed to take place; the cameras are constantly following the characters into other rooms to see the beginnings or endings of interactions we’ve already seen in the previous act. It's as if the creative team doesn’t trust us to put all the pieces together in our heads without constant reminders. But that’s the whole point of these episodes—to let us do the reconstruction, to remind us, if we need any reminding at all, gently and minimally and preferably in a way that deepens the something bigger that’s going on.
Oh wait—there’s nothing bigger that’s going on. Lily worries that she can’t hack parenting if it’s going to be like the crisis-a-minute pace of her housewarming party, and Mr. Cootes lightens up enough to forgive Marshall for quitting and to ask for a beer, and the Erickson home is rendered uninhabitable by bees. But none of that is likely to echo past the end of this episode. If we’re going to be treated to an empty technical exercise, then it ought at least to be a virtuoso one. Maybe, though, the fact that it’s largely empty is what keeps the creative team from being able to pull it off without cheats, and sucks the delight we’re supposed to feel right out of all three rooms.
- I did like Ted and Cootes going toe to toe, almost nose to nose. Especially when Cootes spits out, “May I warn you, I have been in a fight before,” and Ted responds, “So have I, sort of.”
- Robin believes it was Sun Tzu who said “Never give up; never surrender,” but it was actually Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest.
- Robin’s a mean son of a bitch, but she may have been too hard on the woman whose Zabar’s kugel she snatched: “You called her a whore.” “Who wears that much makeup?” “Old ladies.” “Who trade sex for money!”
- Lily’s internet gouda doesn’t impress Barney: “You know what else you can find on the internet? Zoo animals masturbating!”