“The Rough Patch”
November 9th, 2009
One of the intriguing elements of How I Met Your Mother is its use of skewed memory, as what we’re seeing is not reality so much as it is Future Ted’s perception of reality. In some instances, the show uses it for subtle jokes such as the opening one here, when Future Ted manufactures a preposterous story for how a pornographic movie happened to find its way into the VCR. In other instances, however, the show creates more of what I’d call gags, like how Robin’s older boyfriend at Thanksgiving was played by Orson Bean so as to exaggerate his age for the sake of the story being told. These are unique because, unlike those established mainly through voiceover, they become a running gag in their own right.
Last week’s “Bagpipes” used a combination of the two in the running gag of sexual noises emerging as bagpipe music, which was clever and underplayed. However, “The Rough Patch” fails because it uses such a gag at the heart of a fairly substantial bit of character development, one which is not capable of transcending the pop cultural stereotypes. Putting Barney into a fat suit as a one-off gag is fine, but using it as a representation of an integral piece of character development feels both false (in that the exaggeration seems too central) and rushed (in that the story doesn’t feel like it has come to its conclusion).
It results in an episode that is wholly dissatisfying, a failure both in terms of its premise and in its execution.
If we go back to “Slapsgiving,” where we last saw this type of exaggeration for a long term story, it was a joke that was always present but never really important: it was a gag, something that could help contribute to the chaos of sorts surrounding Lily’s first Thanksgiving dinner. Here, however, Barney’s fat suit was the sort of exaggeration that was literally just a fat suit joke that never stopped. The idea that Barney and Robin were going through a rough patch didn’t need a fat suit, and Barney could have easily gone with slovenly appearance as opposed to maximum gluttony to largely the same effect. However, something about “Neil Patrick Harris” in a fat suit tickled the writers’ fancy, and as such we got an episode where Barney’s behaviour was one Eddie Murphy joke after another.
The setup for the episode, by and large, wasn’t bad: Barney hiding the video message within his porn collection, and in particular his choice to play it on a copy of Archisexture to ensure that Ted wound find it, was a good way to bring this to the surface, and the opening had an energy to it that was quite enjoyable if perhaps too reliant on porn puns. And Barney’s “Relationship Gut” was distracting (and unattractive) enough that it could have sufficed throughout the episode, and Barney’s behaviour could have simply been in his playboy personality being overwhelmed by a less obsessive hair regiment or less attractive clothing. There was nothing in that story that required a fat suit, as he could have looked in that window at episode’s end and seen a hippie, or a hobo, or something else that didn’t require such a cheap gag to persist throughout the episode. Robin was able to hold up her side of the storyline without such exaggerations.
And what makes this episode an outright failure, at least on a plot level, is that there was no logical reason for Barney and Robin to break up as they are. To this point the show has quite clearly indicated that these two could be a match, and it was willing to give them a fair shake of things. And while I think there is an argument to be made that they’re not ready for each other, and perhaps even an argument to be made that they’ll never be ready for each other, this episode did not successfully make that argument. The conclusion attempted to make the argument that Barney and Robin getting back together as friends is something the audience would want, but I simply don’t see it: Barney in a relationship gave the show a new dynamic to play, one which hadn’t been tapped out heading into this episode and isn’t tapped out as we leave it. And the fact that it tried to use a fat suit to elevate that point, as if that would actually help its case, demonstrates that at every level this was a storyline doomed to fall on deaf ears at least for this critic.
As for the rest of the episode, Alan Thicke’s cameo was quite enjoyable and the entire “Stormtrooper/Stakeout/Robot/Alan Thicke/Van vs. Station Wagon/Pizza Guy Citing Porn” Lines sequence was manic enough to work as simple comedy. But when the episode so hinged on an emotional moment, but did everything in its power to undercut that moment and further disconnect it from the reality we as viewers have witnessed thus far this season, it can’t help but feel like a misstep, perhaps the most substantial one for the show in quite some time. I’m really curious to know what it was that rushed the writers into making such a decisive action, and why they chose this particular method to do so: it’s created a rough patch in the season that is going to need some time to undo, and a brief hint at a Canadian Variety show w/ Robin and Alan Thicke isn’t enough for me to call this a success.
- Marshall and Lily sneaking porn out of Ted’s new collection was a fun moment, largely because it involved Lily being “one of the guys” more than usual.
- I like that Robin and Lily are both Star Wars illiterate, and more importantly that Robin’s attempts to make fun of the Stormtrooper were a failure of imagination. “Starpooper” wasn’t even close to clever, but rather than feeling like the writers’ failure it was just Robin being really petty about Star Wars, which I buy in the context of a combative relationship.
- I’m curious to know just what this show would be like if, as opposed to always following Ted’s perspective, an episode like this one leaned more heavily on Barney and Robin: by increasing the power of Ted’s observations, we’re never really able to witness what is really happened, and even when we do glimpse what was really happening in the diner it feels like a different camera angle as opposed to learning something about these characters that we didn’t see before.