“Zoo or False”
April 12th, 2010
Predictability is one of those intriguing parts of sitcoms in general: by nature, sitcoms fall into particular patterns, either in terms of classic situational comedy or in terms of a show establishing a certain rhythm or style that tends to be repeated.
“Zoo or False” is ultimately one of the most predictable episodes that HIMYM has done in quite some time, but that doesn’t mean it was a particularly bad episode. You could call the episode’s conclusion from a mile away, and as Jaime Weinman pointed out the act breaks weren’t particularly subtle, but the story’s predictability came through the original episode setup going wildly out of control. And because those circumstances, as forced as they may seem out of context, stemmed from a character’s attempt to derail an in-show narrative, the derailment of the show’s actual narrative felt entirely natural.
And of HIMYM’s predictable qualities, that’s one of my favourites.
For a while I thought this was a Simpsons-esque episode of the show, in that the “Lily gets a gun” plot seemed like an Act One development that the writers tossed aside once they got the “Alyson Hannigan manically fires a gun” scene out of the way. However, at a certain point I realized that it wasn’t the writers who tossed it aside: Marshall himself, by lying that he was mugged by a monkey at the Central Park Zoo, was the one who sent the episode in an entirely different direction, so unwilling to allow that narrative to continue to its eventual endpoint (a gun being added into the equation during his unintended attempts to maim her) that he was willing to embarrass himself.
I don’t think the episode was trying to make the argument that all of the show’s episodes are to some degree fictional: while that might be Barney’s choice if he were the narrator (there’s a story idea for the writers, free of charge), considering that he believes that lies are just more fun and offer a better story at the end of the day, I think Ted is ultimately honest. But part of what makes the show fun is that its characters, rather than the show itself, tend to be the proprietors of dishonesty, keeping secrets and embellishing stories for the sake of living up to their persona (Barney), hiding their Sleepless in Seattle re-enactment-related shame (Ted), or trying to avoid killing his wife in a freak firearm accident (Marshall).
Humorously, of course, the show’s biggest long-term annoyance is that they’re withholding so much information about the identity of the Mother. I wouldn’t quite say that they’re outright lying about it, as they have offered various hints and clues which are disappointing less for being misleading and more for having little to no payoff, but I do think that they risk the show becoming predictable in the wrong ways. If it gets to the point where we completely disconnect from the Mother stories because they are predictably vague about her identity, then the show has made us question its ability to serve as a good storyteller. By comparison, while we know that Barney’s stories are complete lies, seeing him in the act of the lie and seeing him try to lie about the outcome to Marshall and Ted remains one of the most enjoyable uses of the character, testing and retesting his “performance” for the audience.
Every episode of a sitcom walks that delicate line between real life and performance, and there were times in this episode (like Ted happening to show up at the studio with his scale model of the Empire State Building when a similarly scaled Monkey and a Doll Collector were nearby) when you could see the pieces being moved into place. But I was never questioning whether this story could be “true,” or whether it was in some way going to send the show in an odd direction: instead, I really wanted to see that monkey climb that Empire State Building, as the predictability of that moment did not feel like it had come completely out of nowhere. Instead, Ted’s love for architectural miniatures was predictably Ted-like, the circumstances were predictably coincidental for a show that focuses so much on fate and connections, and it was cute and awesome, which is all you can ask for.
Episodes like these are predictable, and they don’t mean anything in the long run, but the Barney subplot was enjoyable, Marshall’s various recreations of the Monkey Mugging were a lot of fun, and the conclusion was a tiny monkey on a tiny Empire State Building holding a tiny blonde-haired doll. That just works for me.
- The show very clearly has no interest in anything close to realism considering their “Central Park Zoo” set. Having been there, the monkeys of that size seemed as if they were behind glass as opposed to cages – they were prepared, obviously, for these sorts of circumstances.
- Apparently, Badger’s plans to lay low in California included getting cast on HIMYM as a pizza delivery guy (I wonder what the crossover is on Breaking Bad/HIMYM in terms of fanbase?).
- Canadian comedian Jon Dore showing up as the mugger was nice, but it immediately made me realize that he was going to play a larger role in the episode, as he’s a little bit beyond “tiny bit role.” Still, his variations on the mugger/zookeeper were enjoyable enough.
- Not going to lie: Barney’s Neil Armstrong lie was sort of ridiculous to me. Neil Patrick Harris is an attractive man, but I think “Barney is so sexy that women don’t even bother listening to what he’s saying” occasionally veers into “those girls are really, really stupid,” which isn’t quite as funny.
- Little continuity with the three-way belt making an appearance.