November 8th, 2010
Always ostensibly interested in the passage of time, “Natural History” has How I Met Your Mother very purposefully digging into both past and future. In fact, the season as a whole is structured around the passage of time: the Arcadian was once a beautiful building, and yet it stands in the way of urban progress and has decayed to the point of ill repute.
Here, through a trip to the Museum of Natural History, that storyline is merged somewhat awkwardly, but ultimately effectively, with two more storylines that deal with memories of the past and their relevance in the present day. It’s one of those rare episodes which in and of itself doesn’t necessarily resonate, but the way in which it consolidates the entirety of the season is a really sharp pivot heading into the remainder of the season.
Jennifer Morrison’s Zoey has, to this point, been an entertaining foil. I think that if I were to write out the details of her character and her storyline it would sound great: idealist protester who shares Ted’s love of architecture protects the very building that Ted must tear down in order to achieve his dream of making his stamp on the New York skyline. The problem is that, while the potential has been there, I don’t think it has really been lived up to: Morrison has been fine but not spectacular, their feud has been largely played for broad laughs out of a small moment of honesty before the antagonism kicked in, which has contributed to its lack of resonance.
The larger problem, however, is that Zoey was very clearly introduced as a love interest and yet is the precise opposite in her introduction. When you know that two characters will eventually get together, and when they are introduced as enemies, there is always that worry that things will be hackneyed as the transition is completed. What struck me about “Natural History” is that I spent the entire episode expecting that moment to come: I believe Zoey’s story about the Captain because as soon as it was revealed that she was married I knew that some sort of marital strife would need to be introduced. And so it was a nice little rollercoaster effect, playing with our expectations (at least those of us privy to casting information) and eventually delivering a smaller version of the moment we expected: Zoey and Ted, dancing in the museum, their antagonism turned into a sort of chemistry that I quite like. The buildup was still awkward, but I decided I like Morrison, especially if it means less of Ted acting like a child talking about poop across a room.
There was a similar bit of stealth in Barney and Robin’s storyline, which is really just a bit form of distraction: at first, it seemed like the storyline was an odd point of lightness in an episode where the other two storylines seemed to have a bit more in terms of stakes. Barney and Robin playing around in the museum seemed light, just as Barney’s story about the blue whale seemed to be another of his tall tales. And yet, the episode’s subversion is really quite clever: the moment where Barney’s blue whale story is confirmed would have been an elevation of the story to begin with, giving Barney the comeuppance that so fuels his comic engine. However, to have that story unearth that his uncle Jerry was, in fact, his father opens up a whole new avenue which speaks to episodes earlier in the season. And because it ties back into the start of the episode, and because it speaks to Robin and Barney’s previous intimacy, it felt both earned and resonant thanks to the way it affected the characters. It took a silly storyline and turned it serious, and that the former was so prominent shows a really well-designed conclusion.
And then you have Marshall and Lily returning to a storyline that goes back to Marshall and Lily’s early days of marriage, which was pretty much as you’d expect. That it wasn’t surprising, though, wasn’t really a problem – with a child on the way, the couple is reconsidering various parts of their lives, and so revisiting this issue makes perfect sense. The show has created numerous different versions of these characters from different periods, and the differences between them are one of the primary modes of both self-reflection (by the characters themselves) and narrative reflection (by Bob Saget’s Ted). Here, the history museum gave the show a perfect opportunity to play into that notion, both with Lily’s altercation with the College Marshall exhibit and the extinct Corporate Marshall in the tag. While a five-year contract might seem long, the show’s wide range of time allows them to point out that it wouldn’t last forever, even implying that this is one of the stories that they intend to tell in the future.
And that’s the real test – as corny as it sounds, why “Natural History” works is that it feels natural even while it introduces a point of marital strife, negotiates an ongoing antagonistic courtship of sorts, and turns a silly subplot into a meaningful character turn. While not quite an all-time classic, it demonstrates that the show is still capable of turning something potentially slight into something which holds legitimate meaning; a piece of acoustic architecture starts as poop jokes and ends in unintended surveillance, the pieces coming together in ways which elevate the earlier material.
The season has not been particularly strong, and “Natural History” wasn’t perfect, but by bringing all three major ongoing storylines of the season together and managing to unite them thematically does a lot to create a foundation on which the series can build in the future.
- New theory: Marshall leaves GNB when Lily gives birth to twins, one boy and one girl, and they need the help at home.
- If it wasn’t clear, I am generally down on the poop jokes – Ted’s juvenile nature is fine in small doses, but in public like this it seemed like a misstep. His obnoxiousness towards Zoey was slightly more effective, in that there was a function for it, but I wanted more pretentiousness and less sophomoric humor from his architectural nerdery.
- Very odd to see them using large sets like the museum – the tracking shots slowly coming down to the characters’ level really threw me for a loop at first.
- Kyle MacLachlan isn’t entirely new to comedy, but this is definitely more inherently comic than his work on Desperate Housewives (I’m sure Galactic President Superstar McAwesomeville would agree).