January 3rd, 2011
How I Met Your Mother is willing to make sacrifices.
In its balance of a long-running serial narrative and episodic storylines, the show is always looking for ways to balance one with the other: sometimes heavy mythology means slightly weaker standalone work, and sometimes a lack of mythology creates a lack of meaning to a particular story. Often, the mythology is emphasized to evoke pathos, and yet in the process the series has sort of fallen into certain patterns: the show can still hit Ted’s romantic notes well, for example, but it’s hit them enough times that the novelty may well have worn off.
In “Bad News,” we have an example of sacrificing coherent storytelling for the sake of slowly revealing an ongoing gimmick which, once fully comprehended by the audience, becomes the driving force behind a moment which was legitimately affecting. In doing so, the writers all but admitted that “Bad News” wasn’t going to be an all-time classic, but that seemed a conscious decision which allowed for that final moment to hit as hard as they wanted it to hit.
It was manipulative, to the point of damaging the structural integrity of the episode, but that final moment was perhaps worth that sacrifice.
I don’t know when I would have discovered the countdown were it not for some TweetDeck notifications which spoke explicitly to the ongoing gimmick at hand. Looking back, the numbers are obvious, but their integration seems natural and quite clever. However, once you realize it’s there, you can’t not realize they’re there: you want to pause to find the latest number, react when you discover that you’ve missed one of the numbers, and then feel as if you’re not getting the whole experience if you aren’t seeing everything. The episode, not unlike Lost, becomes about the numbers even when the episode is clearly about other things. Forget the fact of what the numbers mean: while that question lurked in the back of my mind, the distraction of finding the bloody things was enough to render the episode’s narrative almost non-existent.
It doesn’t help that I really have no investment in Robin’s new workplace: while I was pleased to see the return of Alexis Denisof’s Sandy Rivers, if only because it gave me my first chance to see Denisof in a role after starting Buffy/Angel over the summer, Robin’s workplace is just plain boring. It seems like a dead end job with almost no advantages over her previous position, even Sandy (as a returning character) seemed to be given no time to establish a personality, and compared to the broad satire of Goliath National Bank it’s a thinly drawn workplace with no actual value. It doesn’t advance Robin as a character, it doesn’t give the series any new avenues of comedy (see: repeating all of her previous greatest hits as if the audience needs to be reminded), so why are we bothering with it beyond the fact that they felt Robin needed to do something? Throwing Ted into the storyline felt equally lazy, a sign that what little momentum the series has is only present where they explicitly bring up the impending nuptials or other such elements.
I don’t mean to say that the series need have momentum, but the problem with the numbers was that they created momentum which, in turn, showcased the complete lack of momentum in the other storylines being told in the episode. As a result, when it was eventually clear where the numbers were headed in regards to Marshall’s father, it became an issue of merging the momentum gained by the numbers onto a storyline which had none. While there were a few amusing moments in the other storylines, most surrounding Barney’s doppelganger doctor (which oscillated between obnoxious [the goggles stuff] and charming [his laser tag prescription] to at least offer something worthwhile), none of it came together. The masturbation stuff was dull (and felt like something that the show has done relatively recently, although I don’t have a direct memory of such a thing), and even as the story reached its conclusion it seemed like yet another blockade in their inevitable march towards having a child: they’re going to have a baby, as was confirmed by the flash forward just a few episodes ago, so these episodes which create tension surrounding this fact just don’t have any tension.
And yet because of the countdown, the episode (if not its storylines) have momentum. I wanted to know where the numbers would end up, and as the tragic truth came to pass I was moved. Perhaps it’s that Hannigan is an expert at selling those moments, and that Segel stepped up to the plate to emphasize just how this news broke Marshall’s heart, but the moment was pretty darn perfect. However, it was perfect at the expense of the episode as a whole – it’s possible that a single strong moment is worth the sacrifice of the other narratives, and the conclusion of “Bad News” makes a solid argument for that, but it does raise questions about whether the greatness of a singular scene is capable of elevating an otherwise dull half-hour.
And whether the countdown qualifies as a clever gimmick, or a manipulative distraction.
- Donna Bowman over at The A.V. Club has put together the list of all fifty numbers in her review – looking back through a second time, the post-processing ones were much more obvious, and I wish they could have built them all in organically, but I can see what a logistical headache that would have been when not dealing with upside-down 9s.
- I think Barney’s laser tag tournament would be a whole lot of fun, personally, but maybe I’m overestimating the sport’s appeal.
- Of course Barney’s doppelganger would be a doctor.