March 2nd, 2009
Listen to any fan of How I Met Your Mother talk about why they think other people should watch the show and, chances are, they are likely going to eventually say something along the lines of “this is not a traditional sitcom.” This is something that causes some people some doubts: the show has a multi-camera format and utilizes a laugh track, looking and sounding like any traditional sitcom they’ve ever seen.
Astute fans, though, will point out the show often evolves beyond its sitcom qualities through the use of things like the manipulation of time, copious amounts of flashbacks, and even the general conceit of this all being one big memory told by Future Ted. The show has a lot of tricks up its sleeve that, often, leave it looking nothing like a sitcom at all. There are other times, though, where these elements aren’t as present, and where anyone spotchecking the series for the first time might leave thinking that this is a funny, but not particularly original, sitcom.
“The Stinsons” is an episode that, if I had to put it into one of these categories based on its basic concept, would be in the latter classification. This is the very definition of a situational comedy: after Barney leaves the bar suspiciously, the rest of the gang follow him to the suburbs where they discover a secret about his life that could forever change the course of their lives…or, more accurately, the course of the following twenty minutes.
But what this extremely odd, but extremely entertaining, half hour does is prove that HIMYM isn’t just capable of fundamentally altering the sitcom DNA to make itself standout: in the development of Barney Stinson as a character, and through Bays/Thomas’ great grasp of the sitcom conventions, they are subversive just in delivering this scenario in the most dysfunctional but hilarious fashion. That the episode actually ends up boiling things down, even in its lunacy, to an important point of character realization is testament to the show’s strength: being awesome.
And that’s the Stinson family motto, after all.
In what was perhaps one of the show’s most disarming cold opens ever, we follow Barney (who has been acting weird, buying flowers, booking trips to the Farmer’s Market and dropping the wrong “L word”) to the suburbs where the gang walks into a house to find what they think is a secret girlfriend but is in fact something different: his mother, Loretta (Frances Conroy, best known as Ruth Fisher on Six Feet Under – more on her a bit later). Now, this is a basic sitcom plot, but then we meet two other people: Barney’s wife (!) Betty and his son (!!), Tyler (!!!) – the three extra exclamation marks are my jaw hitting the floor. Now, the show is veering into soap opera territory until we discover the truth: Betty is actually Margaret, Tyler is actually Grant, and they’re both hired actors who have been portraying Barney’s fake family for quite some time.
It’s something that only Barney would come up with, and is certainly more than a little bit sketchy, but with two important caveats. First off, the reason he’s doing it is laced with that good heart we know is deep within Barney, somewhere, as it was a scheme concocted when he thought his mother was doing to die and wanted her to see him happy (the kid, well, was an unfortunate improvisation from Margaret). That keeps things from feeling cruel: it was from a good place, and the enormous charade is absurd but not particularly manipulative considering that Barney is just trying to keep her from being disappointed.
The other element is that Barney’s mom? Totally like Barney. We kind of knew this considering her Bob Barker-father story (which got a nice callback here), but she tells Lily and Marshall some particularly traumatizing stories from her childhood, and it is pretty clear that he gets much of his view on love on her own experience. Conroy, who was always at her best during Six Feet Under’s odd little comedy sequences that made me consider her character clinically insane half the time, has a lot of fun with this role, as it really is in itself a giant act: when we learn in the end that she was glad that “Betty” wasn’t Barney’s wife, and that she hates Tyler and his stupid catchphrase, it’s clear that she took on the role of supportive mother-in-law and doting grandmother just as Barney took on the role of husband and father. She, of course, took the role a bit better than Barney did (she didn’t have a script, though, so she gets credit for her improvisational technique), but they’re much the same and it helped endear us to both characters.
It also, of course, made for a whole lot of comedy. Despite being ostensibly a Barney episode, the show got good legs out of pretty well every character. Most central, of course, was Ted, whose Brechtifile-nature immediately endeared him to Margaret, as they struck up an agreement to help Ted with his acting. It would be one thing if this had only come into play where it first did, as Ted attempted to explain himself out of making out with Barney’s “wife” in Loretta’s kitchen by following her various rules (improvisation, elaborate backstories, getting physical), resulting in a lot of talk of train rides to Monte Carlo, a blind girlfriend, and “Scoundrel!” But when the same acting lessons ended up coming up again in the cab, with Lily faking a mending of fences with Marshall’s mother (which I guess passed as their storyline for the episode), you begin to see how HIMYM’s attention to detail goes beyond a traditional sitcom.
In the end, the episode could be seen as the official turning point for Barney and Robin’s relationship. Robin’s storyline for the episode was more anxiety over her career path, so nothing major there, but Loretta’s warning to Barney to latch onto love when he finds it sends him back into his “longing looks at Robin” mode. It’s good consistency from before the show’s extended hiatus, and is the kind of extended episode development that most shows couldn’t handle while also dealing with the fake family dinner complete with scripted (and saccharine stories). It’s one of the oddest and most absurd situations the show has ever done, and yet it actually ended up as a pretty good way to expand on Barney’s character and justify his shift towards Robin in a more serious fashion. Hopefully, this time, she actually notices, and that she’s ready to take a trip to Narnia.
The best Barney episodes are those that leave Barney just as he is, at least on the outside, but with a new appreciation for something or someone: either his past (his time on the Price is Right), his friends (his changed view of Lily after she briefly moves into his apartment), or in this instance someone he loves (Robin, of course). And we have that here: Barney comes clean to his mother, yes, but he lets her believe (since she considered them horrible people) that his friends were actors too, so he’s ostensibly still lying to her. What we’re left with is someone who is still Barney, but with one more person or thing that matters to him, if not more, then at least almost as much as his normal lifestyle of awesomeness. It’s that kind of nuance that takes a scenario as simple but absurd as “The Stinsons” and turns it into a darn good half hour of comedy.
- Note how they sit Lily and Robin next to each other when they were at McLaren’s – that way, they don’t look comparatively large to people not growing exponentially.
- Loved the two moments wherein Ted was compared with a girl: both that Barney could have been talking to Ted instead of a girlfriend on the phone in the opening, and then when Barney turned to him during dinner and noted the cheesy dialogue was at least partially based on his own pathetically romantic existence. I always like when the show makes fun of Ted, so sue me.
- Speaking of Ted, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen Past Ted with that haircut before – it was a weird sort of mop thing, different from his usual curly fro thing, as he was writing, directing and starring in the Christmas play.
- Neil Patrick Harris is just so much fun in this role, and this is definitely an Emmy-submission episode considering his centrality to the story: highlights are, of course, his self-referential line about child actors being better in the 80s, and also his reading of “Mommmmy!” It cracked me up, for some reason, just so reduced to a child-like state.
- Don’t worry about Zachary Gordon, who played Grant playing Tyler – IMDB tells us he’s actually getting a lot of work, so hopefully he won’t need his Mom to sleep with Barney in order to get his next part. He was really great in this episode, balancing the more nuanced stuff (nose jobs, wanting to make out with Robin, “Tyler No Likey!”) with just the right wink to his new audience.
- I love Marshall’s balance between innocence and raunchiness: he and Lily are quick to defile Barney’s childhood bedroom as soon as possible (his racing car handles well, by the way), and yet Marshall is nonetheless rendered terrified, and eventually likely sleepless, by the thought of the dinosaur fossils in the museum coming alive.
- Loved the coda, as we learn that the Karate Kid wasn’t the only movie where Barney rooted for the “wrong” side: he was cheering for Hans Gruber (who “died hard,” so clearly he was the lead character in Die Hard), the “teacher in charge of detention” in The Breakfast Club (because he was the only one wearing a suit), and, of course, the Terminator in Terminator (for not getting to kill all of those people).