Season Premiere: How I Met Your Mother – “Definitions”



September 21st, 2009

How I Met Your Mother (How-Eye-Meh-Ett-Yo-Err-Mah-thur) Noun.

1. CBS Comedy Series.

2. Probably the most “anticipated” comedy return of the fall season for this particular critic.

While The Office might be more consistent, and 30 Rock might be more uproarious, I think that I find myself most honestly excited about How I Met Your Mother, a show that just a few years ago I didn’t even watch on a regular basis. I think it’s because while The Office thrives on awkward comedy, and 30 Rock plays the absurdist angle, HIMYM tends to operate most often by either charming us as viewers (something The Office can do but which 30 Rock rarely attempts) or by introducing some really interesting intermingling between serialization and concept episodes of unquestionable quality.

So heading into its fifth season, more successful than one could have imagined two years ago, How I Met Your Mother finds itself closer than ever (we presume) to the identity of the Mother, and finally pulling the trigger on a long-gestating relationship (Barney and Robin). This means that, quite similar to the Office’s premiere, “Definitions” is more about defining (Yeah, I went there) how the show is going to handle Ted’s new job and Barney and Robin’s relationship rather than surprising us with anything even remotely considering a twist.

But, done in typical HIMYM style with plenty of flair and a whole lot of laughs, one can’t really complain about the execution, although the evasion of definition and expectation is certainly a theme.

As per usual, the big question on How I Met Your Mother is logistics. Whenever the question of the Mother arises, we wonder how they’ve managed to avoid showing us the mother’s identity, and at the end of the season they raised a doozy. If Ted was going to start teaching at Columbia, and if the Mother was going to be in the class, they would have to cast the Mother, and logically show us the Mother. It was a logical concern that we should have known would be evaded in a clever fashion, but I was still impressed with how “Definitions” toyed around with our expectations but still managed to deliver an enjoyable storyline featuring the show’s most uneven character (that’s you, Ted).

We should have known, from the beginning, that the first class was something of a cosmic mistake. The show lets us in on the gag pretty quickly, but we should have known: shot in single-camera style on location at an actual university campus, the scenes were “out of place” in the show’s aesthetic and couldn’t have been maintained. Also, the sheer size of the class was simply too substantial for them to sustain the extras budget, meaning that if you really stepped back to think about the storyline you’d know that something wasn’t going to work out and that he would eventually head to a smaller classroom (ignoring the fact that a first year class would logically be larger than a third year class, even considering the difference in disciplines) to teach Architecture 101.

So, yes, the show cheats in order to make sure that the camera never quite finishes its pan up to the Mother in the crowd of that first class, but we have another moment in the legend of the Mother. Add to the Yellow umbrella the fact that she witnessed Ted mortally embarrass himself on his first day as a professor, a nice little bit of trivia that was well-played by Josh Radnor. Not quite living up to the illustrious Dr. Jones, whip notwithstanding, he bumbles his way through an identity-challenged lecture only to eventually discover that once he settles down he turns out to be okay. Generally, this is advice that Ted should take for his entire life, but I thought the entire storyline was well-played and the run through the quad with his giant stand-up to John William’s Indiana Jones theme was a definite highlight.

However, that was ultimately an isolated and inconsequential element of this episode, if perhaps proving more interesting in the long-term. For fans of the show, the real question would be how the show would handle Robin and Barney finally “getting together” at the end of last season. I think that, for at least most viewers, the reaction was quite similar to Lily’s, who struggles to use her Indoor Woo as she comes to terms with her excitement about the potential for double dates (Marshall and Lily being a far more “old married couple” than they were while Ted and Robin were together, and thus more interested in cooking classes and camping trips and telling funny stories about the cooking and the camping). But, quite logically, Barney and Robin aren’t into definitions: they may have kissed, but they are certainly not boyfriend and girlfriend, and they certainly aren’t in a relationship.

Except, of course, that they are. While Robin and Barney might not be done pondering the real state of their relationship, the show has decided it for them even if they’ve yet to come around. When they do finally sit down and have “the talk” (after Lily locks them into a bedroom as Marshall whips the door), everything they said was actually in the episode already. When (hilariously) avoiding the question entirely, the things they said they wanted to avoid were the things that they were thinking (like Barney’s concern over having not had a girlfriend, and Robin’s own concerns about being bad at relationships). Their scenes are funny because both Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris are hilarious evading the question and quickly falling back into sex as a solution, but they also build to the final scene as Robin and Barney agree to lie about being in a relationship but, in fabricating the lie, essentially lay all of their feelings on the line and break one of Barney’s cardinal rules but heading out for Brunch together.

Lily is right that definitions are important, but definitions also take a fair bit of time. For the show itself, it has always avoided definition, so it moves far outside of the multi-camera mode to introduce a floating Barney daydream during Ted’s first class, breaks the multi-camera setup to film Ted’s scenes in single-camera, and even emphasizes the subjectivity of its narrative when Ted presumes that Robin would have said something about how great her relationship with him was during “the talk” with Barney. And in general, the episode operated so as to take the expectations for Season 5 as defined by last year’s finale (Meet the Mother! Robin and Barney together!) and simultaneously deliver – Barney and Robin are together, albeit in a funny and charming fashion – and cleverly delay (as always) when it comes to the show’s central question.

And, by doing it all while making me laugh, it also gets me excited about the show all over again. Welcome back, HIMYM.

Cultural Observations

  • The one big question about the season that we never quite got to answer was how the casting went for Ted’s students. We saw the classroom ( a far more manageable set, let’s remember), but we didn’t get a good look at the students, which is going to make or break Ted’s time spent in the classroom (which may be a lot, or may be very little).
  • Marshall and Lily are left without a storyline here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get plenty of fun moments from both, especially Hannigan in her first post-pregnancy episode. You realize how much the end of last season missed Lily in episodes like this one (they worked around her just fine, in the end), as she is great for over the top reactions and for the kind of sage observation we saw at episode’s end. Plus, Marshall whipping the door was just a whole lot of fun, as you’d expect.
  • In case you were wondering, Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” was the musical interlude used during both the opening and the closing of the episode, sans lyrics since there’s an F-Bomb in the first line.
  • It was fun to see Brad again, although the cameo didn’t go anywhere (the “below the belt” line fell particularly flat) except for Barney’s great post-punch reaction of cowering for his life.
  • In their first episodes after giving birth, both Hannigan and Smulders are still showing signs that they’re newfound mothers – there was much talk of Hannigan’s cleavage on Twitter, and you can tell that Smulders more recently gave birth, but both are as luminous as ever.
  • Great moment as Barney gets dressed after Lily broke the doorknob: he’s in the process of putting on his shirt, but then Robin threatens to just keep having sex, at which point he throws the shirt back off again. Neil Patrick Harris was robbed of that Emmy, goshdarnit.
  • They really overused the “Emotional and Dramatic Moment” music on the act breaks this week, it just kept coming.
  • Barnman and Robin was clever, Lily, give them a break on that one.

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