November 16th, 2009
Last week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother proved enormously divisive, despite the fact that for the most part most critics read the episode itself in much the same way. For example, Todd VanDerWerff and I both liked elements of the episode, but our overall impressions of the episode were fundamentally different. He chose to believe that the writers still have more in store for Robin and Barney, the episode representing just a bump in the road, whereas I chose to assume the worst and believe that the writers had truly bungled the conclusion of this relationship that still had a lot of mileage in it.
In the end, Todd convinced me that I was perhaps being too hasty to judge where the show was going, but forgive me if “The Playbook” doesn’t somewhat prove my point. If the writers dumped Robin and Barney’s relationship so quickly because they were that desperate to be able to tell stories where Barney gets to be his usual, philandering self, then it feels like the sort of regressive move that I thought the show was above. This episode could have worked within the context of their relationship had the show been willing to do so (I’ll explain how after the jump), but the end of the episode confirms that Barney has reverted to a one-dimensional caricature and Robin is already moving on.
And while the show is certainly more clever than your average sitcom, that sort of character regression is the sort of thing that I call out other shows for – as such, this is another disappointing episode for me.
If Robin and Barney had stayed together, this episode would still have been possible. The episode could have been about Robin finding out about the Playbook and seeking to have it destroyed to further cement their relationship, and the various scenes acting out the Playbook could have still remained as vestiges of Barney’s past as opposed to present behaviour. The episode’s storytelling narrative could have even been maintained, except that Lily could have told a pre-Barnman & Robin story about Barney intercepting one of Ted’s dates as opposed to that story happening in the context of the episode. My point is that there was an opportunity here for these types of stories to still be told in the context of Robin and Barney’s relationship, and that in fact it would have resulted in a far more interesting story than this one.
On a surface level, there’s a lot to like in this one, as Lily and Barney are always a fun pairing to throw into the ring together and anything which plays into the mythos of Barney Stinson is always fun. But the episode really didn’t have anything else going for it beyond those simple constructs, and it showed: while some of the plays from the Playbook were clever, none of them were a new pinnacle for the show, and the constant winking to the audience made them feel more gimmicky than they needed to be. Some of them, like “My Penis Grants Wishes,” were legitimately unfunny, while others like The Mrs. Stinsfire were derivative even while remaining enjoyable for Neil Patrick Harris’ performance.
My objection to Barney reverting back to this sort of character is not just that I felt he and Robin had more of a relationship to investigate, and that the storyline had a lot more comedy to wring out over time. I also have to admit that I’m growing a bit tired of this more one-dimensional Barney: he may be quippy, and there might be a lot of google hits that get to this post by my use of MILSWANCAS (That’s Mothers I’d Like to Sweep With and Never Call Again), but I don’t think that’s enough to sustain an episode of comedy. What worked with Barney and Robin’s relationship was the idea that this character would be legitimately challenged, not so much eliminated as tested in a way that could have made an episode like this really interesting from a character standpoint. Instead, the episode teased such a character moment at the end of the episode (Barney noting that this was all his way of dealing with his breakup from Robin) only to rip it away and reveal that it was all part of some grand scheme.
Barney is an engaging character, but personally I don’t enjoy episodes that centre on Barney’s character but are entirely devoid of any sort of emotional core. Barney is a fantastic supporting character, played with bravado by NPH, but when thrust into a lead role (as he no doubt was here) the character becomes one-dimensional in a way that actually strips the show of some of its charm. Individual jokes might work as well as they did in the past, and Barney’s one-liners are likely going to be in fine form, but when there’s no heart I can’t engage with this character. His relationship with Robin created the sort of purpose that his character has been missing, and was something that could have created new scenarios where things like the Playbook could operate on a different comic plane. Here, however, it was just like The Bro Code or any other gimmick the character has introduced in the past, and none of the jokes were so strong for my character development-loving side not to feel pretty substantially disappointed.
The side of the story with the rest of the gang was a bit stronger, if only because there were some fun exchanges between the various characters. I don’t quite understand why a new character had to be introduced to justify the story method (Chloe, outside of harmonizing on “Hell No,” was a non-entity), but I enjoyed Marshall and Ted delivering a “Lawyering of Nature” to Robin about her desire to not be in a relationship, and Lily and Barney’s duelling “Youuuu sonofabitch” battle was the sort of thing that both Hannigan and NPH always play extremely well.
It just seemed like this episode, after the season thus far, shouldn’t be happening this way. The ingredients might all be part of HIMYM’s comic signature, with Barney’s elaborate schemes to bag women and the somewhat convoluted narrative structure, but when the episode hinged entirely on a one-dimensional image of Barney and never felt like it really justified that structure I’m left scratching my head, still, about last week’s decision to break up this couple. The show occasionally mentioned, through Robin, how awkward this all was, but to have Barney dismiss the sentiment entirely and to have Robin meet someone new feels like the show rushing on to keep us from asking whether we actually want any of this to happen.
And, well, I don’t.
- I quite enjoyed the moment where Lily was pointing out to Shelly that all of Lorenzo Von Matterhorn’s accolades were lies, but then temporarily takes it back when she hears about the laser tag tournament…until Shelly notes that it was at the Vatican.
- The episode was filled with a lot of really clumsy writing to be honest: Barney blaming Al Qaeda, and making the rather lame “girl with a really nice…phone” joke, seemed really off from the show’s usual comic charm for me.
- I think it says a lot about Ted that, rather than be mad that Barney uses his tragedy as a way to hook up with chicks, he instead uses the strategy himself.
- In better news, Neil Patrick Harris is now on Twitter.