March 22nd, 2010
I often write in my reviews of the Big Bang Theory that I feel the show needs to spend more time showing me why its central characters are still friends: Sheldon has done enough mean things, and been the recipient of enough poor treatment, that the dynamics of their friendship have more or less been reduced to “because they make a good sitcom cast on good days.”
By comparison, I rarely question the dynamics of the central five characters on How I Met Your Mother, but “Say Cheese” wants me to interrogate why these people are still friends. In the process, the episode takes both Lily and Ted to some unfortunate places, showing sides of their characters which make them seem quite unpleasant.
However, while the Big Bang Theory doesn’t have to resolve its tensions since it will simply ignore the events of one week’s episode in the next, How I Met Your Mother is all about continuity, and by the end of “Say Cheese” they find a way to turn Ted and Lily acting like jerks into a healthy investigation of what it means to be friends. That doesn’t mean it’s a particularly strong or enjoyable episode of the show, but it’s another sign that even some unfortunate premises can be improved when the core values of a show and its cast dynamics are there to keep you watching.
While it’s easy to focus on Lily and Ted in this episode, I found Marshall to be its most compelling character. We know that Lily is capable of holding a grudge and being particularly stubborn, and we know that Ted tends to believe that every girl is “the one” and drag them into the group situation (See: Karen), but we don’t know how Marshall responds to all of this. And so while we weren’t surprised at Lily or Ted’s behaviour, even taken to extremes as it was in parts of “Say Cheese,” I was at least a bit surprised to see Marshall take things so personally. You can watch as Marshall goes from his attempts to keep the party afloat with his songs and his games (Lillial Pursuit, for example), but then you can see him becoming more and more disillusioned before Amanda’s cake puts him over the edge: he’s just as tired of Ted’s behaviour as Lily is, and he’s not going to take it anymore.
I think the show was a little bit too blunt, to be honest, when it comes to Ted’s parade of forgotten women: “Random Skank Lane” and “Name that Bitch” might be fine on their own, but the entire episode objectified the women to the point that we read it as Ted’s objectification, or Lily’s objectification, and it did nothing for either character. By comparison, Marshall was frustrated that he had been brought down to their level, annoyed that he had become too cynical to believe to comfort Ted’s ex-girlfriends after their breakups. While Lily’s concerns ended up seeming trivial, as she would eventually come to understand when the true stories behind the various photographs were revealed to be more complicated than a posed photograph can actually capture, Marshall felt as if Ted’s actions had affected more than images. Everything in the episode is blown out of proportion, to some degree, but I like that Marshall comes to Lily’s defence not just because she’s his wife, but because he too feels like he has been affected by Ted’s actions.
And so when Ted eventually “wins” the debate by pointing out that his belief that “What if she’s the one” is what allowed Lily, Marshall and Ted to share a group photo early in their friendship, it’s something that puts the entire episode into perspective. Yes, we had to sit through Lily being enormously bossy, and Ted got reduced to a jerk for a half-hour, but in the end they realize that what keeps them together is their history. The photos may not always be reflections of perfect memories, but collectively they offer a glimpse into the complicated and enjoyable lives of these five friends. By surrounding the more “dramatic” story with Robin’s quest to take a bad photo of Barney, or Marshall’s inability to keep his eyes open, things remains a little bit lighter than air, which kept it from being weighed down too much by the central conflict.
My one complaint is that they did so many glimpses into Ted’s dating past that they all sort of lost meaning after a while. Karen is a particularly abusive case, so bringing back Laura Prepon made a lot of sense, but why was Anne Dudek wasted on a brief interlude with Marshall as one of Ted’s crying exes? These sorts of “anthology” episodes where we stay in one location and get a series of stories are something the show does well, but it seems like this one had so many relationships that it made Ted like a bit too much of a manwhore, and no romantic notion of love in his college days could overcome the sheer volume of it all.
I’m sure some will really despise this episode, considering that it features some fairly negative portrayals of two lead characters, but so long as that behaviour is used purposefully it isn’t a problem in and of itself. Ted can be a jerk so long as he has a reason to, and Lily can be a jerk so long as she eventually realizes that her behaviour is misplaced; I like both characters more when they’re in different modes, sure, but as long as the show recognizes that they shouldn’t (and can’t) stay this way forever, episodes like “Say Cheese” are a good reminder that a group of friends like this one has to deal with conflict, and these five are pretty darn good at it at the end of the day.
- Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t like Lily and Marshall’s apartment as a set. Something about it just seems “off” in a way that makes episodes like this far less pleasant than they would be if they were at Ted and Robin’s apartment instead.
- I was disappointed that we never got to hear Marshall’s song.
- Nice bit in the coda with Marshall finally having his eyes open while Barney finally takes a bad photo due to Robin’s cilantro plan.
- As a photographer and as someone who has seen many circumstances where the kind of awkward photo memories that the show brings up have taken place, I could totally relate to the story at hand, which perhaps explain why I was able to buy the episode. This happens a lot, really, and is now even more common in the Facebook era.