September 20th, 2010
Look, I was pretty harsh on How I Met Your Mother last season, but it was harshness which stemmed from love: I care about these characters, so to see their individual arcs subjected in order to make way for standalone stories which fought against the series’ greatest, if not only, strength (its serialized elements) was unfortunate.
Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that the show needs to spend more time discussing the Mother: in fact, I am more or less completely uninterested in that storyline, other than the fact that it largely allows “wistful romantic Ted” to emerge and I’ve got a soft spot for that particular characterization. Rather, my issue is that I need the character to feel like they’re evolving, that they’re reaching a point in their lives when they are considerably less aimless than when they began. My problem, then, is less that Barney and Robin split up, and more that they split up and went back to fairly reductive versions of their respective characters.
“Big Days” is an intelligent premiere in that it keeps things decidedly simple: other than yet another future milestone that we can start counting down the days until, the episode creates a small scenario which speaks to the series’ past, present and future without feeling too strained. Nothing it does feels particularly monumental, but the episode nonetheless captures the sense of purpose that the show was missing for the bulk of last season.
Which, if it holds, will be a welcome return to form.
I have quite a number of issues with Marshall and Lily’s storyline, which I’ll get to in a moment, but frankly I’m glad there’s a Marshall and Lily storyline at all: they’ve been marginalized since their wedding, in all honesty: their financial problems/home ownership story never caught on, and ever since then they have been drifting without anything to ground them. I like both of these characters, and Segel and Hannigan remain a lot of fun, but it says something when Lily’s absence during Hannigan’s pregnancy (at the end of Season 4) did not result in a noticeably different series. And so to see them back in the forefront here was a welcome turn of events, regardless of the issues I have with the storyline.
Those issues, for the record, stem mostly from the suddenness of almost every element of the storyline. I would say that the storyline resonates emotionally, largely based on how well Segel and Hannigan play both the broad comedy and the quiet vulnerability of their characters entering this new stage in their lives, but I don’t know if it feels particularly earned; Marshall’s father’s omnipresence came out of nowhere, and the exaggeration of Marshall’s talkativeness regarding the baby-making made it all seem more jokey than it really needed to be. I liked the astronaut-like exit from his office on a purely comic level, but I think it would have been more effective if the fight was dialed down a bit more and focused just on his father – it also would have made the coda more definitively humorous.
There’s also the issue of the fact that the only way these characters have purpose and direction is when they’re fulfilling the domestic ideal: the gap between wedding and baby did not serve the characters well, and I find it a bit frustrating that the only time the characters have momentum is when they fulfill what have become sitcom clichés. And yet, I have more hope in this case than I did for the marriage side of the storyline: while there is an implicit theme of fatherhood in the central storytelling premise of the series, it is less prevalent than Ted’s obsession with marriage. That obsession placed Marshall and Lily’s marriage in a weird sort of context, and kept that storyline from feeling new (since Ted had imagined it so many times). With the baby, it will be slightly new territory, and the novelty of getting to see Segel and Hannigan central again (at least for a while) will be worth it.
As for the rest of the premiere, Barney and Robin are each given fairly reductive supporting roles which each feature a moment of brief clarity. Robin letting herself go after her breakup with Don is funny in the way that Robin letting herself go is reliably entertaining, but then you get that moment where she proves that she still has it and “sundresses up.” Barney, meanwhile, is his usual womanizing self (calling dibs, explaining the history of dibs, etc.) until Lily stops by, at which point he briefly opens up about how he wishes he had a father (and thus can’t pity Marshall for being so close to his own). In both cases, it sort of sums up their seasonal arcs (Robin getting her groove back, Barney searching for his father) as I understand them, which is an efficient bit of storytelling.
And that’s what HIMYM has always been good at: despite what is technically a sprawling narrative structure, the show has always been effective at efficient storytelling which takes small moments and makes them feel much larger. The Cindy narrative (featuring the always welcome Rachel Bilson) here was perhaps a bit manipulated, never quite feeling particularly organic, but the setup is the show continuing to do more with less: a mention of an umbrella and the revelation that Ted is the best man at a wedding creates legitimate anticipation without turning things into a huge mystery. The story doesn’t rely on the flashforward: with Marshall and Lily’s child rearing, and Robin and Barney on their different paths, for Ted this sort of look into the future keeps things moving along. Sure, it does sort of artificially stretch out the search for the mother, but if that’s what you’re watching for then I don’t know why you’re still watching.
There is nothing revolutionary here, but this is a smart premiere: as noted, it builds in some history (Cindy), adds in a clear image of where the characters sit at present (Robin’s sadness, Barney’s daddy issues, Marshall and Lily’s baby issues), and then throws in a dash of the future (a wedding). It’s nothing the show hasn’t done before, but after a rough season the familiarity is all I really needed.
- Note that Lily is not visibly pregnant at the wedding, which raises three potential options: either she doesn’t get pregnant any time soon, the wedding takes place after she has given birth and lost the baby weight, or the flashforward is actually a flashback and Ted actually met the Mother for the first time before we even knew him. The last would be a little sketchy, I’ll admit.
- So, who’s wedding? Barney and Robin are unaccounted for, and if Ted’s the best man Barney seems like the only possible option (although I suppose it could be Ted’s father, but then why is Lily coming out to get them?
- Loved most of the small jokes around Lily and Marshall’s ritual, in particular the banjo music and the series of “package” jokes. Some great stuff, there.
- I suspect the “High Six” will not be sweeping the nation.
- While I think everyone saw the lesbian twist coming when Cindy hugged Ted and said he had changed her, you should have gotten it even earlier based on the girlfriend’s reading material (Brideshead Revisited).