From Artifact to Aimlessness: Robin Sparkles in HIMYM’s “Glitter”

From Artifact to Aimlessness: HIMYM’s “Glitter”

November 18th, 2010

I had originally wanted to have this up the day after “Glitter” aired, but I realized that this would be disadvantageous.

Things that are posted immediately after an episode feel like reviews, and I really don’t want to review “Glitter.” It was a pleasant episode of the series, an often silly bit of comedy that I do not consider an affront to my sensibilities or anything. And so, I do not want this sort of in depth analysis into my frustration with the episode to read like a condemnation of the direction the show has taken Robin Sparkles – this is more a consideration of what has happened, and why it moves away from the character’s origin, than any sort of critical evaluation of this strategy (many, after all, seemed to really enjoy it).

What I want to look as is why some people (myself included) felt this was more than a case of diminishing returns. I was underwhelmed by this episode, but it wasn’t because it wasn’t funny. Rather, it was because the elements of satire and parody which defined Robin Sparkles first introduction were entirely absent, both in terms of the kind of humor the episode focused on (the unintended sexual connotation of nearly every comment) and the way in which the character was deployed.

And, as someone who has already written six thousand words on the series’ construction of Canada through Robin’s past, it’s only natural that I’ve got more to say on the issue after this half-hour.

There are very few people who prefer “Sandcastles in the Sand” to “Let’s Go to the Mall,” at least to my knowledge, and I’d argue this is a case of diminishing returns. The videos are both very similar: while they lampoon different aesthetics, both play into 80s music video contentions of teen idols like Tiffany. “Let’s Go to the Mall” feels novel, but “Sandcastles in the Sand” just takes turns up the dial a little bit: Tiffany actually appears in the video, Alan Thicke has a cameo, and the references back to “Let’s Go to the Mall” expand on its mythology of sorts. It was the same thing done again, relying largely on our goodwill for the first video, and I think everyone can agree that the show needed a change.

“Space Teens” is a departure, I’ll give it that, but I’d argue that its difference is not necessarily an advantage. Yes, “Space Teens” steps away from the 80s music video parodies that were perhaps growing tired, but it has nothing to replace it with. While it is positioned as a parody of 80s children’s television (You Can’t Do that on Television, where Alanis Morissette got her start in Canada, is explicitly mentioned), the actual video fails to deliver any sort of commentary on that form.

In my previous piece I classified the Robin Sparkles videos as artifacts, objects which offered insight into Robin’s past (and thus the past of the series’ imagined Canada). While it was clear that they had been constructed in the present day, and with little relation to actual Canadian culture, they still amounted to representation within the series’ narrative. The videos held power not because they were funny, but because they felt “real” in ways that emphasized their humour (yes, the “U” is coming out for this piece).

“Let’s Go to the Mall” was a found object, something Barney had to actively search out in order to acquire, while “Sandcastles in the Sand” took physical form as a VHS tape that Robin has in her possession. Similarly, both took the form of an actual media text: in mocking the conventions of music video, they were clearly labeled as both from a particular era and as something separate from the series’ usual aesthetic. While the various elements (the cheap computer graphics, the gratuitous cameos) are all exaggerated for effect, there is a sense that what they are exaggerating existed to some degree within the form being referenced.

“Space Teens” never achieves this level of artifact. The attempt is here, no question: you’ve got the animated opening, the 80s font type, the cheaply constructed set, and the cheesy sound effects we would normally associate with this type of media text. And yet the animated opening looks like something out of a cheap web video, not the 1980s (or the early 1990s where this would actually have been airing), and the computer graphics on the curling stone-shaped rocket ship were decidedly twenty-first century compared to what we saw in “Let’s Go to the Mall.”

And while the set looks cheaply made, it also looks brand new, and with absolutely no filtering it is clearly identifiable as a 2010 television program (and is indistinguishable, aesthetically, from the rest of the series) – the music videos at the very least used various camera angles and filters that were indicative of the era, but outside of a fuzzy Alan Thicke on a tube television none of it felt “old.”

For comparison’s sake, look at an episode of “You Can’t Do That on Television” from 1987:

The fact that there is no effort to make “Space Teens” fall into this particular aesthetic seems like a wasted opportunity: while I am sure it would be more expensive to create a truly hand-drawn opening sequence, or to adjust the studio lighting to more accurately reflect the aesthetic of these programs, this still seems lazy (even though it’s clear a lot of work went into it). I certainly agree that there needed to be a move away from the music video aesthetic, which was becoming tired, but this never feels like it is part of a Canadian past, or the past at all. It isn’t helped by the way it is introduced, with Barney pulling a DVD out of his coat.

Not only is the format decidedly newfangled compared to the VHS we saw in “Sandcastles in the Sand,” but Barney delivers the video without any of the buildup we saw in “Let’s Go to the Mall.” For the first time, the video is the launching pad for the episode rather than its climax, a shift which robs the video of the sense of ceremony (and secrecy, on the part of Robin) that contributed to the other videos being seen as artifacts.

Now, admittedly I may be alone in this, but I also felt that the silliness of Robin Sparkles is not necessarily compatible with the sexual innuendo that the show chooses to display in this setting. While the opening to “Let’s Go to the Mall” may have alluded to pornography for the sake of setting up the Slap Bet, that seemed like it could fit into the realm of parody (many 80s videos started with awkward “acting” sequences which were often cringe-worthy). By comparison, “Space Teens” becomes so laden with innuendo that the hyper-sexualization becomes a construct of production more than the fictional series in and of itself. The joke is actually quite successful at making me laugh, but the consequence is the loss of the added layer of national and personal identity that Robin Sparkles used to speak to.

Of course, the entire “Beaver” runner has everything to do with Canada, but I don’t feel the episode earns its Canadian flag or the parade of Canadian figures that emerge at episode’s end. While the fact that everyone sings along with the scene suggests that the song (and thus the show) are Canadian icons, their focus on innuendo more than Canada-specific humor makes the connection pretty tenuous. I don’t meant to suggest that “Let’s Go to the Mall” was an example of complex Canadian satire, or that “Sandcastles in the Sand” was definitively Canadian (it was, after all, clearly filmed on a California beach), but that this seems like the most tenuously Canadian video yet. Perhaps it was that Nicole Scherzinger is neither Canadian nor capable of a Canadian accent, or maybe it is just that Canadian elements of the character are simply more thin with each passing video, but Robin’s Canadianness felt particularly perfunctory in this episode.

I understand the episode’s humor – the sexual innuendo was fun, and the Beaver song is still stuck in my head. My concern is that Robin Sparkles became a joke instead of a source of jokes, that the video was played for humor rather than as an insight into Robin’s past. Previous videos were central to questions of Robin’s identity and concerns over Robin’s place in life: here, the video’s existence created the central storyline in “Glitter,” but the video was so simultaneously joke-riddled that its legacy is traditional sitcom fare rather than an artifact of the past.

I do not necessarily consider this an injustice, but it does seem strange. “Space Teens” is supposed to pre-date the previous Robin Sparkles videos, which makes its advanced special effects even more bizarre and which positions it as a sort of origin story. This could have told us something about the character we didn’t know, or something about Robin’s past that we had never seen. This is how the video functioned as a plot device, bringing Jessica Glitter into the story and saying something about Robin and Lily’s friendship, but none of this was to be found in the video itself. The video was just a joke, fuel for the fire, with no value beyond sexual innuendo.

And, perhaps naively, I though Robin Sparkles meant more than this.

Cultural Observations

  • It is entirely possible that I found the sexual innuendo so problematic because it took away from more awesome math puns.
  • On rewatching the episode, I saw that I had missed Barney’s attempt to slap Marshall after presuming it was pornographic – a nice call back.
  • I know that I sound really down on “Space Teens,” but I love that it provides an origin story for the robot. I hate, however, that it does a better job of establishing the robot’s origin than Robin Sparkles’.
  • I am fairly certain that the politician in the Canadian image is the same actor who played Mulroney, so I sort of presumed that they intended it as a callback to “Let’s Go to the Mall” as opposed to current Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
  • I have nothing to say about Ted/Punchy, Lily’s baby drama – pretty dull overall, outside of setting up the wedding for later in the season.


Filed under How I Met Your Mother

5 responses to “From Artifact to Aimlessness: Robin Sparkles in HIMYM’s “Glitter”

  1. I was sure you’d have a comment on the Barney run of reality elimination lines.

  2. greg

    To be fair, kids’ shows have a history of being pretty hard not to deconstruct for sexual themes. Remember ‘HR Punfstuff’? A bunch of guys running around on an island playing a magickal flute which, when stolen by the only female (Witchy-Poo, as I recall) became flaccid and unplayable. Until the guys wold inevitably steal it back and it hardened and they’d dance around the island again playing it. Couldn’t help but think of that during ‘Space Teens.’ (though it was the ‘Beaver Song’ that I found to be particulaly anticlimactic and unmemorable) Kinda liked how psycho Lily is becoming, if only because it gives Alyson more screen time and something to acually work with.

    I kind of agree that Robin became the joke herself here rather than Barney’s obsession with her inglorious past, but it does give some logical reason why she would eventually leave Canadian showbiz in favor of reading news across the border. This CLEARLY was not the first time she’d had to endure people laughing at that show. (An unaired pilot, no? I wonder how so many other people were familiar with the song?)

    I can’t believe you just kipped over the wedding! So, is Punchy’s nuptuals actually gonna be the event referenced in the season premiere, or is it just another in a long line of redherrings this show’s handed its viewers? Much as with Ted’s future-wife’s former roommate’s possible wedding, I can’t quite figure out how the rest of the gang would be in the wedding party.

    • Tausif Khan

      There is also theory of pop music that while boy pop idols were stripped of sexual desire and made to seem like Ken Dolls (see N’SYNC) girl pop idols present a repressed sexuality in their songs (look at early Britney Spears). So I think the show was trying to address this aspect of pop music in general that it perverts and skews a child’s growth explaining their damaged adult behaviour (I put that “u” especially for this post).

  3. Mel

    I just wanna say that while I enjoy them both, I think Sandcastles in the Sand is way funnier than Let’s Go to the Mall, lyrically speaking.

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