How I Met Your Mother – “Bad News”

“Bad News”

January 3rd, 2011

How I Met Your Mother is willing to make sacrifices.

In its balance of a long-running serial narrative and episodic storylines, the show is always looking for ways to balance one with the other: sometimes heavy mythology means slightly weaker standalone work, and sometimes a lack of mythology creates a lack of meaning to a particular story. Often, the mythology is emphasized to evoke pathos, and yet in the process the series has sort of fallen into certain patterns: the show can still hit Ted’s romantic notes well, for example, but it’s hit them enough times that the novelty may well have worn off.

In “Bad News,” we have an example of sacrificing coherent storytelling for the sake of slowly revealing an ongoing gimmick which, once fully comprehended by the audience, becomes the driving force behind a moment which was legitimately affecting. In doing so, the writers all but admitted that “Bad News” wasn’t going to be an all-time classic, but that seemed a conscious decision which allowed for that final moment to hit as hard as they wanted it to hit.

It was manipulative, to the point of damaging the structural integrity of the episode, but that final moment was perhaps worth that sacrifice.

I don’t know when I would have discovered the countdown were it not for some TweetDeck notifications which spoke explicitly to the ongoing gimmick at hand. Looking back, the numbers are obvious, but their integration seems natural and quite clever. However, once you realize it’s there, you can’t not realize they’re there: you want to pause to find the latest number, react when you discover that you’ve missed one of the numbers, and then feel as if you’re not getting the whole experience if you aren’t seeing everything. The episode, not unlike Lost, becomes about the numbers even when the episode is clearly about other things. Forget the fact of what the numbers mean: while that question lurked in the back of my mind, the distraction of finding the bloody things was enough to render the episode’s narrative almost non-existent.

It doesn’t help that I really have no investment in Robin’s new workplace: while I was pleased to see the return of Alexis Denisof’s Sandy Rivers, if only because it gave me my first chance to see Denisof in a role after starting Buffy/Angel over the summer, Robin’s workplace is just plain boring. It seems like a dead end job with almost no advantages over her previous position, even Sandy (as a returning character) seemed to be given no time to establish a personality, and compared to the broad satire of Goliath National Bank it’s a thinly drawn workplace with no actual value. It doesn’t advance Robin as a character, it doesn’t give the series any new avenues of comedy (see: repeating all of her previous greatest hits as if the audience needs to be reminded), so why are we bothering with it beyond the fact that they felt Robin needed to do something? Throwing Ted into the storyline felt equally lazy, a sign that what little momentum the series has is only present where they explicitly bring up the impending nuptials or other such elements.

I don’t mean to say that the series need have momentum, but the problem with the numbers was that they created momentum which, in turn, showcased the complete lack of momentum in the other storylines being told in the episode. As a result, when it was eventually clear where the numbers were headed in regards to Marshall’s father, it became an issue of merging the momentum gained by the numbers onto a storyline which had none. While there were a few amusing moments in the other storylines, most surrounding Barney’s doppelganger doctor (which oscillated between obnoxious [the goggles stuff] and charming [his laser tag prescription] to at least offer something worthwhile), none of it came together. The masturbation stuff was dull (and felt like something that the show has done relatively recently, although I don’t have a direct memory of such a thing), and even as the story reached its conclusion it seemed like yet another blockade in their inevitable march towards having a child: they’re going to have a baby, as was confirmed by the flash forward just a few episodes ago, so these episodes which create tension surrounding this fact just don’t have any tension.

And yet because of the countdown, the episode (if not its storylines) have momentum. I wanted to know where the numbers would end up, and as the tragic truth came to pass I was moved. Perhaps it’s that Hannigan is an expert at selling those moments, and that Segel stepped up to the plate to emphasize just how this news broke Marshall’s heart, but the moment was pretty darn perfect. However, it was perfect at the expense of the episode as a whole – it’s possible that a single strong moment is worth the sacrifice of the other narratives, and the conclusion of “Bad News” makes a solid argument for that, but it does raise questions about whether the greatness of a singular scene is capable of elevating an otherwise dull half-hour.

And whether the countdown qualifies as a clever gimmick, or a manipulative distraction.

Cultural Observations

  • Donna Bowman over at The A.V. Club has put together the list of all fifty numbers in her review – looking back through a second time, the post-processing ones were much more obvious, and I wish they could have built them all in organically, but I can see what a logistical headache that would have been when not dealing with upside-down 9s.
  • I think Barney’s laser tag tournament would be a whole lot of fun, personally, but maybe I’m overestimating the sport’s appeal.
  • Of course Barney’s doppelganger would be a doctor.


Filed under How I Met Your Mother

18 responses to “How I Met Your Mother – “Bad News”

  1. Tausif Khan

    I was actually very distracted when I first noticed the numbers. I thought the numbers started higher than fifty. I first noticed them when Marshall was talking about how he calls his father for good news and his father was holding an instruction manual with a number that was colored differently from the rest of the scene.

    I thought the numbers were originally intended to mean nothing and make fun of people looking for patterns in the show a la Buffy writers and the number shirts (on the commentaries they make fun of fans trying to make theories out of the number shirts which were just a coincidence).

    I also read the numbers as a possible commentary on the whole idea of the show just being a countdown to a reveal of the mother.

    I do like Ted and Robin’s just friends rapport in these episodes though. It is good to see shows showing how guys and girls can be friends.

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  3. I wonder if the numbers play better if they end up counting down to something less serious. If, say, they ended up counting down to the next Slap Bet slap, then all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so crass, as it kind of does here, if only in retrospect.

  4. Nora

    I missed a lot of this episode because of my 7 month old, but even then the final scene was very powerful and left me in tears. Some of that has to do with how Hannigan is really amazing in this scene. A lot of that has to do with my own father-in-law who has survived two heart attacks, but we don’t know if he would survive another.

    The numbers at first glance do seem just like a gimmick and a distraction. And one commenter said that they might have been better if they counted down to something more fun. It was jarring to see what they did countdown to. However, to Marshall now all of these scenes in his life will be so many days or so many hours until he learned of his father’s death. It is an extremely honest way to show how people deal with such terrible news. In my real life my husband and I feel like we are in a countdown with his dad – is this his last Christmas, is this the only grandkid he will meet, etc. And we had warning signs, we are savoring all of our time with him and with family in general because we have had such a scare. Marshall had this countdown going on in his life and he didn’t even know it and he will play this episode which equates to probably the week before his father’s death, over and over again. And in that world, and in Ted’s narration where the narrator knows the end, it all leads to this life changing event.

    I am still not sure the numbers totally work because it is a comedy, that has used gimmicks before, so the numbers can come off crass. And who knows what the HIMYM was intending with them. But for me the numbers made sense. I am also aware that I could be reading way too much into this, and letting my emotions/circumstances jump to conclusions that are not there. The last scene was just so good.

  5. The final scene really affected me emotionally. While watching, I was visibly moved, even to tears, by the performances of Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel. But after that wave of emotion passed, I was kind of pissed. The countdown seemed far to gimmicky to precede something so gut wrenching. I doubt I’ll ever watch this episode again, even if the last minute was some of the finest work the show has ever done.

  6. Jeff Carroll

    HIMYM has always been non-linear with time in its storytelling, especially since the premise of the entire series is that it is a story about the past. I like to see the numbers as a reflection of how important this day is in all their lives. This sad day, and its 50 trivial moments, are now embedded in this group’s memory. Whether intended or not, I like this interpretation of the numbers–not as a countdown, but as an accounting.

    • You make a great point, the countdown helps show that not that much matters until something huge happens. (Not only that – the countdown served as a distraction so that when the gut punch happens, you’re really taken by surprise.) Was it necessary? No. But the countdown has attracted a lot of attention for last night’s episode.

      As a “gimmick”, well, the entire premise of the show is a gimmick. We’re all still watching because we want to know how Ted meets the mother. Whether you see the countdown as crass, unnecessary, or meaningful, it’s all subjective. But we have to give credit where credit is due – and the gimmicks keep people talking.

  7. Drekab

    The numbers completely ruined the moment for me. I didn’t see them until the last 5 minutes when my wife suddenly noticed them so we started counting down from about 10. It brought me completely out of the show as I watched for the numbers and wondered what the writters were up to, expecting some light joke with perhaps a new years theme. The ending was indeed shocking, but instead of feeling for the characters I was completely focused on the writters. “What were those sick bastards thinking of?” descibes my reaction, instead of feeling sad I felt angry and manipulated. It was pretty jarring.

  8. Mel

    I was not aware of the numbers beforehand, and while I noticed some of them (years of being a Phile means I always look for that shit) since this is not a genre show I didn’t bother really thinking about them at all (particularly in light of the Buffy numbers shirts and the Buffy commentary “I moved the jars to say 3-1 instead of 1-3 because I knew watchers would wonder at the significance of 13, and they ended up wondering about 31!” deal) and I found this episode pretty awesome. It was hilarious until it wasn’t and when it wasn’t I forgot momentarily that these aren’t real people and I just wanted to hug Marshall. We’ll see how my opinion changes (if it does) when I watch it with this fancy new awareness, but I like Jeff Carroll’s explanation right now.

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  10. Evamarie

    I didn’t even see the numbers until I rewatched the episode and the ending, while well acted, seemed really out of place. It was a fun light-hearted episode, then wham! his dad is dead with no warning/lead up. Which is fine in a drama, but in a sit-com?

    • Tristan

      Having lost a parent I can tell you this was actually an exact example of how it is. It does all really seem out of place, but that’s how it is. It’s to show you how these seemingly meaningful scenes can lead up to what actually is an extremely changing moment in your life. The episode has this light-hearted character and then the reality strikes you like a giant yellow schoolbus.
      For me this episode was up one of, if not, their best so far. It is so true to reality it’s heartbreaking. Not to mention the performances are golden.

  11. skittledog

    I really liked this episode. It was certainly uneven and had a few dud moments, plus some obvious problems with pacing and balance caused by the countdown and the gutpunch at the end, but I far prefer this show when it has the ambition to try stuff like this and not be ashamed to wear its emotional heart on its sleeve. One of my favourite moments ever is still the end of the s1 finale, where you crash from the happiness of Ted and Robin together to the misery of Marshall and Lily breaking up, and to my mind this is something the show can do well – be a comedy that doesn’t forget to serve the dramatic side of its storylines. More importantly, it’s something that I felt the show lost entirely in s5 – everything became a joke, nothing serious stuck – and I’m very happy to see tentative signs of it recurring this year.

    But I’m definitely influenced by being in the camp who see the countdown as a reflection of how Marshall will always remember these scenes leading up to his dad’s death, and therefore I don’t find it crass or annoying. I didn’t even find it that distracting – although I had brief periods of noticing all the numbers as they went by, then I’d blank them out for another stretch and get involved in the show, then I’d spot one again and be surprised by how many I’d missed… it didn’t really drag me out of the story too much.

    One point, though, regarding Robin’s job – I actually breathed a sigh of relief when the voiceover said she worked there happily for a while. I don’t think it’s a dead-end job, or at least it’s not been described as one, and while I do think they should have fleshed her co-workers (other than Sandy) out more, there wasn’t time for it in this episode. I was relieved because Robin used to be one of my favourite low-key awesome women on tv, with her tomboyish aspects and her very go-getting attitude. By stranding her in a series of more and more inane presenter jobs, twisting her aspiration into attention-seeking and generally reducing her work/love life to a standing joke, she’s been poorly served by her storylines in the past few seasons and has become almost whiny and self-pitying (and annoying) at times. If this signals a period where she’s allowed to be happy and confident again (much as Ted has been this season, and I’m enjoying his character much more as a result), I will be very glad of it.

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  13. Diego

    Cultural reference: the number 33 in “33 miners rescued from collapsed mines” refers to Copiapó Mining Accident, where 33 miners were trapped in a mine and were rescued alive 70 days later.

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