March 21st, 2011
There is something hypocritical about the status of Barney Stinson as a character within How I Met Your Mother. On the one hand, he is the character who will change the least: because of his popularity, and because of the broad comedy the character is known for, Barney Stinson will never dramatically alter his behavior. And yet, at the same time, the character is uniquely positioned to engage with more emotional and transformative elements due to Neil Patrick Harris’ dramatic acting ability and the value of having a narcissistic character show signs of selflessness and vulnerability.
Ted Mosby is always on the verge of a dramatic life event, but is never allowed to reach that moment because it would fundamentally change the course of the series. However, because there are assurances that Barney’s essence will not be changed, he’s allowed to do what Ted is not: he’s allowed to meet his father, allowed to confront a potentially life-changing moment on a show which in its sixth season is largely resistant to fundamental change.
The result is a tremendous showcase for Neil Patrick Harris and John Lithgow, achieving an emotional complexity that has been absent from Ted’s story for what seems like a very long time without sacrificing the essence of the character. While there are some who remain frustrated with the lack of momentum on the eponymous story, the show’s sixth season has been quite effective in crafting stories about the other side of the parental coin that have really landed.
Even if they aren’t quite as transformative as Ted’s love life.
The B-Story in “Legendaddy” was on some level your typical HIMYM storyline – it uses flashbacks and quick clips to chart a trend among the four characters who are not Barney, as their various gaps of knowledge (inspired by Barney’s inability to use a screwdriver) inspire a running storyline. The actual jokes are of varying quality: the idea that no one pointed out that Ted pronounces “chameleon” wrong before he became a professor is ludicrous, Robin’s ignorance of the North Pole’s existence doesn’t gel with her Canadian upbringing, and Lily’s lack of aim was played too broadly as well. It was rote HIMYM, something that the show fell into a bit last season as it became almost a simulacrum (or, in other words, an imitation of itself).
However, when the story shifted to Marshall in its final scenes, things changed. Their unwillingness to criticize Marshall thanks to his father’s death posed the question of when the character was “fair game,” when he had taken the next step to moving on from his father’s death. The show has done a fantastic job with charting Marshall’s grief, allowing it to play out longer than I first anticipated, but the moment in the car when they begin to pick him apart is the first conscious moment of release. Marshall is still influenced by his father’s memory, more mature and more conscious of the value of family (which will surely be channeled into Lily’s impending pregnancy), but he’s going to be able to go back to being “one of the gang” in these types of settings. None of the jokes about Marshall were particularly funny (the Star Wars joke was particularly cheap), and I can’t help but feel that they could have integrated those elements into the entire episode to greater effect, but the connection to his character’s state of mind gave the storyline meaning.
The meaning of the A-Story was obviously more evident – with its origins in the fantastic “Showdown,” and its continued relevance in more recent seasons, Barney’s search for his father is one of the character’s most engaging qualities. The “origins” of Barney Stinson are incredibly important considering the character’s actions and behaviors, and the episodes which have dealt with his family have been a fine showcase for NPH and for the show in general. We want to see where this character came from, and I thought “Legendaddy” did some intelligent work in this regard. As Barney imagines a world where his father is simply an older version of himself, the reality is that his father is something much worse: the father that he never was for him.
I really enjoyed the back and forth which emerged as a result: once the imagined version of Jerry faded away, Lithgow was allowed to portray a man struggling to connect with a son he doesn’t know. The line of jokes where Jerry tries to impress Barney by listing off boring and embarrassing facts about himself is actually kind of lame, but the way Lithgow sells them is some really fine work. After being able to actually do an imitation of Barney in the previous sequence, Lithgow is instead allowed to play a lame 60-something year old man trying to imitate Barney – it’s a funny performance without being a broad performance, and it allows the story to transition into a dinner sequence that similarly plays to Lithgow’s strengths. Watching him try to encourage Barney’s cruelty to J.J., cheering him on even as his wife tries to stop the grown man from attacking an 11-year old, was integral to understanding the character’s own struggle with this situation.
It was, to be clear, a failure. When things turn serious, as Barney realizes that Jerome Jr. is living the life he was never allowed to live, Harris and Lithgow deliver a tremendous piece of acting. The transition from “typical” Barney to the emotional state as he tries to hammer a basketball hoop with a screwdriver was (as one would expect from Harris) incredibly effective, and it’s not as though we had reason to doubt Lithgow’s dramatic chops. Sure, it’s a bit of HIMYM cuteness that Barney’s efforts to steal the basketball hoop connect back to the screwdriver discussion that started the whole episode, but it’s HIMYM cuteness that feels perfectly in tune with the sentiment on display. At its best, HIMYM uses its various twists and turns to create resonant character moments, and that scene (as simple as it was on some level) was reflective of four seasons worth of development. The staging was evocative, the performances were raw, and the result was a nice companion to the scene outside Marshall’s father’s funeral.
“Legendaddy” is able to happen because Lithgow is not going to become a regular part of the series – Barney can start a tentative relationship with his father and give Lithgow reason to return for an episode now and then, and he can otherwise exist as an element of Barney’s personality (just as Marshall’s father’s memory has become a part of him rather than that which defines him). The issue with Ted, by comparison, is that he is so defined by his relationships that finding the Mother would completely and fundamentally change the person he is (even if he’s already playing the role by treating every relationship like it’s “the one” and buying a life-size dollhouse in which he maps out fern placement). He is denied moments like these, at least recently, and even when he achieves moments similar to them our pessimism keeps us from believing that they are as potentially transformative as he suggests (see: Zoey, who we know is not the Mother).
I don’t consider this particularly problematic, though, because Ted is not the core of this show. As the show has given Harris more material to work with, and as Segel has been given some great opportunities to return to the forefront this year, the fairly inert Ted side of things is only a problem for those desperate to focus purely on the maternal figure. As “Legendaddy” shows, the show can be just as strong when dealing with the paternal side of things, and strong performances make this a compelling entry in what has been a definite rebound season for the show.
- No luck figuring out the song in the end credits, in case anyone was wondering.
- The absence of Zoey is problematic, given how close this friend group has apparently gotten – I understand that budgets exist, and that her presence would have been a distraction as much as anything else, but I still would’ve liked (and might have missed) a throwaway reference.
- I would read asparagus-related fiction.
- Since I’m always thinking ahead, this is definitely a strong enough showcase to earn John Lithgow a Guest Acting nod (given his win in Drama last year, and his streak of wins for 3rd Rock in the comedy category), but the question remains of whether or not NPH submits it as well. The easy answer is “of course” given the strength of his performance (and the variety that the ups and downs the character experiences allows him to display), but with Chris Colfer hitting much the same beats I’m wondering if something more broadly comic might be more effective as a counter-strategy.