In an unusually comprehensive and frank discussion published on Slate this morning, several TV critics (including Alan Sepinwall, our own Noel Murray, and James Poniewozik) talk about the pros and cons of the episode-by-episode series review style, an example of which you’re reading right now. I can’t help but think about it as I write about tonight’s solid, funny, and touching episode of HIMYM, because the long shadow of this critical form hangs over everything we do, what I write, and how you respond as a reader or commenter.
In episode-by-episode criticism, The Trend sets the storyline for the critic’s ongoing coverage. If the show has a good outing this week, it could be a return to form. It could be a brief high point in an otherwise dismal run. Or we could be looking at our watches and wondering how long this honeymoon could last. It all depends on The Trend. And influential TV bloggers and critics established the lens through which season six of HIMYM would be viewed when they concluded that season five had lost its way. Sepinwall even was part of a 2010 interview at TCA where the creators assured him and viewers that they had heard the message and would be bringing back heart and emotion to the show. That’s one exceptionally powerful instance of establishing The Trend, which then results in a measurement of the show week after week to see whether it’s going with the flow or bucking the current. We write about the jokes, the acting, the direction, the writing, what made us laugh, what made us smile or gasp. We do all that. But we also have to write about what this particular half-hour means when stacked up to The Trend. Each episode is evidence that HIMYM is Back, Baby! or Regrettably Continuing Its Slide (or maybe Seems Promising But The Jury Is Still Out).
I think this season has been really, really good. By which I mean that it’s often had the snappiness that delights me in its pacing, the intricate time-nesting tricks that delight me in its construction, the clever jokes and gags that make me laugh, the instances of character growth that add depth to these people we like to spend time with weekly, and the elegantly presented themes that present us with moments of recognition. There have been a few classics, a few clunkers, and a lot of well-thought-out, professionally and artfully presented television comedy. So when I finish watching “Desperation Day,” I am happy that I can report that the show is in fine shape on most of those above-listed fronts. The evidence:
- Keeping Marshall in Minnesota not only produces a conflict that the show can invest thematic capital in resolving, but it also creates opportunities for snappy editing. Here we cut from Marshall’s regression-bedroom, where he plays Mario games and eats the snacks his mother prepares for him, to the night of February 13 in MacLaren’s bar, as if the two events were happening simultaneously. Even though it seems unlikely that Ted could get spooked about Zoe’s Valentine’s Day first date plan, catch a plan to Minnesota, get settled in, argue with Lily about going back to New York, and send her off to the airport for the last flight out before the storm hits all in, oh, half a day conservatively. No matter. It’s the crosscutting that’s important, not the realism, and the juxtaposition of Marshall realizing both he and Ted need to man up and face the adult responsibilities of New York instead of hiding in a retro teenage-boycave, at the same time as Barney slides without realizing it into the adult world of having a date on Valentine’s Day. We need smashcuts to make that point hit home.
- Unless you count the willful suspension of space-time provided by the all-in-one-day multiple-character trips to Minnesota and back, no playing with chronology in this one. More of an Aristotelian unity-of-time kinda thing going on.
- I enjoy watching Neil Patrick Harris bring Barney to life, and the New York half of this episode had almost every Barney trope in the playbook. There’s the invention of Desperation Day (“That’s not a thing,” Robin interjects, only to be cut off by Barney asserting to the group at large, “It’s a thing!”), the sum of lonely women plus the looming specter of Valentine’s Day fast approaching at the stroke of midnight. The elaborate fake historical backstory, complete with Robin demanding of the heavens, “Oh Jupiter, what are your plans for me?” The decoy target, this time an Olympic silver medalist gymnast, whom at first Barney rejects because “gold’s the only one that counts,” only to rethink matters when she confesses, “That’s what my dad said” (“And she sticks the landing,” he muses). And the confused self-delusion when he recruits Robin’s confident co-worker Nora to be on his Laser Tag team for the big Poughkeepsie tournament the next day and discovers that he’s no longer the master of Desperation Day.
- And as for character growth and thematic resonance, well, Marshall decides to face the world without his dad. The image of Dad driving through the night really got to me; there were so many times when I trusted my dad was in control even though the headlights seemed to throw so little light. “I couldn’t see worth a damn,” Marshall’s dad confesses as Marshall drives the sleeping Ted through a snowstorm. “I just kept driving forward, hoping for the best.” It’s beautifully said and echoes down through all the layers of the show.
In the face of an episode that seems to exemplify so much of what makes the show worth loving and worth fighting for—as Sepinwall, God bless him, continues to love and advocate and fight for the show despite a slowly-snowballing cultural consensus that it’s past its prime, a dinosaur being outcompeted by the new species taking over television, or fatally flawed in its very conception in some fashion—I don’t want to wonder whether we’re on our way up or down. Season sox has given us some multi-part storylines that we’ve embarked upon with great trepidation. I still think the reveal of Marshall’s dad’s death in an episode with a huge metagimmick countdown was a terrible idea. Many viewers hated Zoey from the start and have been eager to see her time on the show come to an end.
But here we are at a moment where Marshall becomes something different—something more, after briefly trying out something far less—because of that horrible revelation a few months ago. And here we are with Ted and Zoey treating their official hookup moment as a significant event, a change of life plans for both of them, something they’ll look back on someday with nostalgia. Wherever we thought we might be going when we started down this road, we are someplace now that has a different kind of meaning than we probably expected. I think it has more. We’ve been given more because of the journey. And all without sparing (most of the time) the other elements that make the show wonderful. That’s worth appreciating right here in the present, no matter how eager we might be to nail down the latest tick mark on The Trend.
- Robin knows that Zoey invites Ted to bake cookies instead of issuing a booty call because “It’s called class, Ted.”
- Desperation Day is “when a 10 has the self-esteem of a 4 and the depraved enthusiasm of a 2.”
- More screen time for Robin’s co-worker Anna (IASIP’s Artemis), here sharing a booth and the color purple with Bev, who selected purple for the Valentines revolt because “purple is for pride… it’s a stupid idea.”
- Slippers are a bad idea for an overnight bag when no one’s invited you to stay over, even if you do call them “British morning socks.”
- Best laugh of the night goes to the Minnesota subplot. Ted: “Mrs. Erickson, we’re running low on Sunny D!” Judy: “Is orange juice okay?” Ted and Marshall, in unison: “No!”
- Love Barney’s desultory performance of the magic trick (crack an egg, a dove flies out) that he offered in a bid to keep Nora from leaving.
- “I call him Marshpillow,” Lily explains about the body pillow she has dressed as Marshall and posed in their apartment. Right after she apologized to it: “I’m sorry I yelled like that before.”
- “To be fair, he is having a sick run on Dr. Mario.”