I have a lot of respect for the people who have to make the decision about whether regular programming goes forward in the face of a tragedy. It can’t be an easy decision, and no matter which way you go, you’re going to hear it from one side or the other—probably both. Your heart might be as low, your spirits as little in the mood for business as usual, let alone for laughter, as anyone in the country chilled by the death, destruction, and fear emanating from Boston and the inexplicable violence there today. But you have to make the decision nonetheless. It’s your job.
CBS decided to go forward with its comedy lineup tonight, and so here I am going forward with this writeup. I hope that wherever you are—near or far from Boston, shaking with relief or with anxiety, looking for distraction or obsessively refreshing your news feed—you will receive it as a little bit of normalcy and look forward to a time when this isn’t the episode that aired on the night of the Boston Marathon bombings, but has become just another season eight episode leading toward the finale.
Not the kind that makes you forget all your troubles with uncontrollable laughter or deep narrative resonance, unfortunately. “Romeward Bound” uses a relatively thin B-story (Ted and Barney try to get well-endowed wedding planner Liddy to take off the coat hiding her redonkulous body) to reintroduce an unavoidable obstacle to Robin and Barney’s wedding, and pads out its big A-story revelation (Lily and Marshall decide to move to Rome) with dream sequence after dream sequence. Plenty of jokes land, and I’m inordinately fond of the little character bits Josh Radnor busts out. And it’s not like we didn’t know that the last few episodes of the season would be mostly concerned with setting up the conflicts and moving the pieces for the wedding events and possible cliffhanger.
But the way “Romeward Bound” goes about this necessity is almost aggressively minimalistic. Lily and Marshall need to face a decision about making a big move? Have the Captain call up Lily in the cold open and ask her point-blank to move to Rome with him. Barney still isn’t all the way ready to commit to Robin even though he proposed, and Ted still isn’t all the way ready to stop loving Robin even though he sent her to Barney with his blessing? Have Barney take Robin for granted, then get arrogantly possessive when Ted warns him to start acting like an almost-married man. It’s quite—direct. Effective, but noticeably unadorned.
I had more trouble with Lily and Marshall’s storyline, frankly, because—in an unsatisfying elision we’ve seen HIMYM make too many times—the two of them have to battle problems and emotions that seem to come out of nowhere, rather than out of their history and characters as established. Lily turns the Captain down because she doesn’t want to uproot Marshall from his fulfilling environmental lawyer job and turn him into a wifebeater-wearing househusband cranking a pasta machine and watching Italian Price Is Right. Turns out that not only is that Marshall’s dream existence, down to the last detail, but his job has disintegrated to eating, drinking, and juggling contests with the one other lawyer left in the office. But Lily’s really just afraid of not being able to hack it overseas and leaving her within-10-subway-stops-of-Brooklyn comfort zone, leading Marshall to reassure her with a virtuoso series of inflected variations on his one Italian phrase (“Come on, bro, don’t bogart the Funyuns”).
Lily’s homebody tendencies haven’t been consistent on the show, it’s true, but somehow I felt more betrayed by Marshall’s job going south. Sure, the episode takes pains to show how he hid the truth from Lily with technically-true excuses like “my plate is full” and “we’re in the middle of a big case.” But it seems awfully convenient that we find out there are no Marshall-shaped obstacles to a move to Rome 20 short minutes before Lily decides to move to Rome. Still, how can I be too angry with a storyline that features so much slightly-confused Captain? Kyle MacLachlan waiting, puzzled, for Lily to say “Ahoy” when she answers the phone is no less comic gold for being as simple as a gag can be. On the other end of the spectrum, when black-and-white Italian-movie dream-sequence Marshall rides up on a Vespa wearing a Baby Bjorn and tells his beautiful, Chianti-wielding second wife “It’s time for Marvin’s-a bottle!”, the random, elaborate exuberance of the joke scores big.
Meanwhile, in MacLaren’s, Ted and Barney make the storyline about the puffy coat work with pure comic acting. When asked if Robin would object to his drooling (quite literally) over the chance to see Liddy’s body, Barney proclaims that “there’s one set of balls she can’t tie up with a necktie and lightly hit with a pingpong paddle”—his eyeballs. And when Liddy remembers meeting Ted at yoga, Ted mumbles “She’s talking to me!” with a silly smile on his face, staring at his hands on the table. (His ill-conceived impromptu song “Yoga buddies …!” is even better.)
But the sudden turn from this bit of bro fluff to a giant neon sign telegraphing trouble ahead (starring Ted) for Barney and Robin is abrupt, to say the least. Not that the show hasn’t carefully warned us, on multiple occasions starting with the season-opening flash-forward to wedding day jitters, continuing with Ted’s sad stare out the GNB window toward the roof where Barney and Robin are sealing their betrothal, and repeatedly in recent weeks with Barney’s inability to give up his promiscuous appetites cold turkey, that their wedding day might be troubled or even doomed. On the one hand, I really want these crazy kids to make it work; on the other, I appreciate the show’s refusal to treat the difficult transformations such an outcome would take as matters to be solved with a magic wand of narrative or characterization. Yet there’s some graceful middle ground between that admirable complexity, and the sort of sleight-of-hand some episodes have seen as the proper way to slip serious obstacles into the characters’ path. Ted and Barney are chugging along as single guys, having fun and getting the audience to have fun with them (at their female targets’ expense), and then with a nearly-audible record-scratching sound effect, the writers pull the rug out from under them, almost as if to scold us for enjoying japery that should be relegated to the past of their younger, more foolish selves.
Maybe it’s just this night, just this set of decisions that led to me reviewing this show after this particular day. But I didn’t appreciate the bait and switch.
- According to Barney, the word “redonkulous” should be reserved for Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol-level awesomeness. Fitting, then, that when we flash back to Ted and Liddy at the yoga study, he is describing the movie to her: “Sandstorm? Dubai? That hoodie?!”
- Is the Captain always working on a ship in a bottle when we see him in his office?
- Lily professes to have loved Paris (“the art! the history! the free cheese just for wearing a low-cut top!”) but then confesses she came home two weeks early because she was lonely.
- Two biggest laughs: Ted running through all the little things about a woman that can captivate you (a freckle on her nose, a lilting laugh), and then revealing with great gusto: “The bewitching little detail is that she has just a redonkulous body.” And Barney’s last-ditch, frustrated effort to get Liddy to disrobe after she asks directions to the bathroom: “But it’s hard to pee in a giant coat!”
- “Sometimes for fun, we throw reams of paper at each other.”