“The Best Man”
I watched an unremarkable sitcom pilot last night, full of actors I like but devoid of style or spark. (More about that next week.) Watching the premiere of How I Met Your Mother, by contrast, felt like the major leagues. Professionals at work both in front of and behind the camera, demonstrating impeccable timing, delivering moments of real emotion, and never forgetting what makes them funny. “The Best Man” would start the season off with a bang, even if it didn’t provide glimpses of mythology and gently mock the indefinite delay of its own resolution. (“We’re totally, really, almost, not really that close to the end,” 2030 Ted reassures his kids in the cold open.) It’s an assured, frequently delightful, and completely entertaining half hour.
This is all the more remarkable, since the flashback takes place out of the show’s usual routine of haunts, at Punchy’s Cleveland Browns-themed wedding in Ted’s hometown. Just watch the writers set up a multitude of situations they can call back again and again, intertwining them with brisk syncopation. Ted has become known for weepy wedding toasts delivered at low points in his life, which Punchy has helpfully videoed and posted online (even remixing and autotuning one as “Classic Shmosby Remix”), and while Ted wants to redeem himself, Punchy has given the Shmosby waterworks top billing. Marshall and Lily are trying to keep their pregnancy a secret for the first trimester, which means Lily has to pass all her drinks to Marshall under the table so nobody knows she’s not partaking, which means Marshall gets plastered. And Robin is confused about her feelings for Barney, who tries out new lines on all the bridesmaids one minute, whirls her around the dance floor the next, and finally gets a callback from Nora, the girl he approached for a second chance, at the end of the night.
That dance is a beautiful moment—relatively understated, not a huge choreographed spectacle, just a well-executed and perfectly rehearsed expression of mutual joy in movement. The camera helps, gliding along in smooth pans and catching the reception audience joining in when the song kicks back in. It’s not romance; it’s pure fun. But it’s the moment of connection that tells Robin Lily’s right; she still has feelings for Barney. Heartbreakingly, she tells him in the guise of feeding him lines to use on Nora: “I know it didn’t work out the first time, and I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re meant to be together. Is there any chance you’d try again?”
But the premiere doesn’t give us the dance and then figure its work is done. Just as marvelous is Marshall falling helplessly for every baby in the room (“It’s like a minefield of cuteness. Look at this little bastard!”), Barney’s market research (“The Escaped Manslaughterer” and “Patient Zero”), and the repeated freeze-frames right as Marshall is about to stumble into the Brown-helmet-topped wedding cake or peg the bride with a football. (Nifty work by the priest in that last near-miss, snagging the ball and passing it right along.) And of course, there’s the bracing element of Barney’s wedding in the framing device, with Barney wondering if he’s picking the right “tie” to wear forever and ever and Ted reassuring him that at least it’s not the duckie tie. Hm. More on that later, too.
“The Naked Truth”
After a premiere that’s a clinic in how HIMYM should be done, the second episode of the night is a bit more awkward. Mainly, it seems to be an exercise in getting Marshall to his new job at the environmental law firm of Garrison Cootes (Martin Short) and getting Nora past her objections to giving Barney a second chance. While the former plot involves Marshall confronting his past as a drunken streaker whose online presence is facilitated by college buddy and fake frat boy Pete (Jimmi Simpson, aka Liam McPoyle on It’s Always Sunny), the latter is more forward-looking, with Barney trying to come clean to Nora and being hamstrung by his conviction that he’s not good enough for her, necessitating lie after lie.
I want this season to be an evolution for Barney and Robin, but I have a feeling that I’m going to be frustrated with the pace of those changes. We’re being teased with Nora as the possible person Barney will be marrying in those flash-forwards, but we’re also having a reunion between Barney and Robin dangled in front of us. If that’s not enough, Ted and Robin reaffirm their 40 pact (if they’re both still single at 40, they’ll marry each other), meaning that Robin’s pursuit of Barney (whatever it takes to push her to do so) will be complicated by her past with Ted. With all that going on, Nora just feels like a lengthy waystation toward everyone coming clean with their true feelings.
But that’s some pretty impressive persistence Barney shows when he vows to stay in the diner until Nora agrees to a second date. When the gang joins him in the diner nine hours later, he wakes up with a stiff neck, happily finds that he still has the neck brace he wore to the initial meetup (“I was performing in a one man show of Fiddler, and there was this roof …”), and still manages to avoid ordering any food. He certainly seems serious about changing, although I want to shake him and remind him that there’s already a girl who accepts him foibles and all. Maybe it’s just that he doesn’t want to be beaten by himself, as it were. Or maybe it’s chemistry.
Because there’s that third plot of the episode, the one where Ted is trying to decide which of the two girls he’s dating he should take to the Architect’s Ball. The decision involves a legal pad full of pros and cons (occasioning real cheering from the gang) and then color charts (prompting a spontaneous chant of “co-lor charts!”). But finally, Robin persuades Ted to take her, stunning in a blank one-shoulder number that she bought for Ted’s uncle’s funeral before it was unfortunately cancelled due to his miraculous emergence from a coma, so she can see Lenny Kravitz, who of course turns out to be renowned architect Leonard Kravitz, due to give his famous 90-minute lecture on cross beams. And that’s where Ted sees, across the room, arranging cupcakes on a tiered display, Victoria—the baker from season one with whom Ted delayed in breaking up after she moved to Germany. Instant chemistry. Just like that, the pieces are in place for at least the first part of this season: Nora, Victoria, Marshall’s new job, pregnancy, and Robin dealing with her place on the sidelines— for the moment.
We may be so far from the end, as Bob Saget laughingly insists, but I’m mostly okay with that. This show can still work magic. I’m willing to ride along, because doin’s are a-transpirin’, no matter what they say.
Grades: "The Best Man," A; "The Naked Truth," B
- I’ve been getting a lot of flack for not giving this superlative season of Breaking Bad an A grade yet, and so I have to address the A for “The Best Man” right up front. The grades just don’t work compared across shows; each show is graded against its own demonstrated potential. “The Best Man” is a showcase for almost everything HIMYM does well—only its sometimes-revelatory use of embedded, multiple flashbacks and flashforwards is not present here in much complexity—and I don’t expect to see a much better episode this season. Whereas with Breaking Bad, the build has been palpable, and the best of the season is only just now starting to emerge.
- Barney has a toast for Ted to use, based on his newfound celebrity on the cover of New York magazine: “Single file, ladies! No fatties.” Which he amends after remembering the toast will be used in Cleveland: “Single file, ladies!”
- Highlights of classic Shmosby toasts past: “I sit outside her house at night sometimes. She got a haircut last week.” “The happy couple needs to hear this: Things end!”
- Robin sarcastically says what she actually means in a whiny voice in an effort to deny it: “I wish Barney was my boyfriend again”; “I wish the Spice Girls would get back together”; “That was me; I totally cut one”; and “All I really want is for my dad to tell me that he loves me. No, I’m kidding, the pen is great.”
- Barney’s best line of the night, surveying the woman who’s just turned him down: “Was it (a) because vampires are played out, or (b) claiming I also invented Facebook was kind of a hat-on-a-hat?”
- When Ted says that Barney should “lose the cast” he is wearing on his leg to explain to Nora why he’s been out of touch (“I’m going to tell her I fell off the stage during a performance of Man of La Mancha”), Barney goes for the non-obvious definition of “cast”: “A one-man show, I like it!” (And as we’ve seen, he incorporates that element into his eventual neck-brace-themed lie.)
- Stuff that comes up in a Google search for Marshall Ericksen: “18-pound baby county’s largest ever,” a posting in a Bigfoot forum, a local newspaper story about Vanilla Thunder under the heading “50 years, 50 stars,” an urban dictionary entry for Bask-ICE-ball, Wesleyan Student Radio’s appreciation of the Mosby-Erickson rap duo Straight Outta Connecticut, and a band page for The Funk, The Whole Funk, and Nothing But The Funk.
- Pete, while playing a game of Edward Fortyhands with himself, challenges Marshall to a competition in “the sweet science, the sport of kings! I was going to say darts, but Edward Fortyhands it is!”
- There’s an intriguing flashfoward after Marshall’s last “sweeping declaration” never to get drunk again to Marshall at a casino gaming table drunkenly throwing chips in the air while Barney, wearing a duckie tie, sits nearby on the phone. Is there a Vegas wedding in Barney’s future?