Last week, Modern Family made a bold move. After dangling a number of cliffhangers in the season finale, its première came back to reveal all the secrets and establish the new situation for the season: Gloria and Jay about to have a baby, Mitch and Cam giving up on adopting, and Haley’s boyfriend Dylan asking to stay at the Dunphy home for a while. Normally, a sitcom would take those premises—well, at least the first and third; the second is more of a non-premise—and milk them for as much of the season as possible. But that’s not what Modern Family did. Instead, the show skipped over all those comic possibilities of Dylan practicing his guitar over the garage and Jay getting freaked out at morning sickness. The episode ended months after it began, with Dylan finally getting the boot and Gloria almost at term.
I thought it was singularly ballsy. Here’s a show that’s not afraid to defy expectations and leave some standard-issue comedy on the shelf. I wish I could say the same thing about “The Pre-Nup.” But unfortunately, there is nothing more standard-issue than sitcoms with engaged characters who find themselves locking horns over whether they need legal protection in the event of a divorce they never plan to get. Pre-nup episodes practically come in generic tin cans with nothing but “pre-nup” and a bar code on the label.
And while HIMYM can sometimes take hackneyed plots and give them fresh twists, that didn’t happen here. Instead, Barney and Quinn’s fight over whether she should sign the contract provokes the other three couples to start fighting over stuff they would change about each other if they had a chance to “renegotiate the terms of the relationship.” Lily would forbid Marshall from tossing the baby up in the air, something he argues was a common practice in his house growing up. Ted would restrain Victoria from maintaining a relationship with her ex Klaus that leads to the German naturist and ferret enthusiast taking up residence in their apartment temporarily. And Nick would make Robin stop watching TV while they’re having sex.
The episode proceeds by the numbers. The guys complain to each other about how unreasonable the girls are. The girls complain to each other about how unreasonable the guys are. The girls march into the GNB conference room to present a counter pre-nup to Barney and Arthur, containing punitive details like Quinn getting full custody of Barney’s suits in the event of divorce (“What would you do with them?” he quavers; “Just sit around and watch them go out of style,” she hisses). The guys march in after them to support Barney. Everybody screams at each other until Arthur demands they just tell their counterparts what’s really bothering them, which works really well for everyone—except Barney and Quinn, who break up after realizing they can’t trust each other.
I’m not at all perturbed by the unceremonious end of the Barney-Quinn relationship. The circumstances of their association have indeed been singular for their violations of trust, from Barney’s ongoing dread of monogamy to Quinn’s unapologetic use of Barney as an ATM during her stripper days. Frankly, after Quinn stormed out last week over the Robin relationship secret, I (and a lot of you) thought she might be gone already. In fact, the little meditation on trust at the end of “The Pre-Nup” is by far the best thing about it. That cut from Barney declaring that his single life will be legen-wait for it, to “a little ways down the road” when the -dary refers to his and Robin’s upcoming wedding, for which no pre-nup will be needed, may not be completely unexpected, but it’s still quite lovely.
No, what sinks “The Pre-Nup” is that the creative team thought this version of Barney and Quinn’s breakup is the one worth telling. It’s not just that if we’d listed the possible final straws for the pair in a poll, “pre-nup” would probably have lost for being too obvious. It’s that the stories around the pre-nup, the reactions and actions of all the other characters, couldn’t be more predictable. Even the structure of cutting between girls jawing and guys jawing, between bedroom conversations about what’s wrong with each partner, and repeatedly back to that conference room where Barney and Arthur contemplate four solid reams of pre-nup, doesn’t have any of the surprises HIMYM usually gives us.
And after a very well crafted première last week, I confess “The Pre-Nup” has got me a little worried. Are we going to see the run-up to Barney and Robin’s wedding teased out in steadily receding order week after week? I certainly hope not. If there’s one thing I count on from HIMYM, it’s that future storytelling strategies can’t be reliably deduced from past patterns. The very existence of a pattern, though, with “a little ways down the road” appearing yet again as the episode ends, spooks me just a bit. It would be a real tragedy if the season treated its overarching story with the same by-the-numbers lack of imagination as this week’s half hour.
- Arthur Hobbs is back to his old tricks of not remembering Marshall although he was Marshall’s boss in season three; here he pointedly asserts that he’s the only lawyer in the room and counsels “Stretch” to stand aside as he makes a play for “the redhead with the baby.” However, Tugboat, the dog that Arthur’s wife Darlene took in their nasty divorce (previously lamented in season six’s “Landmarks”), makes a cameo appearance in the future.
- A sufficiently funny list of prenuptial conditions might have distracted me from the pedestrian plotting of this episode, but unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them, and they aren’t delivered at a brisk enough tempo. That said, my favorite is that Quinn must get her breasts tuned up every five years or 50,000 honka-honkas, whichever comes first.
- Did Barney and Arthur’s schtick about crossing out provisions relating to wives two through eight (originally copy-pasted from a Saudi prince’s pre-nup), with loud asides to Barney about how he didn’t really cross them out, go on an iteration or two too long? Not for me; I could watch Saul Goodman prevaricate his way through the phone book.
- Lily gives evidence for Marshall’s tenuous connection with reality by mentioning that he thought a ghost made his toast that morning. “I didn’t put the bread in! You didn’t put the bread in!” Marshall defends himself. Hey Marshall, it’s more likely to be a toast elf than a toast ghost.
- I may be down on that scene where everybody crowds the conference room in the third act, but who can stay mad when Lily pulls out the slide whistle to make the sad sound of Barney not being able to perform?
- Robin makes a good point about Hero Ted magnanimously offering the spare bedroom to Klaus, then experiencing Hero’s Remorse five minutes later. I would like to see more of the German sitcom “Strange Compatriots,” where one character is very neat and the other is very very neat: “Ludwig has started to polish the doorknobs, but Wilhelm has already completed this task!”
- Arthur’s ringtone for Darlene is a public-domain version of the Psycho strings.
- Future Ted mentioned the Autumn of Breakups, plural. Who’s going first: Victoria or Nick? I hope it’s Victoria. Because Nick’s appreciation of Robin getting turned on by watching herself on the news seems like a solid basis for a relationship that should last several episodes, not because Anders is easy on the eyes.