Stardate: Three episodes into season three. 3.3, if you will. In an episode titled "Third Wheel," HIMYM explores the perennial male fantasy of the three-way. If that all seems like a lot of artificial sitcom synergy, prepare to have your faith restored in television comedy, my brothers and sisters. 'Cause "Third Wheel" is as holy as the trinity, a zippy exploration of twenty-something sexual mores that ends in a quiet smile instead of an "it was all a dream" gag. It's the best episode the season has produced so far, and if it could just give Lily and Marshall a little more to do, it would be pretty close to perfect.
The focus is where it belongs in the show, but has only intermittently seemed at home: on Ted. His on-the-make slept-in-his-suit look gives him that air of reckless desperation that I find irresistable. But he rarely falls back on the cocked head and deadpan delivery that has been his comedic stock in trade since the show began. He's channelling Jack Tripper in "Third Wheel," and it's a great persona for him; stammering, gesturing awkwardly, amazed from moment to moment that he hasn't screwed up this miraculous opportunity, he seems to have regressed to the single-minded vulnerability of a sixteen-year-old. As further proof of the episode's charmed life, a running gag that has Ted talking to three beers actually pays off.
When Ted gets guest stars Busy Phillips (from Freaks and Geeks) and Danica McKellar (from The Wonder Years and the first season ep "The Pineapple Incident") up to the apartment and on his couch, the writers and editors ratchet up the pace. At first Barney, jealous of the triumphant double conquest that he considers his birthright, sabotages the potential menage by breaking "that Wilco CD" (um, really?) that was the excuse for the visit. But then he speaks some truth, my friends, truth to which we should all give witness: a potential three-way results in paralyzing anxiety. In other words, you're gonna get the yips. (As Barney laments, "Two of everything, four of some things ... the logistics alone!") Determined to play Virgil to Ted's Dante, he sketches out a scenario involving tequila, foot massages, and the coup de grace: an appeal to our common mortality complete with pithy aphorism ("Don't ... postpone ... joy.") Whipping back and forth between Barney's vision and Ted's imagination, the episode builds to a fast-paced comic peak. Then, as Ted crosses the apartment to a bedroom filled with sexy giggles, everything stops. Will he? Won't he? And now the framing device unexpectedly pays off, too: there's some stories you don't tell. I respect Ted for that.
The B-story, with Robin's hairy-leg whorishness-avoidance plan ("If I don't shave, I must behave"), is slighter and more conventional, but damn if it doesn't work like gangbusters, too. My newfound respect for Cobie Smulders continues to grow. She gets off half a dozen good lines in the course of her date with the British-accented surgeon who makes her regret her calculated lack of personal hygiene. (I especially love her painful attempt at doctor humor as she makes an excuse to go to the powder room: "I've got TB -- tiny bladder.") Her determination to wait until the fourth date having been "surgically removed by Dr. Awesome," she tries to shave her legs with butter and a fifty-dollar razor in the bathroom sink. But that's not the funny part. The funny part is the little "oof-a!" noise she makes while taking her pratfall in said restaurant bathroom. Cobie, three episodes into season three, you're officially part of the boys' club. Welcome to Funnytown, population you.
- Half a point penalty for another abortive attempt at a catchphrase: "trike-block." At least they didn't repeat it three times to try to get it around the water cooler, but Ted's exaggerated enunciation even in that one instance rubbed me the wrong way.
- Two classic edits: (1) Ted, on the cell phone in the downstairs bar: "Did Marshall take his pants off?" Cut to Marshall playing Wii tennis in his boxers. (2) Barney's ecstatic invocation of "the belt" that Ted is pursuing leads to a flashback of Barney joyfully pulling a boxing-style champtionship belt out of a box and holding it over his head for a skeptical (and scruffy) years-ago Ted.
- There's something frighteningly close to a Theme going on here: The number three is unstable. One pair of boots, two girls fighting over them. One guy, two girls flirting with him. Two guys playing Wii, another guy waiting down at the bar with extra beers. The miracle of "the tricycle" is that this inherent instability can be turned into some sort of extra-dimensional tessaract, with its own other-worldly logic. That's why I think Ted didn't do it; the entire show was set up to show that the laws of nature don't suspend themselves if we wish hard enough. Three ain't a magic number.