Let us now praise Barney Stinson.
Barney represents one of the trickiest kinds of success a sitcom can have—the breakout character. Almost always, the breakout character isn’t one of the leads. He or she is peripheral, and as such, allowed—nay, encouraged—to be broad, cartoonish, less than three-dimensional. The humor of such a character comes from the type that the character represents. A type responds predictably to a situation and isn’t bound by the rules of realism. The downside of a type, of course, is that it lacks depth. We laugh at types; we don’t feel with them. That’s why there’s a main character or two who carries the weight of the narrative, while the peripheral types pop up and crack jokes.
Sometimes, those types are unusually effective at generating humor. Sometimes, those types capture something in the cultural zeitgeist. Sometimes, they’re just unusually marketable, with catchphrases and references that fit nicely on a T-shirt. When that happens, you’ve got a breakout character. And what happens to the sitcom blessed with a breakout character? We’ve seen it happen a thousand times. Steve Urkel. Latka Gravas. Rudy Huxtable. Monroe Ficus. J.J. Evans, Jr. Arthur Fonzarelli. Jack McFarland. The people running the show get pressure to give the audience what it wants: more of the breakout character. The other denizens of the show’s universe fade into the background, changing places with the type that used to serve as their foil. Their job is now to provide desultory plot in between expressing amusement or frustration at the outrageous behavior of the new star.
On occasion, the creative team behind the show is strong and innovative enough to keep a breakout character in his or her place—finding ways to highlight and feature the big draw without relegating everyone else to a supporting role. Cosmo Kramer comes to mind. Sheldon Cooper is teetering on the precipice. But can you think of another show that managed to give its breakout character actual depth, turning him into a figure that we root for and empathize with?
It calls for a play I’ll designate “The Pinocchio.” The type has to realize that he lacks the elements of a fully realized character. Unless he can acquire characteristics other than the few broadly-drawn strokes of his designated role, he will never win the love of the audience (much less of an actual human character). He has to go on an epic quest to become a real boy.
I respond to Barney because he’s accomplished this rare feat with as much grace, aplomb, and white-knuckle risk as any of his ilk have ever demonstrated. Probably more. I can’t think of another catchphrase-spouting sidekick who has been able to become as truly vulnerable and as heart-attack serious, when the moment calls for it. Tonight’s episode is fantastic because it combines some of HIMYM’s best comedy—sturdily constructed but light on its feet, unabashedly gag-centered but never pandering—with a moment that deepens Barney’s humanity without whitewashing his identity. It’s a feat I can’t imagine any other character, any other actor, or any other show pulling off quite as well.
Some of us might have had a second thought when Barney burned The Playbook during his execution of “The Robin.” Wait, we might have said to ourselves—he’s a magician, so maybe this was just an illusion? Close! Barney explains to Ted that he burned a ceremonial copy, used for “parades, mall openings, inaugurations, stuff like that.” He still has the original, and the reason he hauls it back out is because Ted is tempted to go back to Jeannette after she dumps him. (She gives him back his key, which he never gave her, and his grandmother’s ring, of which Ted remarks: “She was buried wearing this.”) Ted needs another date for Barney and Robin’s wedding, and with the assistance of The Playbook and Barney’s Big Trunk O’ Props (like an Obama photo labelled “Dad” and a fake newspaper announcing the end of the world), Barney is determined to send Ted into MacLaren’s to get one.
What follows is at once utterly simple and side-splittingly hilarious. Barney directs Ted through an earpiece (he’s Iceman, and Ted’s Neruda) in the commission of such plays as “The Special Delivery” (“and then maybe later, I could give you a different package, my penis”) and “The Kidney” (“before I give my best friend this organ, how about I give you a different organ… my penis”). “You aren’t saying it right,” Barney critiques, resulting in Ted yelling “penis” over and over to himself in the bar.
But during “The ‘I Have A Pet Loch Ness Monster’” (featuring Ted in a kilt), Robin stops by, sees The Playbook, and storms out, causing Barney to abandon Ted and run after her. Ted’s amiable Scottish chat with his target is abruptly interrupted by Jeannette, who in turn discovers The Playbook and does a lot more than storm out. The rain of shattering and burning objects from Ted’s apartment that we saw in flash-forward in “Bad Crazy” occurs, with the flames coming from The Playbook strapped with fireworks from the prop trunk.
And Barney gives the conflagration his blessing, not because he’s turning his back on his identity as a game-player, a confidence man, a trickster, an illusionist—a liar, not to put too fine a point on it—but because he’s finally gotten Robin to understand that he’ll always be that, and indeed, that’s who she fell in love with, and how he showed her the depth, intensity, and sincerity of his love. It’s “the one true thing that can support all the lies in the world,” he explains, and he demonstrates this by emptying his sleeves and pockets of all the magic tricks he carries around, ending with bouquet after bouquet after bouquet, undeterred by her rejection.
Beautiful, and not just because of how it’s staged and how Neil Patrick Harris plays it (with confidence, with hope, but not without a touch of fear). Because of how the show has brought us to this point, and the transformation that journey has entailed.
- The other storyline, with Lily cultivating an artist for the Captain and Marshall trying to help, in no ways deserves to be relegated to the Stray Observations; it might be the funniest Marshall has been all season, and I’m talking about a season where Jason Segel has been killing it every week. The long take with Marshall standing motionless while Skittles pour out of his pocket onto the hard floor is a classic gag, done to perfection. And the ominous musical stings when Skittles are mentioned prior to that moment give that gag the inimitable HIMYM flashbackin’ touch.
- Barney’s one rules: You can tell how old a girl is by her elbows; flax seed relieves upset stomach; always have a fake pair of concert tickets in your pocket in case Lily invites you to something stupid (“Steely Dan, Carnegie Hall, backstage pass, we don’t want to miss whatever their big song was”); Lebanese girls sprint to third base and then stay there; new is always better.
- My favorite of Marshall’s carefully prepared art-themed humor at the gallery opening: “For a gay guy, Andy Warhol sure liked cans.”
- One of the things that Jeannette throws out of Ted’s window is the cuckoo clock Barney ostentatiously “fixed” in “Bad Crazy.”
- Barney doesn’t understand why Robin doesn’t appreciate the beauty of “The Weekend at Barney’s”: “Um, a little thing called rigor mortis?”
- “Bravo oscar oscar bravo sierra. Possible delta cups.”