Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How I Met Your Mother: "Big Days"

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For many of you, this is a make-or-break season of HIMYM. Either they deliver meaningful progress toward the shows’ resolution (and big yucks along the way), or you’re going to be done with the show.

For me, the stakes are not that high. All I need is reassurance that the creative team isn’t completely oblivious to our desire for mythology, some existential crises that propel the characters toward further maturation, and oh yeah, those big yucks. Because what I’m taking forward from last season isn’t the wheel-spinning, but the few brilliant moments that couldn’t have happened on any other show. It’s not always when the show is delivering on its premise’s potential and its established style that it’s at its best; after five seasons, some of those gestures, comforting as they are, have lost some power.

Tonight’s premiere makes my case for me. It’s the HIMYM core competencies in a shrewdly calculated package. We begin with a promise that the metanarrative of How Ted Met Their Mother hasn’t been forgotten, flashing forward an unspecified amount of time to a wedding where Ted sits nervously outside in a tux and Marshall calms him with contraband beer and the phrase “Beer be with you.” (“Dude, you fixed church!” Ted enthuses.  “You’re welcome, God,” Marshall responds.) The narration implies that it’s the second of the two big days in any great romance: the day you meet your future spouse, and the day you marry her.

Back to the present day — which can’t possibly be the first of those big days, can it? Well, there is a girl at the bar who turns out to be friends with Cindy, the Mother’s roommate, and if Ted can pry dibs on her away from Barney, he might find out if she owns that ankle we saw in “Girls vs. Suits” last season (and the CDs and electric bass and other trinkets that proved that Cindy’s roommate is Ted’s perfect woman). Only two things stand in the way: She’s wearing boots, and Ted’s “implied dibs” argument isn’t cutting it with Barney, owner of said dibs. In the episode’s funniest moment, Barney defends ancient tradition: “You are spitting on the grave of Sir Walter Dibs, inventor of the dibs!  It was 1652, the S.S. Dibs was lost at — “ before Ted cuts him off with “I don’t have time for a fake history lesson.” There’s even a two-second cutaway to a storm-tossed frigate.

And that’s the only moment that reminded me of the brilliance this show can deliver, and did deliver on occasion last year — occasions that keep me believing in its great potential. A lagniappe, an extra, a step beyond what is needed to get the joke delivered or the point made, a flash of that generosity and inventiveness that produced Ted’s superdate song, my favorite moment on any sitcom last year and the bedrock of my faith in HIMYM.  The only moment, I say, because “Big Days” is ultimately a safe play.  It gets the ball in the end zone, the points go up on the board, and there’s even a little thrill in the graceful way it executes the necessary reversal at the end: The wedding in the flash-forward isn’t the day Ted marries the mother, but the day he meets her. He’s nervous about giving the toast, not standing at the altar. (Who wants to bet it’s Robin and Barney getting married?). It starts raining, and he doesn’t have an umbrella. A poignant and pregnant moment on which to end, and a promise that this is our year. (Not for nothing does the church sign read, “To Everything There Is A Season.”)

The pleasures of a well-executed play, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that it’s the same old playbook. Sure, I’m never going to turn up my nose at Barney macking on hotties at a bar or fighting with Ted about same. Seeing Cobie Smulders inhabit scuzzy lost-”it” Robin (then protest, “I know exactly where it is and I can get it anytime I want”) is always a joy. The dangers of the high-percentage grind-it-out strategy, though, are revealed in the Marshall-Lily storyline, which goes back to the old married-couple-fighting well with diminishing results. Maybe I’m just tired of seeing Lily as a killjoy, or maybe the subject of their fight — whether Marshall should tell anyone that they’re trying to conceive — is too standard-issue sitcom and not resolved in any particularly interesting way (Marshall’s wrong and apologizes). But I think the problem goes deeper than a lack of imagination in how it’s done. The whole idea is too much of an obvious baby step forward from their decision in last season’s finale to try to conceive — by-the-numbers writing instead of a bold experiment.

I can forgive a recapitulation of the series’ strengths in a season premiere that many fans are scouring for evidence of a rebound. Those strengths are no longer why I watch, though, satisfying though they continue to be. I’ll be tuned in this season for moments of grace and creativity that reveal these artists’ potential to entertain not because it’s their job, but because it’s their pleasure.

Stray observations:

  • Maybe the most important reason to be confident about this year is the dialogue in “Big Days.”  While the last handful of season 5 episodes had serious dialogue awkwardness, seeming to strain, work too hard, and consistently miss their timing, tonight the dialogue had regained its mojo.
  • Lily and Marshall prefer makeout music to set the mood, but banjo music when they’re actually doing it.
  • Ted ends up buying back his dibs for $20 — a bad bargain.  We knew Ted had a disastrous date with Cindy, but we didn’t know until now that it drove her to lesbianism.  “She ended up being someone else’s mother — they both did.”
  • Hair Cheeto — dibs!
  • Barney on shields-up Robin: “You’re exquisite, you must let me paint you.”  “You might as well have squiggly odor lines coming off you.”  “I’m not saying some guys won’t open the fridge, pick you up, take a sniff, then take a sip anyway, but it’s all downhill from there.”
  • “What lightweight outfit, pink or white, makes the front of my slacks abnormally tight?”
  • “That guy’s cool … he’s got a cool belt.”
  • “You might want to try pickles on that sandwich.”