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

How I Met Your Mother: “Mystery Vs. History”

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Margaret Eby did a great job filling in for me last week at the last minute, while I was immobilized by a 24 hour illness the details of which are best left to the imagination, and I owe her a debt of gratitude. But after I caught up with “Field Trip” a few days on, I had to wonder what my reaction would have been had I been hale and hearty enough to watch it live and post my thoughts an hour later. Because, freed from the pressure of the same-night recap, I thought “Field Trip” was pretty great: not season-premiere great, but a solid A- with two fantastic storylines and one pretty good one. (Fantastic: Marshall’s crisis at work, Barney’s Ewok obsession; not too shabby: Robin’s attempt to date her therapist.)

Now the pressure is back on, and worse than ever. Before starting the show, we watched an episode of Cheers in preparation for an interview Noel is doing tomorrow and a column he’s working on, and as the last strains of the theme faded, Noel prophesied, “Good luck living up to that, HIMYM.” I couldn’t help but notice the comparisons: the bar setting, the neurotic self-examination, the dependence on the ensemble itself, rather than the situation to generate comic energy. What struck me about Cheers was how laid back it was. The strongest emotion expressed was mild anxiety, and the characters were a little ashamed of that. (I’m exempting Carla from the group for the purposes of this analysis.) By comparison, HIMYM is practically vaudevillian in its broad and exaggerated emotions.

And that’s why, sometimes, a show like this will bring in an outsider to give us a fresh perspective on the cast of lovable nuts, taking the emphasis off the lovable, and putting it squarely back on the nuts. That’s what Kal Penn, playing Robin’s former court-ordered therapist and current boyfriend, Kevin, does tonight; unable to take the friends' scheming and interference in each other’s lives, he diagnoses them as co-dependent, shameless, and in denial. I have mixed feelings about this Frank-Grimes-esque development.  It’s no fun to be told that I am laughing at pathological lying when I thought I was being sweetly entertained by a character I care deeply about. On the other hand, Penn gets off two of the best lines of the night when Lily admits that she hates the gender-neutral shade of bright yellow he has just promised to slather all over the baby’s bedroom walls (“That’s what you want to hear,” he sighs, continuing to paint).

The thread connecting the two storylines tonight strikes me as fresher and more current than some of the woes-of-incipient-adulthood themes we’ve seen from this show. Ted wants to get to know a girl by actually, well, getting to know her, in person, instead of going on Facebook and finding out everything about her before they’ve even had their first drink. And Lily and Marshall don’t want to know the sex of their baby, although Dr. Sonya has helpfully given them an envelope with the answer inside, in case they change their minds. We’ve seen the latter plotline on more sitcoms than you can shake a sonogram at, but it’s novel to expand the idea of preserving the mystery to the impact of the Internet on the dating world.  

I like the way this starts, too, with a comparison of lively bar debates over the most popular food in 2005 to the dull fact-checking on smartphones in 2011 (Robin, in a monotone: “Hey, remember when we were arguing about the most popular food? It’s bread”). Turns out that Robin and Barney have been CSI-ing it up as Ted’s magical-computer operators for his last few attempts at dating, warning him away from Mia (used to be morbidly obese, now tells Ted that “what you were saying about how women feel they have to starve themselves makes so much sense!”), Nadine (gave Annie Hall 2 out of 10 stars: “slow and overrated”), and Paula (“for most of the last year, she was engaged to a minifridge”). When Ted connects with Janet at the bar (“she got bread right away, we laughed”), he makes an agreement with her not to Internet-research each other. But at dinner he can’t think of anything to talk about except the typeface on the menu. (“While this font is often mistaken for Helvetica, the fact is .. it’s Helvetica Bold.”)

And back at Lily and Marshall’s sangria and tapas and painting party (“quick update on the sangria and tapas, that’s canceled”), Robin and Barney are furiously Internet-researching Janet; that is, when Barney’s not trying to get Marshall and Lily to admit they want to know the sex of the baby. He shares an impromptu slideshow (through some weird projecting capacity of his laptop that I couldn’t comprehend) of the marvelous baby gifts they’d get from shower guests fully informed of the baby’s sex, versus “Little Fran is sure to be the laughingstock of the playground in this hermaphroditic burlap sack.” When he and Robin find Janet’s website and show it to Marshall and Lily, the universal response is, first, “Sweet mother of God!” and second, texting Ted on the date to tell him he has to click and find out who this woman really is.

Strangely, the episode comes down on both sides of the mystery vs. history debate. On the one hand, Ted wishes he hadn’t clicked; the website reveals a child prodigy who donated a kidney, climbed Everest, graduated Princeton at age 15, and wants a man she can cuddle up with to watch Annie Hall, and now, he can only gape at her and croak in broken English that she’s not so great because he donated blood once, although he almost fainted, and they had to put it all back. (Before he clicks, Ted imagines the horrors awaiting him: She’s a prostitute; she’s a dude; she only kinda liked Annie Hall.)

On the other hand, Marshall settles the gender-knowledge debate by throwing Doctor Sonya’s note out the window (although Robin and Barney looked at it, so they now become “the note” for all intents and purposes, and the dilemma is still there), only to have it stick to Ted’s shoe on his way up. The universe, in other words, tells them that they’re having a boy, and everyone’s happy. Sonograms, the Internet: They’re both tools we can employ to tell us more than people used to get to know. That cuts both ways; people become Facebook walls, pre-labeled and packaged for us, but how is that different from the kinds of dating shorthand (job, pets, turn-ons, turn-offs) people have been proferring for decades?  And if the gender of a baby isn’t a surprise when it comes out, it hardly matters; everything else about a child still is.

Maybe the more subtle point is that we can still be sparked or spooked by seeing people through fresh eyes, imagining the baby boy that Marshall and Lily will raise, or remembering that (as we heard from Victoria earlier this season) the friendship that our ensemble shares in some ways contains the last bits of dysfunction holding them back from mature independence.  Much better to share a moment of celebration that arises from the group’s history before heading back into the great unknown.

Stray observations:

  • Ray Wise returns as Robin’s father in a flashback to her 14th birthday, when instead of a party and a pretty dress, she got pushed out of a helicopter and given three days to fight her way back to civilization (“Happy birthday soooooooooooon!”).
  • After Barney finds Janet’s identity, he believes time is of the essence: “They’re six minutes into the date. Ted’s probably already told her that he loves her!”
  • Effective and beautifully timed montage of the group’s pathologies: Separation anxiety (Ted reassuring Marshall over the phone that he’ll be back from the bar soon), inappropriate social behavior (they text typographical representations of their bowel movements to each other), survivor guilt (Lily watched Survivor without Marshall), but fortunately not violence (cue rhythmic edit of slaps, drinks-in-face, and guns firing).
  • “Boys can do ballet, girls can play football.” “The Green Bay Packers have been proving that for years!”