A review of last night’s “How I Met Your Mother” coming up just as soon as I’m attacked by an owl…
I had promised my wife that we would finish watching “The Town” on DVD tonight before we watched any regular TV, and so by the time I was about to put on “Bad News,” the episode had finished airing more than an hour earlier and my Twitter reply feed was already flooded with people who were some mix of confused, angry or just eager to hear my take on the episode.
For much of the length of “Bad News,” I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. The episode seemed to be settling into the pack of down shows in this very up-and-down season of “HIMYM.” The idea of the gang’s dopplegangers has always been one that works best sparingly, for instance – I would never want to see Robin actually have a conversation with Butch Lesbian Robin, for instance – Ted going to extract vengeance on Sandy was one of the character’s most Ross Gellar-ian moments ever(*), doing another Robin Sparkles gag so close to an all-Sparkles episode seemed a bit much, and even the running gag with Marshall’s inability to produce a specimen in peace seemed like the show was trying too hard.
(*) I would not be surprised if someone had given Josh Radnor a tape to study of David Schwimmer doing Ross’ “kara-tay.”
Then my wife pointed out the numbers counting down throughout each scene – 38 degrees on the back of someone’s newspaper, Lily reading a magazine with a mention of 37 recipes on the cover, Marshall’s dad drinking old number 37 beer, etc. – and of course I began to wonder what the episode was counting down to. And by the time we got to the sign showing that the bar’s open until 3, I had a sinking feeling of what it was. When dad didn’t answer the phone at 2, I knew.
But that still didn’t prepare me for just how good Jason Segel was in that moment of discovery, because… boy. The guy doesn’t get much of a chance to show his dramatic chops (even his darker moments in the Apatow universe are usually played for laughs in some way), but that was some outstanding, naked, very touching work right there.
So then the question becomes one that Fienberg asked on Twitter after the episode: did “HIMYM” earn that kind of incredibly dark ending? And I think that it did – sort of.
I have no problems with sitcoms that get serious from time to time, so long as they do it right. Some of my favorite moments from the “Taxi”/”Cheers”/”Frasier” sitcom axis involved really dark, sad developments for our main characters (Sam falling off the wagon, for instance). But that stuff does have to be earned. There has to be groundwork for it – preferably not just in the episode itself, but in previous ones – and the show has to be using the dark moment for more than just a quick tug at the heartstrings. It has to matter.
To use an example I’ve brought up on the blog a time or two before, there’s this amazing episode of “Taxi” (called “Louie Goes Too Far”) where Louie, to avoid getting fired for peeping on the women’s locker room, has to humiliate himself before Elaine. So he tells her about his semi-annual trip to the husky boys section of the department store to buy new clothes, and it’s an incredibly sad, uncomfortable, pathetic little story. (So uncomfortable that, as you can see in the YouTube version of the scene, the audience is diving on anything remotely resembling a laugh line.) By the end, Louie’s near tears, and Elaine has decided to forgive him – and more importantly, their relationship fundamentally changes for the rest of the series. Elaine understands Louie in a way she didn’t before, and while she’s still often disgusted by his behavior, she at least recognizes where that behavior’s coming from and seems able to shrug it off more easily. That is a great dramatic moment on a sitcom, and not just a Very Special “Taxi.”
Now, “HIMYM” has obviously had serious moments before, but they generally tend to be of the romantic variety, give or take the occasional episode about Barney’s dad. But the show is also about that transition from your carefree 20s to your responsible 30s, and if you’re not lucky, your 30s will be a decade where you’ll lose one parent, or both of them. (I have been to too many funerals of this type this decade.)
So in that way, it doesn’t feel out of left field, particularly since it involved Marshall’s dad. I’m pretty sure Bill Fagerbakke has appeared more than any other “HIMYM” parent – this was his third appearance this season alone – and Marshall’s extreme closeness to his family in general and his dad in particular is a long-established, fundamental part of that character. We got a reminder of it in this episode with the montage of Marshall calling his dad with good news (dad’s reaction to the viking helmet clock was one of the few times I laughed), but this isn’t a new thing. Marshall worshipped his father, always sought his counsel, never entirely grew up from being Marvin Eriksen’s little boy.
Marshall and Lily have been spending all season trying to have a baby. That’s the definitive transition into adulthood, and the only way to make it more explicit is to have Marshall do it without his dad to turn to.
With the countdown, viewers are prepared for something to happen when the number gets to 1 – though almost certainly not that. Without it, the death is a complete sucker punch.
Ultimately, I think how I view that moment is going to depend on what they do with it going forward. Again, this was not a great episode of the show, and it felt particularly odd to have such a dark moment grafted onto a half-hour featuring wacky hijinks with Barney impersonating his doppleganger and Sandy having a bad combover and some interesting bedroom habits. And to this point, the baby subplot has largely been a rehash of every other TV storyline about frantic would-be parents struggling to conceive. But if they use this going forward to inform Marshall’s behavior, and to underscore the momentous nature of what he and Lily are trying to do, then I’ll look back on the death as a sad but ultimately valuable moment for the show. But if it’s forgotten within two episodes and Marshall and Lily are back to running around the city with thermometers and specimen jars and whatnot, then yes, it was just an attempt to give meaning to an episode that was fairly lacking in it – even if Segel was fantastic in the moment.
Based on the Twitter reaction, I imagine people are gonna have strong opinions on this, so have at it. What did everybody else think?