Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Where's my wife?": How I Met Your Mother

It might seem strange to put the last joke of the episode -- which wasn't even close to the funniest thing said in a ridiculously amusing half hour -- atop this post, but one of the things I love about Mother is the way that it feels like it's marching toward an inevitability. It's all there in the title -- even though we're invested in this young man's life, even though we've invested in previous relationships he's had, the most important person on the show is someone we haven't even seen yet. We come for the characters and the great jokes. We stay for the time-bending plots and the great chemistry the cast has (even in lackluster episodes). But what intrigues us is the fatalism. Will she be a character in the show's last seasons (and please let there be more seasons, CBS!)? Or will we only meet her in the finale, perhaps only seeing a beautiful girl as Bob Saget blithely intones, "And that's how I met your mother"?

Possibilities, possibilities. There's a sense of instant nostalgia to Mother, the feeling that what we're living in is some sort of golden age that we can only dimly see right now but will more clearly understand in the year 2030. In a way, it almost feels like the show is yearning for a simpler time and placing that simpler time in the here-and-now. We don't have to worry about terror alerts or wars or anything like that. We can take a trip in the wayback machine to the halcyon days of 2007 and think about what the world was like before that. Recently, I interviewed a guy who talked about how the only way people seem willing to accept a true sitcom or drama the whole family can watch together (7th Heaven excepted) anymore is when it's rooted in a prior age -- like The Wonder Years or (going further back) The Waltons. Mother is certainly not a "family" sitcom (the jokes about eating sandwiches tonight assured that), but it makes a very staid format -- the traditional, stage-bound sitcom -- more palatable by shooting it through with an instant nostalgia that lets you get your guard down.

All of this is a way of saying that when Ted says "Where's my wife?" it's just another way the show makes a contract with the audience it intends to keep.

I'm not a huge stickler for continuity. Fans can wank just about anything nowadays, and shows that are written by huge writing staffs over long periods of time are bound to have weird continuity errors. But I do love that Mother seems to keep its promises -- Ted and Barney did, indeed, meet at a urinal, and more slaps are forthcoming. Really, Mother could get away with more continuity errors than most shows, writing it all off as a failure of older Ted's memory, but the fact that it doesn't, that it actually takes on the character of a long, loopy story, told in several sessions, makes the show that much better.

This is all a lot of preface to say that tonight's episode was Mother at its best, probably one of my top ten favorite shows they've done so far and definitely my favorite of the season so far (only the premiere comes close). Mother is never better than when it's dashing through the long timeline that older Ted covers, darting from 2020 to 2001 to 1996 in the blink of an eye. It's also fun to see the show play with the WAY older Ted is telling the story, as it did tonight when he forgot the name of the girl he was dating (substituting Blah-Blah, making her dreams of grandeur at the end that much more amusing) and substituted eating sandwiches for smoking pot (someone could probably write an article on the way Mother uses the idea that this story is being told to the protagonist's children to sneak a lot of content by the censors that would be challenged if it was presented more straightforwardly).

But, all in all, the episode was terrific. I loved the hot/crazy scale (and the way the gang just watched Barney as he introduced the concept and drew imaginary lines in the air, nodding as if they could picture what he was doing). I thought the World of Warcraft throwaway gag was inspired (and I'm incredibly impressed they managed to put the oldest Internet chat joke in the book over on me -- maybe because they had acknowledged it before, in Barney's line about the only hot women on the Internet). I had great fun with the return of college Ted, that pompous buffoon with the too-easily-punctured sense of self (who mixes cranberry juice with Pinot Noir!). Josh Radnor isn't afraid to let Ted be a jerk this season, and while I've seen criticism of that, the appearances of college Ted remind us that he was this way before, and he can slip into this again. I even loved the "she doth protest too much" response of Robin to the idea of dating Barney and her summation of why she and Ted's relationship went sour.

Every player in the cast got a moment to shine tonight, and that's what makes the show tick. Recent episodes have tried to more firmly put Ted and Robin front and center as the "lead" characters, but the show works best when it's got all of the characters bouncing off of each other, not when anyone is taking the horns of a central plot. I realize there are only so many origin stories about the gang that you can tell (and this episode seems to jump just BEFORE some of the things we've seen before to get away with it), but here's hoping that there are more ensemble efforts like this one, where we learn that this is how everything came to be the way it was. The story's one long "The Way We Were" story anyway. Just let it go all out more often.


Carrie said...

Great review, Todd. This episode was full of awesome. The WoW joke where Ted was the hot girl character was WAY funnier than it should have been, simply because it was somehow so unexpected. I also loved the whole flashback of Marshall's first encounter with Barney when Barney insisted Lily was too hot for Marshall.

Loved the "Where's my wife?" at the end. It's the perfect pull quote for this episode.

Kenny said...

Absolutely the best episode of the season. One thing I've always liked about the series is that Ted's search for a soul mate imbues his dating with more meaning than the typical sitcom guy just trying to get laid. That's one of the problems I've had with this season so far: As much as it sounded promising to have Ted out on the town with Barney, the end result is a lot of trying to get laid stories that lean too much toward sitcom ordinariness. But this episode proved that there is life in Ted dating a girl-of-the-week when they don't dwell too much on the picking-up aspect. Plus it was packed with everything about the show at its best, full of continuity-rich flashbacks and clever storytelling gimmickry. I was afraid the Blah Blah joke would get old, but fortunately it didn't.

The "This is my year!" blow-up by a girl who makes handbags was taken directly from something that happened to writer Ira Ungerleider during the first season, and seeing it finally make it into the show after all this time made the moment even more hilarious to me.