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How I Met Your Mother Recap: Mind the Gap

As most of you probably already know, in the interim between recaps, HIMYM was renewed for not one but two more seasons! Regardless of the hit-or-miss nature of later episodes, we love this show and we’re in no hurry to see it end. With Bays and Thomas free to lay extensive groundwork for the eventual series finale, we hope they will develop plotlines that are as nuanced as those of the earlier seasons. Now for the less-good news: Last night did not totally meet those expectations.

We can’t put our finger on why exactly, but part of the problem may have been the long lead-up to the episode’s big-ish development, which was the introduction of Barney’s dad (John Lithgow). Though his shadowy figure hasn’t loomed nearly as large over the plot as the mysterious mother, he’s been a point of interest dating back to season two, when Barney went on The Price Is Right thinking Bob Barker was his biological father. “Legendaddy” was poised to be a pivotal episode, especially for this paternally driven season, and we were surprised to see the script entrusted to relative newcomers (comedians Dan Gregor and Doug Mand).

Tabling our skepticism for a minute: The unifying theme was pretty tight. When Barney’s giant television broke during March Madness (a clever CBS promotion disguised as a timely event), he bragged about how he can’t use any tool other than the one in his pants, which gave rise to a subplot that reviewed each character’s knowledge gap — a basic skill or truth that they somehow failed to learn. See, Barney never had a man around to teach him how to use a screwdriver. (Wait a second. We may not be the handiest, but we’re pretty sure a woman can show a kid how to use a screwdriver.) For Ted, this meant mispronouncing “chameleon.” And for Robin, it was mistaking the North Pole for a fictional place (Robin’s date: “I’m going there to study the mating habits — ” Robin: “Of who, Santa’s elves?”). Airheaded for a reporter, yes, but a perfectly foolish mix-up, much like her later uncertainty regarding the existence of reindeer. And Smulders killed her deliveries of “Let’s tussle” and “Expelliarmus!”

Anyway, we were enjoying these revelations, which recalled season three’s memorable “Spoiler Alert,” in which the gang took turns pointing out each other’s annoying habits, when Barney burst into the apartment. For once, Neil Patrick Harris took the air out of the room. Or maybe we just didn’t care as much about Barney’s dad as we thought we did. Either way, when he started recounting what a hard-drinking, chick-banging dude Jerry was, we were immediately impatient for the interrupted teasing to continue.

Of course, Lithgow is too talented of an actor to waste on tripe. His exploits were just part of another elaborate story concocted by Barney to deny a depressing reality: that his dad is actually a milk-drinking, asparagus-loving driving instructor with a wife and two kids back home in White Plains. Doesn’t the gang ever worry about Barney’s pathological lying? In this case, he has a decent defense — he has his feelings to protect. But perhaps our least favorite episode in HIMYM history was the one where we learned that, for years, Barney had been pretending to have a wife and kid. It was a divisive moment — some fans loved the screwball element — but it veered so aggressively and implausibly far from the show’s emotional core.

Yet here was a chance to imagine Barney’s father as literally anyone and he’s painted as a “lame suburban dad”? Maybe the creators didn’t go far enough. Sure, Jerry’s ordinary lifestyle is, in its own way, upending expectations for the character. Then again, the options for him weren’t necessarily limited to awesome Lothario or mild-mannered family man. To be honest, both are a little predictable.

But quickly: How satisfying was it to see the return of Ted’s house? That property hasn’t even been mentioned since he bought it last season yet, somehow, the remodeling is humming along! And the interventions are really picking up steam this year. We saw where this one was going the second Barney said, “I’m never going to talk to my dad again,” but nevertheless, Marshall’s mild reprimand wasn’t heavy-handed. The death of his own father prompted Barney to look for Jerry in the first place. So off he went to Jerry’s house to squabble with his 11-year-old half-brother (of his paper route: “Good time to get into print media!”) and recklessly remove the basketball hoop from outside the house, giving Jerry the opportunity to share that “righty tighty” tip that Barney’s mother deprived him of.

NPH almost always gets the meatiest scenes with guest stars, probably because they’re often female, but also because he’s a natural showman. So it was surprising when his scenes with Lithgow didn’t quite resonate. Either he and Lithgow didn’t share them well enough or Jerry wasn’t an entirely effective character, but when Barney lashed out, “If you were going to be some lame suburban dad, why couldn’t you have been that for me?” it was very clear that we were watching acting with a capital A (the incredibly fake driveway didn’t help). There’s more to come from this story line, so the criticisms here might prove to be unfounded. For now, we’re just not wild about their chemistry. Also, how heavy must that hoop have been with the weight of all its symbolism?

In a way, the more moving scene occurred in the car with the rest of the gang. By then, the definition of a “knowledge gap” had been somewhat muddled by the disclosure of Lily’s poor aim (does coordination really count?). But Marshall had been noticeably spared the ribbing for reasons he rightly suspected stemmed from pity. Cue the montage of him testing this theory by suggesting The Phantom Menace was the best Star Wars movie, growing a soul patch (Robin: “Righteous hair tat, brotha!”), and adopting Rex, the feral possum. The group’s sensitivity and Marshall’s frustration with it felt more authentic than the driveway drama.

Part of the issue here might be that we, as an audience, need to figure out what we really want from Barney. Last night, we got everything. He has proved to be a hard character to mature, delightfully so at times, but less so during this episode, which began with him cracking jokes about ladyparts sticking to a cold stripper pole (gross) and forming a “Bush dynasty” with his dad (grosser). It’s not easy to go from there to pathological deceit to childish vulnerability to grown-up vulnerability in the space of 22 minutes while still maintaining emotional credibility. Obviously, the success of HIMYM is due in no small part to NPH, so don’t mistake this for hating. We look forward to the next step in his reunion with Jerry and we especially look forward to meeting Barney’s half-sister — c’mon, she wasn’t mentioned accidentally.

Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS