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How I Met Your Mother Recap: To Know or Not to Know

Kal Penn guests on How I Met Your Mother.

So that episode really sucked, huh? Kidding. Just trying to elicit our own spit take. Last night’s HIMYM was one of those episodes that makes recapping rather difficult. What can you say about something so perfect? It makes more sense to reprint the script, end with, “Hilarious, right?” and cue the comments. Our new working theory is that the HIMYM writers have agreed to hoard their best material and deliver it in one single half-hour rather than spread it around over the course of the season. These days, we’re never sure what we’re going to get. Despite the fact that this show is pretty readable now — if the opening joke fails, things are not all that likely to improve — we still furiously copied down Pepper the Dog’s likes (bacon bits, fetching) in case it was the peak moment. How totally misguided.

Before jumping into the mechanics of the episode, two compliments to writer Chuck Tatham (“Canning Randy”) for properly engaging guest star Kal Penn. For one thing, it was great to see his character Kevin actually interact with the gang, unlike Barney’s love interest, Nora, who’s been suspiciously missing in action for most of this season. Second, he clearly noticed that Penn and Cobie Smulders have about as much spark as a match in toilet water and adjusted accordingly, relegating him to the background to crack wise with his analytic judgments while painting the Eriksen Baby’s room.

If we had one criticism at the episode’s beginning (which got squashed by the end), it was that the mystery surrounding the baby’s gender was a nonstarter for the audience: We know from “Last Cigarette Ever” that Marshall stops smoking when his son is born, and though it isn’t impossible for his first child to be a girl, no sitcom was likely to advocate parental cig-breaks, real life be damned. Indeed, this isn’t a season-long suspense — Marshall and Lily are expecting a son.

However, they didn’t know this yet, and their discovery was absorbed by the story of Ted’s new date. HIMYM works best with a theme, and last night, that theme was whether technology had “taken the intrigue out of life.” The present-day MacLaren’s tableau pretty much established that it had — compared with the raucous conversations of 2005, the discussion in 2011 was grim. Debate about the best food ever (“Mr. Furter, first name Frank”) gave way to fact (the Internet says bread), while everyone toyed in unison with their smartphones.

For single Ted, fresh from a meeting with the beautiful Janet (“She guessed bread right away!”), this posed a problem. Dating involves a constant pull toward Google, which in flashbacks sees Robin and Barney evolve from rookies to regular gumshoes in the interest of researching Ted’s potential paramours. A highlight: One woman was revealed to be a former meth dealer, but all Ted cared about was her online movie review that referred to Annie Hall as “slow and over-acted,” the spirit of which was cleverly added to when Robin broke the fourth wall. The pop-cultural references on this show — this, Star Wars, Field of Dreams, Predator, Twins — are so often spot-on. Low point: Ted running from the formerly fat Mia. Offensive and unnecessary.

When he joined their group painting of Little Eriksen’s gender-neutral yellow bedroom, therapist Kevin found it hard to refrain from identifying the gang’s behavior as “controlling and incestuous” — but not that hard. His outburst was what got him saddled with the job, solo. Ted’s insistence that mystery is preferable hit home for Marshall and Lily, who, much to Barney’s chagrin, had the results of their ultrasound but chose to ignore them until the baby’s birth. A reasonable point from Stinson: The baby shower is much less of a score when the gender isn’t public (cue a video of an adorable infant wearing a burlap sack, directed by McG).

Kevin correctly identified some alarming traits in the gang: (1) separation anxiety, as exhibited when Marshall talks to Ted on the phone while Ted is at the bar, much like Marshall used to text Lily from the bathroom; (2) inappropriate behavior, which continued in a similar vein and revealed that the gang often discusses their poo shapes (there was no delicate way to describe that, except with ampersands and Cs); (3) survivor guilt — meaning when Lily watched Survivor without Marshall (though no Survivor joke tops Curb Your Enthusiasm's) … and so on. At least there isn’t actual violence, he added — and insert the awesome, “Murder Train”–accompanied montage of slap bets and sustained injuries.

His criticisms don’t distract Robin and Barney from their mission, though. And what they discover about Janet was spit-take-inspiring big. Barney: “He’s only six minutes into their date. Ted’s probably already told her that he loves her!” (Great callback.) Ted, meanwhile, was choking, finding it impossible to talk about anything other than fonts with a woman whose interests he knew nothing about. As his phone lit up with urgent texts from his friends, he was unable to resist a background check during Janet’s trip to the bathroom (and even just a small detail like this rang true — among us, who doesn’t have their phone out the second a companion stands up to use the facilities?)

Back at the Aldrin-Eriksens’, Marshall surrendered the slip of paper with the crucial information to Barney and Robin, who faked out the expectant couple with cute pretend-revelations and forced them to toss the telling paperwork out the window. Their intensity was all appropriately accentuated by Kevin, who had to worry whether his labor with that mustardy yellow paint was all for naught. Perhaps this was an underuse of Penn, but the truth is nobody can adequately penetrate the dynamic of the core five, which, on a general level, is why we don’t even know if we prefer for the series to conclude with Ted’s meeting of the Mother, or if she should instead be introduced and incorporated into the group before then. (The former, probably.)

In a twist that we perhaps foolishly didn’t see coming, Janet turned out to be a catch, exceedingly intelligent, heroic, and an avid Annie Hall fan to boot. But of course Ted ruined their coupling with his online cheating. This ultimately proved his point and, in the process, revealed the boy-ness of the baby when the doctor’s note ended up stuck to the sole of his shoe.

And in all of this, we didn’t even get to Robin’s own travails as a daughter born to a father (Ray Wise) who wanted a son. But the best line of the night might have been her reading about the dog in Ottawa who ran all the way to Saskatoon. Robin: “What? We figured out the Janet thing, I’m catching up on Canada.” Like “Ducky Tie,” this episode put to good use the classic HIMYM devices — callbacks, weird chronology — and it might have even redeemed Robin’s odd coupling with her therapist by having him play the role of the devoted boyfriend while she entertained herself elsewhere. Of course, according to the theory mentioned above, this means next week’s episode can’t be half as good. Let’s hope we’re wrong.

Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS