So Ted still keeps in touch with Trudy, a.k.a. the girl from season one’s “Pineapple” episode, a.k.a. Danica McKellar? Perhaps not a stunning revelation — this is Ted, after all — but an amusing callback to a character in an episode filled with lots of them. Last night’s parade of previous guest stars was, in some ways, the modern equivalent of a montage episode — you know, when television shows used to just string a bunch of old scenes together and call it new even though the only fresh thing about them was the cheesecake that got eaten? The nostalgia was rote, yet nonetheless entertaining.
For a series with such keen generational observations, it’s almost surprising that it took so long for it to ask: Do we end up with our parents? Fitting, though, that the group would wonder this now as they creep toward their mid-thirties and perhaps find their relationships less amorous than before. Writer Matt Kuhn, who’s responsible for one of our favorites, “Three Days of Snow,” seems to have more mature preoccupations, so even sillier plots like these have a whiff of truth.
The episode opened at MacLaren’s, with the core five crowded into their booth alongside Kevin, Nora, and Barney’s brother James (Wayne Brady). Usually, James’s presence signals an emo moment, but this time, Barney was too preoccupied with the promise of banging Nora. On the one hand, it’s a relief to see he hasn’t changed (“I’m going to be pulling in to the Pork Authority”). Neil Patrick Harris’s Über-straight man probably saved the show from extinction more than once, and this was as good a setup as any for James’s riposte about Hand Central Station. But at the start of the season, Barney was again hell-bent on proving he had a heart. So what’s with this hamster wheel of character development?
James complained that Nora reminded him too much of their mother (Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy), which therapist Kevin assured him was common. Quick question: Is Kal Penn a good actor? Yes, he’s underused here, and yes, it’s difficult for any character to penetrate the group dynamic, but after a month, we don’t think the blame lies in casting alone. His interrogation of Robin and Ted’s relationship was one of the stiffest interactions we’ve seen, spared only by the “Ted’s nuts” joke.
The stage was set for a lot of uncomfortable intimacies between the stars and the actors playing their parents, starting with Barney’s smooching of Conroy. Later, when Marshall suggested a sexual game of Chutes & Lillies, Lily could only picture her derelict father (Chris Elliott) coming at her with a loofah. And sure enough, as she then warmed to his affections, Marshall imagined her as his dearly departed dad (Bill Fagerbakke) in pink pajamas, which led to Fagerbakke and Elliott leaning toward each other for a kiss. As gimmicks go, it was good to see some old faces, but not as funny as the premise might suggest. Other than the game-inventing connection, which we chastised ourselves for not noticing earlier, the commonalities were mostly skin-deep. Had there been more profound personality quirks, it would have been memorable, though it’s difficult to retroactively embellish the parents to suit the story line.
Elsewhere, Barney was trying to rescue his disastrous date with Nora, who suffered the double indignity of cracking a tooth and having a rat land on her head. That rat seriously looked to be on her head, in which case actress Nazanin Boniadi should be demanding better plotlines. Finally, Barney lured her back to his place, where they witnessed a suicide, and then Nora sung “My Favorite Things,” prompting Barney to finally make the uncomfortable connection (nice touch with the matching robes). So, we later learn, they did it doggy-style. As if any woman would get over losing a front tooth that quickly.
The best subplot of the night belonged to the Robin/Ted/Kevin triangle. For one thing, it addressed the issue of how the former couple manages to live together, a topic left dormant ever since season five, when they occasionally hooked up to avoid domestic squabbles. They’ve since evolved into a very platonic pair, but not platonic enough for Kevin’s taste. When Ted crashed their date with this classic misdirect — “Have you seen Die Hard? The guy who played Argyle produced this documentary about coin collecting!” — Robin wound up giving him a back massage. Again, Penn might have hurt this scene if not for the cutaway to Ted’s series of phone calls begging for a date to “Weird Al” (Brad, Natalie, and the aforementioned Trudy are among those solicited). Not since McElroy & LeFleur has Robin gotten a chance to trot out some quality Canadian culture, as she did when she called Yankovic a Peculiar Jacques rip-off.
Maybe we should cut Penn some slack. His lack of chemistry with Robin only makes what Ted and she have look like fireworks, which is exactly what the writers need in order to revisit their romance. As much as we like Robin and Ted as friends, a candle still burns for their relationship. Seasons one and two were the best in the series. Would it be so wrong to retread that territory? And speaking of Robin, why didn’t the theory of dating parents apply to her? Could Ray Wise not make it to the set that week? Maybe we saw enough of her daddy issues last week, but no one confronts their upbringing with quite the same latent emotion.
Finally, the surprise cameo. Ted is definitely the type of guy who would be really, really into Weird Al. Others might find more fleeting enjoyment in his parodies. Put this way, Ted would have been thrilled by a closing scene with the man who took his “Like a Surgeon” suggestion. We would have been just as happy with Winnie Cooper.