As if on cue, the first bad episode of the season: Four reasonably strong installments in, this would seem like the perfect time for the writers to kick back a little. No one expects perfection this late in the series, so the only issue is the strategic placement of stinkers.
Last night was heavy on hyperbole. Ted and Marshall’s exaggerated, passive-aggressive war over wedding-gift etiquette was the most preferable of the plotlines, and it would have been a complimentary diversion if the scene at the Farhampton Inn was at all engaging. But here we begin to see the limitations of the setting. There’s only so much that can happen in the course of one weekend, tertiary characters are going to be trotted out, and some of them are too outrageous to take seriously. Apologies to Frances Conroy, but she played my least favorite character on Six Feet Under and I don’t particularly enjoy her in this role. We get it: She scans frigidly, but acts like a MILF — it’s a punch line with diminishing returns, and sometimes even she appears a little confused about what she’s doing here.
Then there’s the problem of James (Wayne Brady). Just a few episodes (so, hours) ago, he was gently chastising Robin for her lack of faith in her relationship, and now he’s openly mocking marriage, trafficking in gay stereotypes, and boasting about neglecting his family. In a halfhearted attempt to create some tension, Robin punishes James for being mouthy by raising the stakes of their poker game to include his wedding ring. When she wins, Mrs. Stinson nonsensically steps to her son’s defense, putting Barney in a position where he has to choose between the woman who “does sex” to him and the eternity he has to spend in his mother’s mausoleum. Honestly, I’d rather have Ted and Barney duke it out over Robin every week than watch Barney continue to grapple with being a functional boyfriend. The stakes were literally too low here. Barney, Robin, or anybody else could have just told James to can the negativity. Maybe Billy Zabka needed to be more involved.
But when it comes to finding ways to pad the present with believable backstory, the writers have no shortage of material. Last week, it was Robin’s lack of female friends. This week, it was Ted’s possible failure to send a wedding gift, or else Lily and Marshall’s failure to say thank you. Speaking from experience, each is likely to create some lingering resentment (Marshall calling Ted’s wedding a “dream” just for the opportunity to screw him on the gift was particularly petty revenge). Naturally, Ted isn’t the type to neglect a gift. After all, the Mosbys have a saying: Wrap it before you tap it (as in the present before you nudge someone on the shoulder to hand it to them). He’s miffed that Lily and Marshall never thanked him for the coffeemaker, an oversight that Marshall is appalled by, because the Eriksens also have a saying: Lick it before you stick it (as in the stamp before affixing it to the envelope with the thank-you note). Their attempts to get their point across took similar paths: Both dropped not-so-subtle hints over coffee, and each went for Halloween dressed as their desired acknowledgement. (Did Katie Holmes, a.k.a. the Slutty Pumpkin, get Photoshopped into the background? There she was, drinking her Tootsie Roll, but she wasn’t in the credits.)
In the end, Barney dramatically changed his tune by cutting ties with his family and throwing Robin under the bus in the process — the last part had a whiff of credibility, but the histrionics beforehand were too much, and the episode ended on an absurd note that suggests we haven’t seen the last of Robin v. Barney’s mom.
What I liked:
• Ted’s maneuvers to get thanked for his wedding present, which were even better than Marshall’s, because they involved drinking so much coffee that his “resting pulse was like the drum solo from ‘Wipeout.’” And Marshall’s j’accuse that turned into a “me-cuse.”
• Marshall and Lily’s gender-flipped costumes: They’ve done Sonny and Cher, King Kong, and Fay Wray, and six years ago, when this would have been only remotely clever, Juno and Michael Cera’s Paulie Bleeker, with Marshall intended for Ellen Page’s part.
• Ranjit, Zabka, and Lily popping out from their hiding places in the hotel room. It’s completely zany, and zaniness is not what this show does best, but like last week’s gimmick in which Lily froze like a FaceTime screen, the high jinks are winking. Maybe I’m just going all-in on Zabka in the absence of fresher plot points.
• The tanned, cornrowed Barney returning from Belize. Though it’s hard to imagine him having that done on his honeymoon with Robin by his side.
What I didn’t like:
• The Stinson family tell when bluffing at poker. Saying the word bluff is far too easy, and an unlikely blunder for Barney, an inveterate gambler.
• This joke from James: “Nothing attracts a gay guy faster than a wedding ring — except saying hi to him, or being in the same room, or every app on my phone. People, it is a good time to be gay.” It might’ve landed better if James weren’t such a jerk this episode, but the stereotypes translated as insulting in light of his total failures as a parent and partner.
• Continuity as diversion. Occasionally, the first sign of a weak episode is an unnecessary callback. I love when the writers pick up old threads, but sometimes it seems they do it so we’ll automatically assume a lot of thought was put into the episode’s logic (or to distract from the fact that there wasn’t). The Gazzola’s shout-out was kind of forced, even if it made enough sense in terms of the road trip. Same goes for Claudia and Stuart, whose footnote in history got more minutes of screen time than were really necessary. Finally, the scene of Marshall and Lily going through wedding gifts — it was great to see Marshall’s head shaved down the middle, a remembrance of that wedding-day accident, but Easter eggs can feel a little manipulative when the surrounding story isn’t terribly tight.