Photo: RON P. JAFFE/©2011 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Sometimes it takes just two minutes of a television show in order to tell whether the rest of it is going to be any good or not. Or with Whitney, for example, the ads alone were reason enough to boycott. (Torturing a boyfriend by talking about your period? In the 21st century?) Last night’s episode of HIMYM was quite the opposite — within seconds, it outpaced the mediocre premiere, and we say that despite the fact that Ted’s fantastically prominent New York Magazine cover was no longer a plot point. Writers Bays and Thomas got right back to their sweet spot using the same devices that have made the series so great over the years: tidy themes, cross-narrative storytelling, callbacks, cons, bets, Barney’s witty putdowns, Robin’s comic timing, Ted’s corny-but-crucial sentimentality, and, finally, a bittersweet ending.
The episode opened at MacLaren’s, with Ted trying to tell the gang about bumping into an ex while they quickly run through women from his past, significant and otherwise (fans probably caught the shout-out to the girl from “Name That Bitch” who ruined a photo with Slash). Ted’s rejoinder? “You make it sound like I’ve dated a series of Stieg Larson novels.” And we’re off, not because the joke was especially original, but because it was exactly the sort of banter that reminds us how close these friends really are. Ted can’t get through the saga of seeing Victoria at the Architect’s Ball because nobody can stop commenting on Lily’s buoyant pregnancy boobs (Marshall: “The party in my wife’s sweater is a private event and I’m the bouncer.” Robin: “Dude, I think they’s the bouncers.”) At Marshall’s suggestion, the group relocated to Shinjitsu, a hibachi grill with a vaudeville twist, which looked like the same restaurant where Ted’s “smelly hippy” once threw red paint on the table, only that one didn’t have those fantastic porcelain cat mugs.
Of course, the real vaudevillian twist was the nicely balanced overacting by Lily, Marshall, and Barney as they negotiated a bet wherein Barney could finally fondle Lily’s breasts if he were able to prove his grilling skills were as sharp as the chef’s. Losing meant wearing Marshall’s hideous duck tie for a year. While those three haggled over the terms, Robin prodded Ted to continue his story, which was a great division of labor for the cast — it’s rare these days for both HIMYM subplots to work so effortlessly.
Ted’s run-in with his season-one flame was not as cool as he originally pretended, nor was Robin’s botched save any better. Smulders, in the role of the other woman, is so wonderfully awkward. Most attractive actresses will literally fall on their face to prove that they’re funny, and while she’s no less prone to exaggeration, she can flash from smooth to silly in the space of an expression, exiting with a well-executed, “What? Yeah, be right there” gag.
At the restaurant, Barney fumbled with his chopsticks, yet Lily suspected something was up. This was a classic Stinson long con, a part-Pavlovian experiment conducted over the years to train Marshall to associate Barney’s sneezes with the restaurant Shinjitsu where Barney could then place a winnable bet to see Lily’s boobs. As ridiculous as that was, it worked thematically since the sexual chemistry between almost everyone assembled here — in some cases, latent (i.e., Lily’s Robin fantasies) — was a major plot point. And it was entertaining to see the gang standing outside waiting for a peek, with only Ted forced to face the Dumpster.
On to Victoria. Her return was a speculated event, and the only thing more surprising than how long it took to happen is how quickly it seemed to be over. Since she couldn’t be the mother, we would have much preferred her to have been season six’s stalled relationship as opposed to the dreadful … well, dare we speak her name?
That said, Victoria was very well used here. With the boob bet interruptions delaying the denouement, the episode remained suspenseful, since we actually care about these two. They have genuine chemistry. To the fading chorus of the familiar bangity-bang song, Ted revealed that Victoria is practically engaged to a guy named Klaus, whom, we learn via nifty wordplay, she hooked up with in Germany. Ted, ever the romantic, has to know “What if?” And Victoria’s answer, which he does not share with his friends, sounds familiar: “There is a reason it didn’t work out between you and me. It’s Robin. She’s so much bigger in your world than you realize.” And we’re back. As we remember, Robin’s ex, Don, had similar misgivings.
In some ways, this episode makes season six seem like a waste of time. This is precisely where the series was at the end of season five, with the three exes negotiating their past. It’s a stretch to believe that it took this long for Future Ted to say: “And she’s right. It didn’t work. We just didn’t realize it yet.” Even that statement was very reminiscent of a similarly portentous voice-over from season five, one that revealed how the gang drifted apart over the years, and which was equally bittersweet for being said while they went about drinking at their beloved watering hole.
But last season, focused instead on Marshall and Lily, and their life changes, both happy and sad, made sense for the show and for the characters. It feels just as right to return to the core dynamic between Ted and Robin now and to resolve, maybe once and for all, Barney’s role in it. Victoria’s bombshell, if you could call it that, set the tone for what could be a really satisfying season. To be optimistic, we don’t think the meaning of Marshall’s parting remarks is confined to his joy over Barney’s new tie: “Oh, guys. It’s gonna be a good year.”