15
Feb
2011
How I Met Your Mother: Season 6, Episode 16
Desperation Day
Jordan
An oft-discussed aspect of television criticism is the difficulty of accurately reviewing a narrative that is, by the nature of the medium, mid-stream. When I review a movie, I've seen the whole thing from beginning to end. If something is foreshadowed early in the film, I have seen it pay off by the end of the movie, and can appreciate the art of the way certain subplots mirrored or acted as a foil for the film's main plot and major themes. This is not the case with a television show, which means many things. I've talked about this a lot before when reviewing Mad Men. Trying to tackle a show that's that complex and guess at where its heading can make me come off as stupid when, weeks later, a moment I theorized to mean one thing is revealed to mean something else entirely. As television has become more novelic in the last decade, it has become both more interesting and more difficult to assess critically on a weekly basis. One of the major problems, and one that affects the way I view shows like 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother is the question of relative quality. Because both shows had a marked downturn in quality last year, this season I often find myself saying "the show has turned it around" or something to that effect when its a good episode or "the show seems to be backsliding" when its a bad episode. The truth of the matter is, that's pretty much impossible to tell from a single episode, but honestly, its also kind of impossible to judge the quality arc of a season mid-stream.

That being said, I'm going to do it anyway and say that How I Met Your Mother seems to be on a roll of late, getting back into the swing of what made it a great show in the first place and returning its quality to the level I hope for it to be at on a weekly basis. With the exception of "Last Words," which I thought was a miss, the show has turned out a string of very solid episodes pretty much since "Canning Randy" earlier this year. And after last week's "Oh Honey," my favorite episode of the season so far, I wasn't sure whether the show would keep its streak going or if everything would fall apart after a peak like that. Fortunately, it appears to be the former, as "Desperation Day" continues to play with all of the best toys in the HIMYM toy box.

Having Marshall stay in Minnesota for a while after his father's death makes sense for a number of reasons that really keep the show at the top of its game. It works thematically, as the character worshipped his father and it has allowed the show to examine his emotional free fall without dragging the rest of the story lines down. Usually death in sitcoms is handled in one of two ways, and neither is very effective. Either the show becomes a dark drama for a week or two to show that "death effects everyone, even these wacky characters we laugh at every week" or it kind of glosses over the significance of the death too quickly to get back to the jokes. But How I Met Your Mother has handled Marshall's father's death perfectly by allowing him to grieve for an appropriate and realistic amount of time without grinding the show, which is, by nature, a comedy to a halt for weeks on end. Keeping Marshall in Minnesota has also allowed the show to play with narrative structure as it always does when at the top of its game. Last week used a series of phone calls to drive the story, with Marshall sidelined but really experiencing the story more fully than any other character. This week it allows for cross-cutting between Minnesota and New York in a way that emphasizes the episode's themes very nicely and subtly. "Desperation Day" is really a story about people realizing they are adults and slowly starting to behave as such, and this was illuminated quite well with the cross-cutting that allowed Marshall and Ted to realize they were fleeing their problems and needed to man up and face them like adults at the same time Barney realized he was finally experiencing Valentine's Day as an adult by going on a real date with a woman he actually likes.

Neil Patrick Harris' work as Barney has always been absolutely incredible, and the fact that he still hasn't won an Emmy for the show is an artistic travesty. He consistently sells even weak material and is almost impossibly funny when given strong jokes, but he has also made Barney into a real character slowly over time. Most shows with a Barney-type "player" character will occasionally show he has heart, but then forget it immediately in the next episode. And early How I Met Your Mother did this a little bit, but it has mostly always remembered that beneath Barney's womanizing exterior beats the heart of a wounded boy who grew up without a father and had his heart broken in his first serious relationship and thus has understandable issues with intimacy. "Desperation Day" was really a tour de force for NPH, giving us a glimpse of all sides of Barney. From willing something into existence just by being awesome (Robin says "That's not a thing" when Barney brings up Desperation Day, but Barney asserts right back "Its a thing!" and, like most of his things, pretty much succeeds in proving it by episode's end), to the elaborate faux-historical backstory he gives it (complete with the now standard casting of NPH in an important "historical" role and throwing the rest of the cast in for extra fun), and finally to his classic attempts to pick up women (including a nice moment where he has heat-vision just like the Predator), this gave us all the greatest hits. It also provided us with a nice capper, when Barney ends up on a Valentine's Day date with a woman he was actually interested in. He may no longer be the master of Desperation Day, but he didn't seem to mind too much.

And look, the recently deceased character reappearing for one last piece of advice has been done to death (and I can even think of several times its been done in a car, exactly like this), but tell me that Marshall's dad confessing, "I couldn't see worth a damn. I just kept driving forward, hoping for the best." then scaring Marshall one last time didn't get to you. Its an overdone moment, yes, but it was done so effectively here I can't be too upset at the show for trodding it out. It gave a nice ending to the arc of Marshall's father's death and allowed for the character to make tentative steps forward.

So I can't honestly tell you whether How I Met Your Mother is on a roll or about to end its streak. I can't really speculate as to whether this will go down as the season that proved the show was past its prime, or the season it rallied and became good again before the final stretch. All I can say is that the show is telling long form stories again and we have fewer standalones between them. Its also playing with each of the characters very well and giving them a personal arc to follow. Ted is in love again, Barney is searching for his father (and I really hope Nora doesn't disappear, because she is very likable), and Marshall is saying goodbye to his. Robin is makign career progress and Lily is trying to get pregnant. These characters are going places, and they're going places that matter. Beyond that, the show is using the techniques that made it great again, and is consistently delivering very funny episodes. And for now, all of that is good enough for me.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-The Predator tradition is a nice Marshall and Lily moment, and similar to my own Kill Bill Valentine's Day tradition, which explains this late posting.

-"Oh Jupiter, what are your plans for me? Fifteen and still unmarried..."

-"I mean, he is having a pretty sick Dr. Mario run, but..."

-"They're actually called British Morning Socks." "Yeah, don't get in your own way."

-"This is Barney, a high funcitoning sociopath and my ex."

-"Mrs. Erickson, we're running low on Sunny D." "Is orange juice ok?" "No!"

-"That's just what my Dad said." "And she sticks the landing!"
Tags: How I Met Your Mother
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