As we started running out of episodes of scripted series back in December and early January, I felt like I had to grade a lot of them on a curve, because they were clearly put into production without the usual polishing you would get if the writers were around to make changes. Everyone's back at work, but based on these early post-strike "HIMYM"s, I feel like a curve is still necessary. The episodes have been good -- this was actually one of the best of the season, pre or post-strike -- but in watching each one, I can spot certain elements that would have been fixed if Bays, Thomas and company weren't racing to get as many episodes on the air as quickly as they could.
Specifically, while the show has come back with its attention to structure and continuity intact, it feels like the writers' dialogue muscles atrophied during those three months on the picket. There was so much to love about "The Bracket," and yet periodically there would be these punchlines that made me cringe like I was watching an episode of "George Lopez" or something. I think of a line like Barney the master perjurer not wanting to talk about work, or even the payoff to the "aura of self-loathing and despair" exchange (the set-up was funnier than the punchline, because why would Barney be asking that question if it would apply to every woman he ever slept with?) and I imagine there was a lot of "We'll just leave that in until we come up with something better" talk in the writers room.
Fortunately, most of the hack-y stuff was finished by the time the opening credits rolled, and from then on I could focus on the good things about "The Bracket."
Specifically, I loved the focus on Barney -- and a triumphantly evil Barney, at that. When "The Yips" aired shortly before the strike, a lot of friends complained that a sensitive, emasculated Barney isn't remotely as funny as a Barney who does terrible things and gets away with it, and "The Bracket" was a superb argument for that point of view. Barney has done terrible things to all of these women -- and most of the bracket debates sounded much worse than anything he did to the Final Four -- and the complete lack of consequences for that behavior is a defining, memorable quality for the character. The way Barney always gets away with this stuff -- and that he can suck otherwise decent people like Lily, Marshall and Robin into his web of deceit and sleaze -- never gets old. One of the episode's many highlights was the competition to guess the reasons why Barney would view a museum as a great pick-up sight, and then that was quickly topped by the list of reasons why each woman on the bracket hates him. (Girl Who Thought I Was Jorge Posada may be my favorite, if only because I don't think Neil Patrick Harris remotely looks like Jorge.)
Some specific thoughts:
- Yes, I'm one of those "Simpsons" nerds who always has to do freeze frame or slo-mo through things like Barney's mental montage of past conquests, and so I caught that one of the women was Madeleine Albright -- a callback to a line from "The Yips" about Barney's inability to talk to women he doesn't intend to sleep with.
- As you would expect it to be, TedMosbyIsAJerk.com is a functioning website, and features another callback, to Ted's porno doppleganger.
- Did anyone take the back-to-back discussion of karma and lists as some kind of "My Name Is Earl" reference? I kept expecting Barney to make a mustache joke.
- "Have you ever fallen asleep while eating ribs?" is funny on many different levels at once. First, as an illustration of how well Ted knows Robin. Second, ribs are an inherently funny kind of food, because they're so messy. Third, the concept of eating them and dozing off while covered in rib goo is funny. Fourth, Robin's stupid giggling was also funny. I'm sure there are more levels to it than that, but the great thing about a Barney-centric episode is that he can carry most of the laughs and allow the writers to focus on one or two really funny bits of business for the other characters who may not be as hilarious when the spotlight's on them for the whole show.
- Another great throwaway gag: Marshall's inability to behave normally during the fake conversation at MacLaren's. ("Here are words... Laughter!")
- I've somehow missed nearly every second of the tournament this year. Do they still actually play "One Shining Moment," or has it been replaced by some equally coma-inducing bit of treacle? Maybe one of the "American Idol" coronation songs?
- Fifteen years -- and one career-redefining role in "Harold and Kumar" -- later, I'm glad Neil Patrick Harris is okay with a "Doogie Howser" joke. (For you young'uns, the music being played as Barney typed his blog at the end was the "Doogie" theme; every episode of that show would end with Doogie typing some earnest new life lesson in his electronic journal. You see, back in those days, we didn't have fancy things called blogs. We had word processors! They had blue screens and lousy Graphic User Interfaces, and we liked them! We loved them! Flibbledy-floo!)