Best Episode Ever # 38: ‘How I Met Your Mother’
With “How I Met Your Mother” ending its nine year run on Monday, it is time to look back and pick the Best Episode Ever of the series. I feel pretty confident that it won’t be the finale, because I think “How I Met Your Mother” was not, nor ever should have been, really about meeting the mother. The joke was how long could he tell the story without ever getting to the point? Viewers actually waiting for the introduction promised in the title were missing the point. You shouldn’t watch a comedy for nine years to find out who he ends up with. You should enjoy the myriad creative ways in which the comedy could dodge the question and keep telling intricate, interesting stories.
I actually think they should have ended the show still not introducing the mother, with the final Bob Saget narration saying, “So I ended up meeting your mother, but that wasn’t what was really important about this story.” They would never have gotten away with that, as viewers were already up in arms by season six with no resolution in sight. Could you imagine the whole show as a meta joke about audience expectations though? Anyway, that ship sailed as soon as they introduced Cristin Milioti, who is playing a lovely character who does in fact make all the tragicomedy leading up to her worth it.
I also think the spinoff should not be “How I Met Your Dad.” It should be “How I Met Your Mothra.” Each week a different monster would attack the city and viewers would wonder, “Is that the Mothra? No, it’s just Megalon.” Next week, “Is that the Mothra? No, it’s just King Ghidorah.” But this isn’t the Best Episode Ever of “How I Met Your Mothra.” It’s the Best Episode Ever for “How I Met Your Mother.”
In telling this decade-long story about the convoluted set of circumstances that led to Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor)’s marriage, “How I Met Your Mother” reinvented the sitcom format by bending time and setting up stories that wouldn’t pay off for years. As such, I thought the best episode of “HIMYM” would be the one that played with time and/or expectations the most. It wasn’t, although “The Goat” came close.
Along the way, “HIMYM” was also about a fresh new approach to group dynamics among friends and a nonlinear way to portray the sort of dating foibles that were the weekly fodder for most sitcoms. “Seinfeld” was all “Don’t you hate it when your girlfriend/boyfriend does this?” “Friends” was more “Aw shucks, it would’ve been a perfect match if only…” “HIMYM” demonstrated “You do this and this is what it looks like to other people.”
The Best Episode Ever of “How I Met Your Mother” was a season three episode called “Spoiler Alert,” because it manipulates the format of the sitcom to illustrate biases in dating and friendship relationships the best. Ted is dating Cathy (guest star Lindsay Price), who seems to be setting the rest of the group on edge. Both Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) snap at Cathy’s seemingly innocent questions.
However, it turns out we were only seeing Ted’s colored view of Cathy. When they tell Ted the truth about Cathy, which he has ignored in his euphoria, then we see the true order of events. Cathy talks so incessantly that even when she tries to get to know the gang, she keeps cutting them off before they can answer a question. Now that Ted has learned the truth, he can’t unhear Cathy’s blabbermouth, and it makes the earlier scenes funnier to see them completed with the missing middle section.
This is a very real observation about the process of dating. It is important that you see someone as they actually are, because that’s who you’re considering living with forever, but the natural process of getting to know someone obscures the negative qualities for a little bit. The same goes for platonic friends in your life, as the Cathy revelation uncovers every “HIMYM” character’s annoying traits.
Lily chews too loudly, Marshall (Jason Segal) sings while he performs mundane tasks, Ted corrects people over every minute thing, Robin says literally when she means figuratively and Barney of course has his catch phrases (legen……dary) and vocal inflections. These are not even contrived. These are all things people do that we may grudgingly tolerate in our friends. I think they’re being kind about the chewing too loudly. What people actually do is chew with their mouths open. How did you get through childhood without learning table manners? I’m not even worried about my friends figuring out I’m referring to them, because if they knew they did it they would surely stop doing it, right? Right?
Each revelation is accompanied with the sound effect of glass shattering, that little aesthetic touch to illustrate that now we’ve all learned something we can’t unlearn. The argument builds to an epic third act in which all five characters are at each others’ throats. What makes the relationships of “HIMYM” so special is all the built in history that is remembered from episode to episode, just like we have with our real friends. In “Spoiler Alert,” that history explodes. The way a standalone dating story become relevant to the entire core cast is beautifully subtle writing, and it’s great to see the entire cast at the center of an entire episode, rather than weaving in and out of each other.
“Spoiler Alert” isn’t even one where Barney is on the prowl. I would have thought the Best Episode Ever would include some of Barney’s most legen…..dary schemes. Perhaps the playbook was more of a crutch and the real gold was to be mined from interactions between Barney and the gang. He does trick Marshall into watching a video of a dog pooping on a baby, so Barney is not exactly well behaved in this episode.
When “HIMYM” started to meander, I think it was not because they stretched out the mother meeting story but rather because they forgot to make the show about real relationships. Gimmicks were great when they reflected honesty, but when they were just trying to create a new catch phrase, we could tell. “Spoiler Alert” is the ultimate example in how to do “How I Met Your Mother” right, and it is the Best Episode Ever.