“You Have No Idea How to Play Bridge, Do You?”

Tonight’s How I Met Your Mother was the kind of episode I like, after a batch of episodes that have had entertaining moments but haven’t really been my style. (This was a sequel to last week’s episode, “Sorry, Bro,” and while that episode had its admirers, I thought the story was a bit pointless and way too heavy on scenes with no other regulars besides Ted.) This has been an uneven season, but when the show gets a story that really works, it reminds me why it’s still my favourite comedy: because it gets comedy and storylines out of every character’s relationship with every other character, and tries to take familiar relationships in unexpected but appropriate directions. In this case, the fact that Lily has been responsible for breaking up Ted’s unsuitable relationships, including his second-season breakup with Robin, is true to what we know about her, but expands on it.

And speaking of expanding, since both the female leads on the show are pregnant, we’re going to see a lot of stories written around the necessity to keep them sitting down a lot or otherwise not too close to the camera. In this episode, Alyson Hannigan spent most of the episode in a chair, and Cobie Smulders spent most of the episode on a TV screen way in the background. It worked fine in this episode. Additional trivia: this was like the second episode in four seasons not directed by Pamela Fryman. Veteran writer/producer Rob Greenberg, a consultant on HIMYM, did this one.

In some ways, How I Met Your Mother is a show where the writers use all kinds of gimmicks, flash-forwards, characters in funny wigs and makeup, to lend a hip veneer to one of the most old-fashioned sitcoms on television, one that is extremely sentimental and incorporates a huge amount of pre-Seinfeld hugging and learning. But that’s all right with me, and I think the weakest episodes are often the ones that are the least sentimental and serious.

If HIMYM reminded me of its strengths, its time-slot mate, The Big Bang Theory, reminded me a bit of what keeps it from being a really great sitcom (or even an intermittently first-rate one like HIMYM). This was a good episode, so I’m not singling it out as a bad example, but just as a typical example of the way this show tells its stories, which is to keep them very simple and unadorned. They often don’t really end so much as peter out, a bit like the stories on The Office, but The Office is usually trying to convey some over-arching theme underneath the simple stories. (Penny’s business might be carried over to another episode, or it might not, but the episodes almost always end abruptly, and the resolutions are not much more complicated than the guys deciding they can’t make a thousand more Penny Blossoms.) Not that I want TBBT to try and get deep and emotional; it doesn’t pretend to have depth or to want to teach lessons, and that’s fine. But the stories are so simple that they can feel incomplete, and because almost nobody ever appears besides the five main characters (in this episode, they were the only ones who appeared), I sometimes wish they’d push them just a little farther. Pushing the characters and stories to more interesting places is what separates a great show from a good one; it’s what separates, say, Cheers from Wings. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a solid show with a fine cast, like Wings, except that there are higher expectations for a good sitcom in an era that doesn’t have many of those things.




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“You Have No Idea How to Play Bridge, Do You?”

  1. Speaking as a bridge player, those scenes killed me. It seemed like ‘the point’ of last night’s TBBT episode was to get Sheldon to drink coffee, and let the zaniness ensue.

  2. But the stories are so simple that they can feel incomplete, and because almost nobody ever appears besides the five main characters (in this episode, they were the only ones who appeared), I sometimes wish they’d push them just a little farther.

    I actually sort of admire the show’s absolute dedication to its style of humor. And I think that their paper-thin storylines work almost as a (probably accidental) deconstruction of the sitcom format. The writers’ philosophy seems to be: “People watch sitcoms to laugh. The stories are just situations for comedy to occur. Ergo, the stories don’t really matter; they just act as an excuse to tell some jokes and let the characters bounce off of each other. And so, since it doesn’t matter anyway, it doesn’t really matter if we finish the story.” When the story ceases to be comedically useful, the writers drop it, regardless of whether it was wrapped up or not. So the show is all about the com, and not at all about the sit. I’m fine with that, as I’m not at all confident the BBT writers could do more complex stories well; I base that on the fact that when the show has delved into more plot-oriented stuff (ie- the Leonard-Penny relationship thing), it hasn’t really worked.

    The only problem with all this is that it doesn’t leave BBT a whole lot of wiggle room. When the jokes aren’t strong, the show is pretty much unbearable.

  3. Two thoughts:

    1. I really want Penny Blossoms to… uh, bloom. I’d like to see this business become a regular part of the series, with the nerd’s genius of commerce and all that other operations crap really helping Penny make money. Plus that would give us more great Sheldon/Penny scenes. I think keeping this aspect will give the show a bit more direction. Plus I like feel good shit.

    2. I absolutely hate scenes/lines like the “You have no idea how to play bridge, do you?” “Uhhhhhhhh, no.” I think there was some other show with that exact same joke this week and it just pissed me off. I don’t know why.

  4. To me, the reason jokes like “You have no idea how to play bridge, do you?” work is because they are in some sense making fun of writing itself. Often, the writers say “Gee, I’d like the characters to talk about/do X.”, so they simply give one of the characters knowledge about subject X, regardless of how likely that is (“Why yes, I do happen to know the airspeed velocity of the African swallow.”). Those jokes work precisely because we’ve been preconditioned to expect characters to always know what they are talking about.

  5. I don’t know, jokes like that bridge line just seem like clams to me.

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