We’re going to meet Barney’s mother on How I Met Your Mother tonight (played by Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under). This may or may not turn out to be one of those situations where the character in the flesh can never live up to the unseen character from Barney’s descriptions and various flashbacks — where we’ve never seen her face — but the “meet the folks” episode is a rite of passage that most TV characters must go through eventually. In introducing the parents of a main character, the writers have several options.
1) The parent is exactly like the character. We now know where he picked up all his character traits, but more importantly, we get to see an older actor imitating all the catchphrases and mannerisms of the familiar regular character. Often culminates in a scene where the regular and the guest get together and wear the same clothes, talk with the same speech patterns, or show that despite their disagreements they really do agree on everything else. Often the regular and his or her parents are unaware of how much they have in common until the other regulars point it out.
2) The parent is the exact opposite of the character. This not only provides the opportunity for a surprise reveal at the beginning and a touching reconciliation at the end, but enables the writers to provide a bunch of backstory about how the character’s whole way of living is an attempt to get away from his/her roots. Always leads to a scene where the parent and/or parents embarrass the regular in a restaurant. In fact, most visits-from-parents episodes involve an embarrassing scene in a restaurant.
3) The parents are having marital troubles and the regular tries to patch up their relationship. HIMYM already did this episode with Ted’s parents, who were already divorced and hadn’t told him.
Most of these categories also apply to visits from other relatives (like that very weak HIMYM episode about Ted’s sister), but sibling episodes tend to lean much more heavily toward category 1; every casting director is on the lookout for someone who can act exactly like a regular when playing the long-lost brother or sister.
Also, I’m trying to think which ensemble show holds the record for fewest parents ever introduced. I think it must be NewsRadio. That show had eight regulars and I don’t think we ever actually met any of their parents. We did meet Matthew’s adopted “twin” brother played by Jon Stewart, though.
Update: Having seen the episode, I’m embarrassed that I forgot to include plot # 4 in my original post: The regular character is keeping a secret from the parent or parents, leading to results of a disastrous nature.