"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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