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Friday, October 28, 2011

Parks & Recreation: "Meet 'N' Greet"

Halloween episodes seem to lean towards character development as opposed to plot development, largely for the simple reason that more than any other time of year the characters are making ostentatious choices of self-representation. In TV as in real life, what you dress up as, or your choice not to dress up, says a lot about who you are.

The urge to fight back against that instinct might have lead Michael Schur and the staff at Parks & Rec to use the Halloween episode for at least one major development: the (not at all premature but still a little disheartening) death of Entertainment 7wenty. Apparently, telling potential customers that you have no bookings available is not the best way to drive up interest in your enterprise.

It’s a little unfortunate that they used the dissolution of everyone’s favorite source for free iPads as a method of turning Tom into a staggeringly obnoxious douche. (It’s also a lot unfortunate his offscreen presence last night harbors ill for future appearances of Jean-Ralphio.) Tom’s douchiness didn’t provide many laughs and seemed designed just to highlight once again what a good person Leslie Knope is. I guess we needed that since she didn’t get to dress up in a costume this year.

The rest of the episode took place at April and Andy’s house party which, like a spring-loaded skeleton, came as quite a surprise to their roommate Ben. Andy, intuitive if not exactly considerate, can tell that Ben is upset but perplexed that he won’t admit it. The show took Ben’s suppression a little too far, but it was worth it for the pay off of Andy, in costume as UFC fighter Chuck Liddell, dragging Ben around the party in a headlock.

A lot of television critics have praised Parks and Recreation by comparing Pawnee and its denizens to the way The Simpsons have populated Springfield, but the comparison becomes unflattering when the real people turn too cartoonish. Such has always been the danger with man’s man Ron Swanson, but here the concern is for Chris Traeger, whose actions made little sense and, outside of his hilarious explanation for dressing up as Sherlock Holmes (he wanted the perfect brain to go along with his perfect physique) provided less amusement than needed to carry this superfluous plotline.

Oh, an Ann was an eggplant, or a beanbag, and she has small enough hands to do some tricky plumbing work. Whatever.

Community: "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps"

Even though they weren’t supposed to air consecutively, “Random Chaos Theory” and last night’s episode of Community complement each other in interesting ways. Whereas the divergent timelines of the former were structured as a glimpse at the way the members function within the group, “Horror Fiction” looked at how they perceived themselves. Unfortunately the episode is going to be unfairly judged in two contexts, as it was neither as innovative as “Random Chaos Theory” nor was it as memorable as either of the two previous Halloween episodes. (I actually might like it better than the zombified “Epidemiology” but I recognize that as a minority opinion.)

The framework is elegant in its simplicity. Freshly-minted psych major Britta discovers that one of the anonymous personality tests she administered to the group shows strong signs of a personality disorder and homicidal tendencies, so she tries to tell a scary story to gauge the group’s reactions. But she Brittas it pretty badly, so the rest of the group, not suspecting her true motive, tries to show her how to tell a real scary story.

The writers did an excellent job of filtering each scary story through the perspective of the character telling it, and it was amusing how they translated that effect onto the screen. Britta’s story suffers from her half-hearted and distracted effort, to the point that the radio announcer warns of an escaped inmate with “a hook-hand thingy, you know what I mean.” Abed deconstructs the whole genre in his story, correcting every logical misstep but neglecting to make his story scary. Annie unwittingly provides a look at the desires and feelings she usually takes care to keep bottled up. Annie’s story, with Jeff as a conflicted vampire who wants to learn how to read, was the most humorous of the stories, with its combination of young-adult vampire lit and terrifyingly visceral carnage.

The other stories were more of a mixed bag. Troy’s was silly fun but nothing special, Pierce’s was clueless and out of touch, and Shirley’s was a version of the rapture where she is the only one ascending into heaven. As for Jeff, his story revealed little except that he has an ability to convince the group to move past things through speech-making.

The episode ends with the group realizing that Britta had Britta’d the test results by putting the scantron through in reverse. Gillian Jacobs is doing exceptional work this season, managing to engender the audience’s sympathy while also making the group’s incessant ribbing of her entirely understandable. Her crestfallen face both makes me laugh and say, “Aww.”

I laughed at the revelation that Abed is in fact the only one of the group to score as sane, but it makes more sense that it might seem. Doesn’t he seem like the kind of guy who’d be perfectly able to analyze the questions to pick the response that seemed most sane?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bad Teacher

Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher squanders a rather strong collection of comedic talent, producing a middling, uneven final product with no real point of view or coherent vision.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz, who is easily ten years too old to be playing a second-year teacher) is just going through the motions at John Adams Middle School until a breakup from her rich fiancé forces her to face the prospect of teaching becoming a long-term career. When she meets the rich new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake), her dreams of a life of ease are rekindled. If only she could afford the breast implants that would be sure to catch his attention. She competes for Timberlake’s attention with the improbably named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), a dedicated but overly cheery teacher. Jason Segel’s gym teacher suffers from an inexplicably sturdy attraction to Elizabeth, but mostly observes the action from a distance, waiting for her to go through enough trouble and tribulation to make winding up with him seem less far-fetched as a plot device.

Along the way a bunch of other talented performers pop up here and there, usually to spout off a few uninspired cracks and retreat to the sidelines. Phyllis Smith, aka Phyllis from The Office, is Elizabeth’s meek confidant, Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet plays Elizabeth’s slob of a roommate, Reno 911’s Thomas Lennon is a state education official, and David Paymer is a plastic surgeon. John Michael Higgins, Dave (Gruber) Allen, and Molly Shannon also appear, although Higgins and Shannon do not share the screen at any point, denying audiences the Kath & Kim reunion so many have been clamoring for.

The movie is oddly non-committal with regards to Elizabeth’s behavior. It isn’t even really sure whether it wants you to root for her to succeed or not, even as her misdeeds escalate from the merely irresponsible (neglecting her students and letting them watch movies all day) to the probably felonious (she drugs Thomas Lennon’s character, steals the state exam so her test scores will earn a bonus, then intimidates Lennon out of testifying against her.)

Justin Timberlake is a breezily charismatic figure in such venues as SNL, but here his talents are misappropriated. He is game and enthusiastic in his meager, unpromising role, but he fails to disappear into it. Instead he gives off the distinct impression of someone very cool having a lark at playing a nerd. It’s distracting, and shows that Timberlake has a ways to go before he can truly call himself an actor.

In fact, Timberlake and Segel are wrongly billed as the second and third leads of Bad Teacher. They may be bigger draws, but the real star among the supporting players is Lucy Punch as Ms. Squirrel. Bad Teacher is really a movie about their rivalry than anything else, and Punch is very winning as the grating, cloying and cheerful Ms. Squirrel.

As a movie, Bad Teacher seems to exist solely in support of its title. Someone had an idea to make a movie about a bad teacher, and this is the best they could do with such a limited premise. They did their best to smut it up to distract the audience, but a lack of killer punchlines and a lot of narrative confusion will out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Things I've Noticed About Online Dating #1: Passports

I’ve recently joined a free online dating site in an effort to meet new people. This is my first time on any sort of dating site and I’m still adjusting to the conventions and etiquette of the community. I have already noticed some interesting trends, tropes, and themes as well as some reflections of the equally absurd arena of real-world dating. In what I hope will be a continuing series, I will examine some of these in detail. Note: Since I am a straight male, I look at only women’s profiles, so these columns will assuredly be a little skewed in that direction. I would gladly welcome a female perspective on these issues.

There’s a lot of pressure to differentiate yourself on an online dating site, and more importantly, to do so in a positive fashion. Prospective matches, with just a click, can move on to any of the other thousand people with whom they supposedly have 90% compatibility. The law of large numbers turns us all into perfectionists.

The site I am registered with provides myriad ways to separate yourself from the crowd. Every user is given open-ended questions to answer that will be displayed on your profile page. Some of these are more open-ended than others, (One literally just asks you to summarize yourself, with no acknowledgement of how difficult a task that can be.) The hardest question for me to answer asks for “The six things you could never do without.”

I have a tendency to parse and split hairs, but I struggled with this question primarily due to issues over the definition of “things.” Am I to take this in the literal sense and list my six favorite objects? I try not to be so materialistic. Or should I interpret “things” more broadly, allowing me to include concepts, philosophies, or even persons. I have trouble squaring the idea of calling living people “things” with my reading of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The other problem is the ever-present conflict in the world of online-dating (and, I suppose, offline-dating) between transparent honesty and what I’ll charitably and euphemistically refer to as “resume enhancing”. If I were to be truly honest, I’d probably have to list my laptop and my television among the six things I couldn’t do without because, well, I use them both extensively, probably way more than is healthy. But I’m not trying to pass a lie detector test, I’m trying to attract a potential mate and propagate my genetic line (down the road, ladies, down the road.) I don’t want to come off as some borderline agoraphobe who just sits in his apartment watching TV and surfing the web. I don’t want to come across as myself!

I still haven’t solved this question; my answer is evolving. I haven’t quite made it to six things, and hopefully that’s taken as a sign of my philosophically deep anti-materialism and not as a sign of my limited imagination, or even my limited budget. (I shudder to think that some women might believe me so poor as to be unable to afford more than four things.)

But from browsing the profiles of my matches, it looks as though the young-female population has got at least one-sixth of this puzzle solved. Nearly every young lady I’ve scoped out has listed her passport.

Get it! This isn’t some regular girl you’re dealing with, this is a world-class traveler. She NEEDS her passport because otherwise she would never have made it to that village in Italy where her grandparents courted each other, or that street market in Marrakech where she totally haggled that guy on the price of a headscarf. Just think of all the cool stories she’ll have to tell on your date, on the differences between the dialects in the north of Spain and the south of Spain, or the most interesting architecture in Vienna or Prague, or how much better the coffee was over there, wherever there was, because you’ve probably drifted off to sleep by that point.

Just think of it! Doesn’t it kind of nauseate you? I’m imagining sitting there with my eyes glazing over as she relates the seventh iteration of a story with the central message that “despite the obvious surface differences, I learned that maybe we weren’t so different after all!”


And to seal the deal on their world-traveler status, all their profile photos have to feature them posing, arms spread wide, in front of some landmark or tourist attraction. Oh wow, you’ve stood in front of the Leaning Tower, and you did that HILARIOUS pretend like you’re keeping it upright pose, that definitely tells me so much about who you are!

Actually, that does tell me a lot. Thanks. Click.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

2 Broke Girls: "And the '90s Horse Party"

Is it worth praising growth even if the end result is likely only going to be middle-of-the-road success? 2 Broke Girls legitimately seems to be getting better, but its underlying faults (sneering contempt for people who are different, desperate need to be crude, and hokey premise) are so limiting that it feels like the best this show could hope for is an unambitious, but likely profitable, sitcom hit, something akin to The Big Bang Theory (which is still much better than this.)

“And the ‘90s Horse Party” (they need to stop with the “And…” titles) does some typically annoying 2 Broke Girls things, it expects to laugh at Oleg’s way-too specific sexual harassment as though it were just an amusing character quirk and not sufficient basis for a lawsuit, it relies way too heavily on the nebulous concept of “hipsters” for its punchlines, and it zips willy-nilly from one plot-point to another with little regard or even understanding for narrative structure.

Still, I enjoyed the banter between Max and Caroline, which was slightly more playful than resentful this week. I hope they continue to reveal more about Max’s background. It serves to humanize here and make her tough talk more relatable. I continue to enjoy Garrett Morris’s Earl. Tonight I laughed when he regretted not being able to stop disco, just before chasing out the putative flash mob organized by Han.

Han is still a very problematic figure in the show. His accent feels absurd and when the show uses it to make jokes it feels very icky. But if they can move his character needle from “Asian with a funny voice” to “Nerdy Asian who can’t quite connect with people” that might be enough of a positive step to justify having him (and his diner) around for a while. I chuckled at his novelty “Talk to the Han” t-shirt.

2 Broke Girls is never going to be innovative or creative enough to achieve much critical acclaim, but its showing signs that it won’t remain stuck in cheap-joke hell, either. Either way, I’ll probably keep watching at least as long as the show fills the half-hour between How I Met Your Mother and House.

How I Met Your Mother: Mystery vs. History

I don’t have a lot to say about last night’s episode, but I am trying to be more reliable in my posting here.

Mystery vs. History was a fairly perfunctory episode, which is certainly excusable in a long-running series like this. I feel like episodes like this are really only disappointing in the moment, due to anticipation. Years from now if this half-hour ran in syndication you’d probably laugh a bit and enjoy yourself, but when it’s the new episode you’re awaiting, it leaves you slightly unsatisfied.

The biggest problem with Mystery vs. History was that a lot of it didn’t really sync up with the well-established traits and behaviors of the characters. Why would Barney, who wants Ted to be single, try to help him out on dates? The same question could be asked of Robin, who’s really much more of a laid-back, live-and-let-live person. If anyone would have been too curious about Ted’s dates, it would more naturally have been Lily. Obviously shows have to get characters out of their normal behaviors every once and a while, but you would hope that it would be in service of a better gag than this.

Similarly, Ted’s date with Janet didn’t make much logical sense. Ted has never been short on words, in fact just the opposite. He’s far more likely to drone on about his dorkier interests than he is to sit and stare in near-silence.

The better plotline by far was Kal Penn giving in to his urge to psychoanalyze the group’s behavior. It was funny, felt true to the characters, while also revealing a lot more about the group dynamic by using an outsider’s perspective. I still think it’s too weird to have Robin date a former therapist, but I can accept it if it leads to more scenes where he’s interacting with the group as a whole. The idea of a therapist hanging around Barney is especially rife with comedic possibilities.

Oh, and we found out in the gender of Marshall and Lily’s baby in a sitcom plot with so many precursors its actually hard to think of a specific example because they’ve all blended into one. The ending reveal was played nicely, but otherwise, not a plot development that held great interest.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Win Win

Tom McCarthy's Win Win is a perfect small movie. McCarthy, who directed from his own screenplay, has an impressively firm grasp on the choices and compromises made by real people facing real problems. He is also adept at writing his characters so that they are neither insufferable saints or irredeemable villains.

It certainly helps that the cast of Win Win is populated by extremely talented but workmanlike actors. Perhaps the epitome of this type of acting, Paul Giamatti, stars here as Mike Flaherty, a small-town lawyer without enough clients to make ends meet. Running short of money to fix his dilapidated home and office, Flaherty is tempted by an opportunity that presents itself in the form of a demented old man named Leo(Burt Young, aka Rocky's brother-in-law Paulie). Flaherty convinces the court to appoint him as Leo's guardian, but then sticks him in an old-folks home anyway and pockets the money he's paid to take care of Leo. It's a very disappointing ethical lapse, one that you don't often see in film protagonists.

Things get even worse for Flaherty when Leo's previously unknown grandson Kyle shows up to live with his grandfather. Mike tells Kyle that Leo has to live in the home because the judge ordered it, and he agrees to let Kyle stay with him until they can contact his mother. While they wait for his mother to get out of rehab, Kyle and Mike bond over wrestling, and Kyle winds up joining the high school team that Mike coaches.

From there the plot continues along an unsurprising but still captivating line, with Kyle's mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) re-emerging and causing trouble, and the truth of Mike's misdeed coming to light. The real joy is in seeing this cast play out the story. Amy Ryan plays Mike's trusting wife Jackie, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale play Mike's friends and assistant coaches, and Emmy winner Margo Martindale has a small role as Cindy's attorney. The young man playing Kyle is actually a non-actor, but a talented wrestler named Alex Shaffer. I found his performance extremely naturalistic and appropriately underdone. I liked that he wasn't emoting, as other new actors might have been tempted to do.

Win Win is the kind of movie you wish more people would pay to see in the theater. It tells a story of real people that rings true to real life. It has more moral complexity than a whole summer's worth of blockbusters put together.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Community: "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Community can do things no other show currently airing can do. The problem with that is that it sometimes makes the show seem comparatively dull when nothing earth-shattering is happening. Very funny, cleverly written episodes that only deal with the real world can, to some, seem little more than serviceable, workmanlike, and unmemorable. The show has asked for this kind of scrutiny, though, so I can’t be too critical of those who overanalyze it. I myself sometimes wish the show would do more “normal” sitcom stuff, except with the attention to detail and commitment to premise that it devotes to things like zombies and Star Wars-themed paintball games.

Remedial Chaos Theory is an episode of Community to shut down all complaints about the show and its unusual style. It proves that the show, however good it is week to week, can still be at its best when doing things no one else on TV would dare to try, probably because they see what kind of ratings Community draws.

One of the delights of Remedial Chaos Theory is the juxtaposition between the mundane nature of its premise and the mind-blowing complexity of its plot. At a housewarming party for Troy’s and Abed’s new apartment, the gang sits down for a game of Yahtzee. When no one wants to go down to let in the pizza guy, Jeff rolls a die to determine who should go. Abed points out, as only he can, that this creates six different timelines, one for each possible number on the die. The episode then actually shows us each separate timeline, in an ingenious effort to examine each member of the study group’s role within the little family they’ve formed, and the effect their absence has on the others.

In essence, each timeline is a short one-act play, with some consistencies throughout. Jeff always hits his head on the fan, Britta has to go to the bathroom, Shirley is worried about the pies no one wants, and Pierce has to figure out some way to bring up the time he banged Eartha Kitt in an airplane bathroom.

I’d be lying if I said the episode didn’t get a little repetitive with the need to replay the pre-roll conversation between Jeff and Abed, but as the episode builds to its most crucial timelines, the laughs grow fiercer and the interpersonal moments become more thrilling. The different universes create room for people who want Jeff and Annie, or Troy and Britta (!) to couple up. It makes it possible to see Pierce be a dick and make amends, there’s angry Shirley, goofy Britta, and more.

The highlight is definitely when Troy leaves the room (after saying he hopes he doesn’t miss anything) and everything goes to hell, with several elements from the other timelines (Annie’s gun, Abed’s rolling boulder, Pierce’s Serbian rum, and Britta’s cigarette) combine to create chaos. The callback to this timeline in the tag was also incredible.

Remedial Chaos Theory is just remarkable. An absurdly ambitious, carefully constructed, impeccably written and acted spectacular. No show could do something like this every week, but let’s try to keep in mind that Community is really the only one that ever tries.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

This kind of distinction seems more endemic to the world of art, but I think it applies: I appreciated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter far more than I actually liked it. Carson McCullers writes with an admirable grace and, for the time, a shockingly perceptive attitude toward both black and white characters. The novel also focuses on important themes, such as loneliness, and the difficulty people have in seeing past surface-level differences and connecting with each other. But for all that, I found it hard to keep picking the book up. I was put off by the lack of a driving storyline and too few interactions between the characters.

The novel is essentially the interconnected stories of five lonely people in an unnamed Southern mill town. John Singer is a deaf-mute whose only real friend, a fellow deaf-mute, is sent off by uncaring relatives to a state facility. In the aftermath of this he unexpectedly becomes a sort of confidant to four very different people. Jake Blount, an alcoholic labor agitator with no following, eats dinner with Singer at the New York Café, which is run by Biff Brannon, a widower who doesn’t care much for making the Café profitable. Singer strikes up an unlikely friendship with the town’s black doctor, Benedict Copeland, a man angered by the failure of his children to take up his causes. The most compelling character among Singer’s friends is young Mick Kelly, a tough adolescent girl with a natural ability for music that is compromised by her family’s straitened circumstances.

McCullers basically takes turns showing each character’s failings, heartbreaks, losses, and begrudging acceptance of same. Jake Blount is so argumentative it is impossible for him to even explain his ideas to people. Dr. Copeland is similarly hostile to the town’s black population, bitter and frustrated by what he feels are their unimportant pursuits. The novel is at its best in the sections following Mick as she grows into a young woman and discovers more and more about her talents, her family, and her sexuality.

The novel unfortunately does not delve much into Singer’s true character. Chapters that focus on him rarely go deeper than his tender friendship with the exiled fellow-mute Antonapolous. He is rather reductively portrayed as a simple man with a good soul. Standing at the center of a book filled with fleshed out fictional personae, this strikes the reader as a curious failure of imagination.

The novel hints at the possibility of catalyzing events (there are a couple of gunshots, and one outrageous injustice) but McCullers essentially lets these rest, refusing, perhaps out of artistic integrity, to bring her characters together, either in conflict or otherwise.

In isolation, several parts of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter are masterfully written and wonderful to read, but they are like pretty pictures in a flip book with no connection to each other.

Monday, October 10, 2011


It shouldn’t be so hard to figure out whether or not you liked a movie, but Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is so variegated and diverse in style that it turns the simple process of forming an opinion into a math problem. To derive “yes, I liked it” or “no, it wasn’t that good” you must first separate the parts of the movie you enjoyed, tote them all up, and then compare the total to the parts you didn’t enjoy. I can’t imagine the person who liked every part of Drive, but neither can I believe that anyone could have found it wholly uninteresting.

For one thing, car chases are inherently cool. In Drive, it’s clear that some effort and thought was put into these scenes to differentiate them from the ho-hum versions seen in most straight action thrillers. The point of the chases is to show us just how good Ryan Gosling’s character is at what he does. He’s better at it than just about any action hero we’ve seen lately.

But in between car chases, Drive tends to meander a little too pointedly. Some of this unavoidable, due to the choices made for the characters. Gosling’s driver is such an impenetrable cipher of a human being. The actor does a great job of rendering the character inscrutable and indecipherable. Unfortunately, the requisite pauses and delays in conversation occasionally weigh down the surrounding movie.

Of more serious concern are the deficiencies in the supporting cast. This movie has an old-fashioned sensibility as regards to women, which means that Carrie Mulligan and Christina Hendricks are given little to do to distinguish their roles. Mulligan is a damsel in distress, noir-style. She must be protected at all costs and has no hope of doing anything in that regard for herself. Hendricks is especially wasted as a low-life’s girlfriend and accomplice in the heist that kicks the plot into high-gear. Neither role is up to the level of the actress cast, which is a shame.

Luckily, the supporting cast is rounded out by a trio of excellent performances. Bryan Cranston as a man made meek by misfortune, some of it caused by his own misdeeds, portrays his character with the deference to strength such a lot in life would engender. Ron Perlman is always reliable, and his tough-guy character is appropriately detestable.

The real star, though, is Albert Brooks playing against type as Bernie Rose, an undefined black-market kingpin with swaggering confidence and a deadly ability with sharp objects. Brooks is famous for playing angry neurotics, but here he flips that anger into a personality with swagger and confidence, and the result is a truly chilling movie villain.

I think for most people, the question of whether or not they enjoyed Drive will hinge on two variables. The first is their tolerance for bloodshed. Drive’s violence is right on the border between disturbingly real and cartoonishly overdone, and either way that can bother the squeamish. The more important factor is what they think of Gosling’s character and the performance. The nameless driver is impossible to read, intentionally wooden and irritatingly withdrawn. In the hands of a lesser actor these traits may have reflected poorly on the actor, but Gosling has a way of letting you know he knows exactly what he’s doing and why. When he pauses for an agonizing length before replying to a question, you get the sense that the character is trying to decide exactly what to say, exactly how much to reveal. It’s a studied and intriguing choice for an actor to make. Ultimately, I think it’s what saves the movie from some curious stylistic choices.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

2 Broke Girls: "And Strokes of Goodwill"

I have been a fan of Kat Dennings since The 40-Year-Old Virgin and have been pleasantly surprised by Beth Behrs, but when it comes to the stories on 2 Broke Girls one might as well apply Gertrude Stein’s old aphorism about her native Oakland, “there is no there there.”

“And Strokes of Goodwill” is, except for a drastic difference in tone, almost like one of those art-house slice of life films where events are shown without consideration of chronology or consequence. Perhaps an even more apt comparison would be to a story told by a five-year-old. Like the five-year-old, the writers of 2 Broke Girls want your attention, and seem to have some basic idea of how a story is supposed to work, but haven’t made it past the stage where one event simply follows another, with the end arriving only when they’ve run out of ideas.

At least the people behind 2 Broke Girls get to change the scenery every once in a while to stave off boredom, even if their reasons for doing so seem similarly capricious. The trips to the Goodwill store, the bar, and outside the nail salon served little to no purpose, and the show didn’t use any of them for specific laughs.

But who needs specificity and insight to get laughs when the studio audience is so perfectly willing to cackle at one-dimensional ethnic stereotypes and retrograde sexism? This show has to either round out the diner’s staff or ditch them entirely. The aggressively creepy Russian cook is a black hole of humor and even Mickey Rooney finds the diner’s “ah-so-sorry” Asian owner deeply offensive. Tonight the show even steered into the skid by making the main antagonist a sassy, tough Puerto Rican woman.

Like the stand-up of its co-creator Whitney Cummings, 2 Broke Girls expects credit for simply making reference to off-color or taboo subjects, without realizing that these things are not inherently funny. At this rate, next week’s episode will probably be about one of the main characters farting. No amount of chemistry between Dennings and Behrs could save the show then.

How I Met Your Mother: "Stinson Missile Crisis"

How I Met Your Mother loves to subvert that old writing-workshop truism, “show, don’t tell”, putting narration and other storytelling techniques front and center and using them to wring most of the laughs out of material that is too often otherwise stale and uninteresting. “Stinson Missile Crisis” took this reliance to new lengths, creating a mockery of the concept of tell-all narration and turning an otherwise lackluster half-hour of commercial television into a disorientating, interlocking puzzle. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately not enough to overcome the absence of genuine laughs.

The show, not so atypically, begins at the end, so to speak, with Robin in court-mandated therapy (with an obviously rusty Kal Penn, whose lack of comedic timing can be added to the list of things that are Obama’s fault) after being arrested for assaulting a woman. Robin confounds her therapist by insisting on telling her story from the beginning, and also by including a story about Marshall and Lily that she insists, over numerous objections, will tie in with her assault case. In this way Penn becomes an extension of the audience, since the viewer at home doesn’t know who Robin assaulted or exactly why.

On another level, the whole therapy session serves as an extended and obvious parallel to the series as a whole, with Robin the unreliable, dissembling narrator standing in for Ted and Kal Penn representing the long-suffering viewer, wishing that Ted would get to the point and intermittently enjoying the digressions in spite of himself.

In her therapy session, Robin tells a story featuring Ted, Marshall, and Lily for which she is not present, which seems slightly odd, but is nothing compared to the myriad times when Ted narrates stories not involving himself. And when Future Ted breaks into the story to flash-forward to Lily’s delivery, it becomes clear that he has been telling this story as part of his narrative to his children. So now we have Future Ted telling us about Robin’s therapy session, which is essentially a private conversation? Wheels within wheels, folks.

I’m sorry, I haven’t flexed the English-major muscles in a while. As I said above, this high-minded focus on narrative structure couldn’t quite overcome a dearth of comedy. I enjoyed Barney’s inability to read his promos without making a pun on breasts. The show always does well when it indulges itself with lists, and Ted’s series of third-wheel Halloween costumes was brilliant. (Especially R2D2, C-3PO, and the droid Luke’s father almost bought from the Jawas.) However, the Robin plot was short on laughs (unless the very sight of a drunk woman crying under furniture sends you into fits of hysteria) and Ted’s and Marshall’s birthing class gay-panic misadventure was so lame and cheesy it felt like I was watching an ‘80s sitcom instead.

The best episodes of How I Met Your Mother combine the show’s untraditional story structure with excellent material. When the latter is missing it’s hard to love the show just for some sleight-of-hand narration.