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.