Structurally “The Fortress” is a well-made episode. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end that all flow logically from one point to the next. The episode even finds ways to be at its core an exploration of the relationships of Barney and Robin, and, to a lesser extent, Marshall and Lily. A foundation which is something a number of episodes in recent seasons have been lacking or acting like they had but totally didn’t (which meant emotional moments that weren’t well-earned).
And yet, there’s something missing. As Community
reached a new low in its most recent season, critics scrambled to figure out what had changed to cause such a distinctive diminish in quality. Todd VanDerWerff tried to grasp at what was wrong with the latest season. He argued
, “This is Community
, yes, but it’s a version missing the most crucial element to keeping an audience that loves a TV show in love with that TV show: its soul.” Similarly, Matt Zoller Seitz noted
, “It’s still a good show, but it doesn’t give me that anticipatory buzz that defines a really great series, that joyous anxiety born from being continually, often delightfully surprised”. While Community
has made a much more significant leap in decline than HIMYM
, whose decline in quality has been a slower trudge, there’s a fundamental similarity in the clear change in quality.
I could keep running through the gambit of critics who’ve made complaints, but what they’re saying about Community
is something that’s true for HIMYM
feels like it’s going through the motions. There are all the jokes and all the gags, and yet it all feels incredibly forced. There’s an artificiality to the whole enterprise. To use a turn of phrase from A.O. Scott
: “chuckles and heartwarming moments [are] distributed as carefully as nuts in a factory-made brownie.” There are jokes and they seem like the jokes the characters of HIMYM
would be making, and they’re in character and they fit the scenarios at hand. There are even some slightly touching moments between characters that grow out of the conflicts of the episode, and sometimes I get “all the feels” about it (though not in this episode to be honest). And yet it doesn’t inspire any great feeling in me other the occasional sentiment of “Oh, I guess that was sort of amusing”.
Now being funny is subjective. What I find funny and what you find funny are possibly not going to line up. And so it’s tricky for me to throw around the term “funny”, but (and I can only give you my opinion because may be you disagree), but this episode, and this season in particular, just hasn’t been all that funny. For a series that is so very, very obviously stalling and killing time until it reaches the point where we meet the mother, it NEEDS to be at least funny to justify itself. Because none of the situations we’ve been privy to are really all that interesting, and they’ve increasingly had little to say about these character growing up and dealing with the ups and downs of life (two broad themes that would elevate the series if it chose to tackle them).
Shows tend to go broader with their jokes as they get older, and HIMYM has become a pretty bad offender of this. That bed that shoots into the wall and sweeps away Barney’s hookups (along with his other bag of tricks described throughout the episode) is squarely in a realm of jokes that the series doesn’t necessarily want to lean on. These jokes can work when they come from unreliable narration (i.e. Older Ted’s many euphemisms), but they work much less so when the show seems to accept them at face value.
There’s chuckle worthy material here and some well-delivered lines. But the show is using the likability of its cast to cover for some very weak material. Neil Patrick Harris is a great performer, but some of these “Barney used to be a man-whore” jokes are getting really repetitive. They also don’t line up with the new direction of his character as he chooses to settle down with Robin. But then again, I’m finding that pairing incredibly problematic. The show in this second half of the season is using our affection for these characters and the desire for this coupling to justify them being together, when it often feels like it’s been achieved too easily. Conflict drives a show, and there’s no conflict between Barney and Robin. This is especially true if the writers are going to give easy resolutions to established problems such as selling the apartment. Barney and Robin have become boring because they’re not challenging eachother. There’s glimpses of the instability here (such as in “Weekend at Barney’s”), but the series tends to sweep aside these apparent problems for something simpler and therefore a whole lot less believable.