What Can We Steal From “The Stinsons,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Stinsons,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother
Author: Written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, directed by Pamela Fryman
Date of Work: Originally broadcast on March 2, 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Stinsons” can be found in the Season 4 DVD collection of How I Met Your Mother, viewed instantly on Netflix or seen in syndication.

Elements of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization and Plot

Discussion:
How I Met Your Mother boasts a simple conceit: Ted Mosby is telling his children how he came to…well…meet their mother. The five extremely attractive friends live in New York City, experiencing life and love and drinking at their favorite bar an awful lot. The show appeals to me because the characters are roughly my age, but they are living the most kickinest lives ever and I am not. The most over-the-top character is Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), an unrepentant womanizer who has one of those hard-to-describe, high-paying corporate jobs. Through seventy-eight episodes, Barney is shown lying to countless women in an attempt (often successful) to have sex with them. Marriage? That’s an eight-letter four-letter word. Barney would rather make a commitment to a suit than a woman.

“The Stinsons” starts off in the bar with a mystery: why is Barney acting so odd lately? Could Barney Stinson have a girlfriend? The gang decides to follow Barney’s cab to catch Barney in the act.

  • Reveal one: Barney traveled so far to meet an elderly woman.
  • Reveal two: The woman is his mother, not a committed girlfriend.
  • Reveal three: A pretty blond woman comes down the stairs…it’s Barney’s wife.
  • Reveal four: A little boy enters and jumps on Barney’s back…it’s Barney’s son.

Why is this awesome?  Within three minutes of run time, our entire understanding of Barney is changed.  Bays and Thomas are messing with the viewer—in a good way—by challenging the base attributes of the character they established. This could be dangerous? Why isn’t it dangerous? Carter and Bays don’t leave us hanging long.

  • Reveal five: Barney explains that he is only pretending to be married because his mother’s greatest wish was for her children to have spouses.
  • Reveal six: Barney literally auditioned actresses to play his wife and son.

Almost immediately, all is right with the world. Barney is still selfish and commitment-averse. We learn that Barney slept with the mothers of the children he auditioned to play his son. Barney thinks that the evil blonde Cobra Kai guy is the hero of The Karate Kid. Barney is so bad at normal human interaction that he has literally scripted dinner. Barney doesn’t even want his pretend son to have a catchphrase and threatens to recast the kid.

The episode succeeds for the same reason that people love practical jokes. For a brief moment, we believe that the impossible can happen and that the world is not as we thought it was. In the seconds after the prank is sprung, of course, the shock and disorientation are pleasant because we know they are not permanent.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Mess with your audience’s expectations! People tune in to see Barney be Barney. Carter and Bays get a lot of humor out of subverting those expectations. Think about Superman II. What would it be like if Superman weren’t super? (The same principle can be found in Hancock. What if Will Smith-as-a-superhero weren’t like Will Smith as a superhero?)
  • Go over the top step by step. If you’ll notice, the information that is “revealed” about Barney gets bigger and bigger.
  • Stay true to character…with small changes. A chronic womanizer simply cannot become a monogamous angel overnight. While Barney remains a hound dog, the audience learns that he loves his mother: a small alteration of his personality. It is also perfectly natural for Barney to have family problems; they explain the way he treats women and views commitment.

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