Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How I Met Your Mother: "The Poker Game"

Quick Review: A good episode, it misses a perfect opportunity to be great.

Episode Synopsis: Barney receives family-relationship advice from Lily when Robin has a disagreement with Barney's mother and brother, while Ted and Marshall disagree over wedding gifts and thank-you-note etiquette. -tvguide

Spoilers ahead, so think twice before proceeding. Unless you've seen the episode. If you've seen the episode, then there's no real reason for you to not proceed. It's not like there's something holding you back. You should feel free to continue onward and read this review. Don't worry if you have to be at the gym for the second time today. The gym will still be there when you're done reading. Granted, this review should be here if you choose to go to the gym first, but can you really take that chance? I wouldn't.

Full Review: The poker game is a common trope, but sadly this one featured very little poker. When done right, the game shows us the relationships between the players. Poker is less about playing the cards and more about playing the players. Whether you raise, fold, or go all in often depends on your understanding of who's sitting across from you. Shows like Friends, West Wing, Star Trek, 30 Rock, and many others have all devoted an episode or more to poker. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before How I Met Your Mother did the same.

Unfortunately, what could have been a fantastic episode was only fairly good. We did get to see Robin and Barney explore the ever-present conflict between spouse and family. We got to see Ted, Marshall, and Lily bicker and argue about who thanked who. We got to see William Zabka prove that he's a great hider. But for an episode called "The Poker Game," it was unfortunately light on actual poker.

This has often been a problem with this show, something I've talked about before. A beautiful premise is all but ignored, and instead we miss out on all the actual excitement and only hear about it after the fact. In this case, the episode needed to end with an epic poker game that decided the future of all present and future Stinsons.

I would have loved to see Robin, Barney, James, and Loretta hash their issues out over the game, with Barney caught in the middle. All those separate scenes would have been better around the table: Barney deciding to renounce his family while they played cards, Robin trying to establish her place in Barneys life while making sure he doesn't torpedo his family. Instead, rather than see a tense showdown, we get individual scenes that tell the story without the natural momentum that comes from a poker game with increasingly higher stakes.

While this episode may have missed the boat with poker, it had a lot of good character moments. I do like the idea of Robin and Loretta at odds, putting Barney in the middle. We've seen them get along before, but nothing brings out the best in two strong characters like a good conflict. And from what we saw at the episode's end, this is far from over.

I did love seeing James come back to the game with a big pout and his mom in tow. That tableau said everything you need to know about who James was as a child, and who Loretta was, and is, as a mother. She may not be perfect, but she loves her boys something fierce, and no one messes with them.

Even though they are separated, Lily and Marshall got some great moments this episode. Their escalating frustration over Ted's lack of gift was fun to watch. I especially appreciated the flashback to a few weeks after their wedding. After last season's fiasco with future Lily's hair, it was nice to see Marshall's hair accurately reflecting the fact that he had shaved a big strip out of it the day of his wedding. That's the kind of attention to detail I love about the show.

This episode also provided a few good Ted and Marshall scenes, from their tense standoffs over coffee and costumes, to Ted's gift to Marshall. I loved the payoff to the pizza callback at the beginning of the episode, because not only was it funny, it showed us the type of guy Ted can be when he's not chasing after crazy women. He's a thoughtful, passionate friend who really is good at gift-giving.

Still no Mother once again. Granted, there's no reason they would see her this far before the wedding, but I'd have loved to see some flash-forwards with her and Ted and a pile of thank-you notes. Another opportunity wasted, but that's less of an issue.

I'm not saying this was a bad episode. It still had a lot of great laughs and fun moments, but for the show's final season, I want to see them knock every episode out of the park. Missing a prime opportunity means that a potential classic episode becomes merely all right, and this show can, and has, done better. Hopefully next week will better utilize its premise.

Episode Breakdown

Worst Tattletale: James

Best Callback: The Slutty Pumpkin makes a brief cameo.

Worst Poker Face: The Stinsons (bluff)

Best Sagat Narration: "And kids, I got that thank you note. Four months later. Four. Months."


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