Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Why 'How I Met Your Mother's' "Ducky Tie" Was the Best Sitcom Episode of the Season

Unpopular Opinions is a bi-weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it's asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

Earlier this year, after a hard-fought tournament, you decided that Community's "Remedial Chaos Theory" was the best sitcom episode ever. There is no way to say for sure with these things but maybe it's true; maybe when you zoom out completely, the dynamism and ambition of "Chaos" wins. However, in the context of this one season, I'd argue, and will argue for a bunch of words below, that "Chaos" loses out to another very ambitious episode, though more quietly so, How I Met Your Mother's "Ducky Tie", simply because the latter using its technique to best foster the story, not vice versa.

Community and How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) are both in some capacity about storytelling. For Community this means exploring the different ways to tell a story by looking at how they've historically been told in popular culture. In contrast, HIMYM, since the whole show is structured around a narrator relating the memories of his adulthood, is about the concept of storytelling itself. As a result, they are both at their best when they're pushing the limits of their storytelling devices in ways that allow for a more unique and deeper understanding of its characters. Both tried to do just that with their third episodes of this season "Remedial Chaos Theory" and "Ducky Tie", respectively (though "Chaos" had to be postponed so it aired fourth not third). However, where in "Ducky Tie" technique provided for a tonal balance that best allowed for character exploration, "Chaos" failed in its decision to prioritize its technique over everything else.

"Ducky Tie" doesn't necessarily rewrite the fundamental A-story/B-story sitcom structure but it does use those parameters to create something wholly new. "Ducky Tie" is an episode in which the narrator, (Future) Ted, is telling the story of the time (Present Day) Ted told the story about running into his ex-girlfriend Victoria. At the same time and place (Present Day) Ted is telling his tale, there is a decidedly farcical arc, in which Barney bets Marshall that he can do all the teppanyaki tricks and if he can, he can touch Lily's newly enlarged "pregnancy boobs" and if he can't, he has to wear the titular ducky tie for a year. The episode is a tightrope act of tone, balancing the emotionally difficult scenes between Ted and Victoria with Barney's game of cat and mouse (and boobs). One masterful stretch happens when Victoria tells (Past) Ted, after a kiss, that she is now certain she wants to get engaged to someone else and the sadness lingers with a shot of (Presente Day) Ted for seven seconds, until Lily blurts out, "Fine. You can see my boobs." Moments like this allowed the episode to be heartfelt without being weighed-down and hilarious without being shallow.

The most impressive moment in "Ducky Tie" is the ending, in which (Future) Ted explains that (Present Day) Ted was an unreliable narrative, who withheld part of the story from his friends, and the audience, as to not disrupt the status quo of the group. The structural decision to have (Present Day) Ted incapable of telling the whole story reflected exactly where the character was emotionally at the time. The use of nested storytelling techniques allowed the writers to tell a story about Ted that really wouldn't have hit as hard otherwise.

Don't get me wrong; "Remedial Chaos Theory" is a great sitcom episode. If you haven't seen it, basically the gang goes over to Troy and Abed's apartment for a grown-up party. While they're all sitting around the table, Jeff decides he'll role a dice to decide who has to go downstairs to get the pizza. The episode follows each of the potential timelines that would stem from each potential dice role. With the exploration of seven different timelines it sets out, and succeeds, to redefine how an episode can unfold in the 30-minute sitcom window. Joshua Kurp put it best when making the case for it to win our best sitcom episode ever contest:

I am going to ask you to remember seeing “Remedial” for the first time, and how enthralled you were when Jeff threw the Yahtzee dice into the air, leading you into a series of alternate timelines. The writing is so ambitious (yet also small-scale — there’s not really a story to “Chaos,” just a series of plots in a singular location that start, but never reach their conclusion) that you kept expecting the episode to fall apart.

"Chaos" is dynamic and awe-inspiring, but it is so much so that it's easy to ignore that no story is being told. The episode is about the multi-universe device, and the characters and their most basic relationships, are used to service it, not the other way around. For example, Jeff and Annie's relationship seems to go backwards from where it was two episodes prior so they can easily be paired off. This is why the "Remedial Chaos Theory" was seamlessly aired as the fourth episode despite being written and shot to be the third. Regardless of how brilliant of an experiment or exercise it was, "Remedial Chaos Theory" is still just an exercise.

A commenter on the post that announced that "Remedial Chaos Theory" won our Best Sitcom Episode Ever Tournament wrote, "this is an episode that will be examined and analyzed by countless sitcom writers," which I agree with and like because it suggests a room full of hunched nerds studying the script like it was the Talmud. "Remedial Chaos Theory" should be studied, especially for its pacing and execution of callbacks, but so should "Ducky Tie" for how technique can reflect what is happening in the story and how to manipulate tone. Both will make sitcom storytelling better in the future and both episodes are necessary in their way. "Ducky Tie" innovates while still being a completely fulfilling narratively. Conversely, "Remedial Chaos Theory" is like any avant-garde art, designed more to influence or prove a point to the few than entertain the many. We need episodes like "Remedial Chaos Theory" that expand the color palette and episodes like "Ducky Tie" that maximize the potential of how it can be used to paint. "Remedial Chaos Theory" will probably go down as the more important episode but in terms of pure craftsmanship, "Ducky Tie" is the better one.

If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. His favorite episodes of Community are "Cooperative Calligraphy" and "Paradigms of Human Memory".

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  • Nerd Rage

    I have an unpopular opinion. Patton Oswalt is overrated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Johnson/100002048272106 John Johnson

    This might only be an unpopular opinion in certain corners of the internet…

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    I like both episodes. And I agree that "Ducky Tie" was the best episode of this season of HIMYM, but I don't see why it has to mean that the "Remedial Chaos Theory" episode of Community is "not telling a story" and the "character relationships…are being used to service the device". I've always heard that the best comedy comes from being relatable to the audience. Even though the episode uses a flashy device, what its really about is just some friends getting together and hanging out together. Isn't that what people loved about Friends and other extremely successful sitcoms? That, like in real life, sometimes something major doesn't happen. Sometimes you go to your friends place and have pizza.
    But if you still want to argue that the episode doesn't have a story, would you say of the best episodes of Seinfeld that it was just "an exercise"? It's known as the "show about nothing". The characters were often thrown in their own very different plots (more like situations where characters/devices were just there to tempt them into getting into trouble) that seemingly had nothing to do with each other but would tie in nicely for a big punch line at the end. I feel "Chaos Theory" is like that. It ties together really nicely in the denouement where we get to see all the characters come together after Abed's speech and the tiny gestures they make towards each other like Pierce not giving Troy the gift. This only matters because of what came before. I think this episode really is about the characters and their relationships with each other.
     I love what it has to say about how the absence of one friend can change a groups dynamics. This is another thing that is relatable and true to life. As it refers to the relationships we foster with the friends of out friends.
     Also, while I love the characters on HIMYM, I think the central conceit of the show that Ted is trying to find "the one" is bullshit. I'm not saying that people can't fall in love with each other, but the idea that everyone should be searching for the one person that will make their lives perfect is a dangerous one because it is unrealistic for the majority of the people on planet earth. Most people will be happy for a while, miserable for a while, bored, awful, generous, etc. That's why I think Community reflects the human experience better, and why "Remedial Chaos Theory" is a better episode than "Ducky Tie".

  • Dharnon

    Do not try to say that HMYM can compare to Community at all. HMYM is just a cardboard box full of semi successful middle america sitcoms and bullshit, fuck that shit. Community is an all round better show, its much funnier and stuff…..

    but SERIOUSLY fuck How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men

    the only reason they succeed be because I'm outnumbered by the workerbee neanderthals of middle america, 

    remember to oild yourself….cog 

  • George Hardy

    I'll admit 'Ducky Tie' was a particularly good episode of HIMYM, but it didn't do anything that other episodes have done at least as well. I agree, though, those writers have got some brilliant ways of thinking about narrative. The best joke in the whole series, in my opinion, is that it's called 'How I Met Your Mother' and is almost exclusively not about that at all. It's very Laurence Sterne, never quite fulfilling the promise of the title. 

    I don't want to get into what was 'better', but 'Ducky Tie' didn't surprise me, whereas Remedial Chaos Theory certainly did.