The Internet is abuzz over this week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother, “Bad News,” which ended with the cruel twist of Marshall’s father dying of a heart attack. It wasn’t the kind of event that one would expect from a multi-camera sitcom, and so it was shocking in and of itself. However, the event was presaged by a cleverly hidden countdown from 50 to 1 weaved into the episode. For some viewers, the countdown seemed like an ill omen, but for others, it was a distracting sight gag. Some even said that it cheapened the death. Clearly, on television, care must be taken when handling a big moment like the death of a loved one. Was the one-two punch of the countdown and the subsequent death well-handled? Was it even worth it, considering that the death would have been shocking by itself? After the jump, we’ll take a look at some big moments that have happened recently on various television shows.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that when I reviewed “Bad News,” I didn’t link the countdown to the death. I thought that it was just a random, unexplained gag, so I didn’t see it as being clever, nor did I see it as being distracting. Some of the numbers weren’t subtle, but that’s to be expected when there are 50 numbers to count down. Nonetheless, I suspect that I was in the minority in my confusion, and as such, I won’t criticize “Bad News” for not providing a clear enough link between the countdown and the death.

However, I will criticize other parts of the episode that didn’t quite work, like Marshall’s inability to masturbate. In fact, much of the episode wasn’t good. It seemed as if in maximizing the shock of the twist, most of the episode avoided complex plots or significant emotional content (aside from the final pep talk from Marshall’s parents, which was part of the setup for the death). How I Met Your Mother is at its best when there’s an emotional undercurrent to the episode. Therefore, eschewing such emotional heft to maximize the impact of an unexpected development might be viewed as manipulative, and in that sense, the twist was self-defeating.

Big twists that come out of nowhere (e.g. random natural disasters) are often labelled as “WTF moments,” and with good reason. A good plot twist requires some sort of setup. It shocks the viewer, but it makes sense in the context of the TV show. Marshall’s father’s death fits this criterion. The unfortunate news came as a shock, but it was nonetheless portended by the countdown. However, setup can be viewed as a price to pay to maximize the effectiveness of the twist. The larger the intended impact of the twist, the more setup is required. In “Bad News,” the apparent lightness was an important part of the setup, but it was also one of the episode’s negative aspects.

Later this week, Human Target aired back-to-back episodes, the second of which ended with Ilsa killing a man to protect Chance’s whereabouts. As part of the setup, most of the episode consisted of Chance protecting Ilsa from that man, a psycho killer named Hector Lopez, and a portion of it featured a conversation between Ilsa and Chance about the emotional consequences of killing another human being. While some might view this setup as heavy-handed, I appreciated it. However, I did have an issue with the setup. There is almost always a small element of sexual tension between Chance and his female clients. Usually, this isn’t a problem because the client is gone by the next episode, and it just adds to the show’s fun vibe. But Ilsa is a main character, and putting her in the role of protectee put her on the same level as one of Chance’s clients; the sexual tension became meaningless, and it detracted from the final moment, which should have been a deep moment of understanding between two friends instead of just another emotional moment between two potential lovers. Thus, it is possible for setup to both build up and detract from a big moment.

Big moments aren’t limited to shocking plot twists. Sometimes, they are predictable but important. Bones’ last episode before the Christmas hiatus was “The Doctor in the Photo,” in which Brennan, motivated by the death of a doctor whose life strangely mirrored her own, confesses to Booth that she wants to have a romantic relationship with him. Anyone could have seen that twist coming from a mile away. The episode even featured a Booth-like figure in the victim’s life, whom the victim kept turning down. It is true that the setup for the big moment was inelegant, but it accomplished its purpose. However, if such an inelegant setup was needed, the big moment may not have been worth the trouble. After all, by the end of the episode, everything seemed to go back to normal for Brennan. Bones has not yet aired any episodes in the new year, but if it turns out that the confession has no lasting effects, then its purpose was purely emotional, and such moments can be viewed as manipulative.

The take-home message is this: big moments require setup, and setup can be costly. It can unintentionally come off as a cheap trick, it can cause the show to abandon what usually makes the show good, it can be a double-edged sword that both builds up and detracts from the big moment, and it can be heavy-handed and inelegant. Far be it from me to suggest that writers adopt some sort of cost-benefit analysis procedure when deciding how to plot their shows, but they should acknowledge that going for a big moment can have unintended consequences; viewers might get lost or frustrated along the way,* leaving them less appreciative of the big moment. That being said, I enjoyed all the big moments that I mentioned in this piece. Were they worth it? I don’t know; I don’t do TV writing math. But something about each of the setups bugged me, and it’s enough to make me think that the episodes in question may have been better off avoiding the big moment. More often than not, a regular episode is just fine, but for better or for worse, we live in a world of discussion boards and social media where the moments that generate the most chatter are the big ones. As long as we live in this world, big moments are here to stay.

 

*This is by no means a commentary on multi-episode arcs. The arguments here are restricted to things that happen within a single episode.

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