“How I Met Your Mother” has always held a bit of a unique distinction in the way it handles itself. It has all the trappings of a conventional sitcom, yet its humor leans towards the absurd. And throughout all that, it manages to show a level of heart of you don’t get from most half-hour series today.
So the emotional gut punch at the end of the Jan. 3 episode isn’t really out of character when you think about it. The rapid countdown from 50 (craftily executed through strategic props) could have been leading towards some mythology-related revelation, and instead we get the sudden death of Marshall’s (Jason Segel) father (Bill Fagerbakke).
Marshall turns to his father with everything (as showcased in a series of phone call flashbacks), with the exception of bad news — like the possibility that he might not be able to have children of his own. His fertility-related cease in communication prompts his parents to fly from Minnesota to New York to make sure nothing is wrong.
There’s a heaping helping of masturbation jokes and Midwestern stereotypes, and they go on their merry way, validating their status as unconditionally warm and supportive parents.
Then, when Marshall gets the green light from the fertility specialist (the final doppelganger, as played by Neil Patrick Harris), he once again calls his dad. Only he doesn’t answer. And as much as the shot of a ringing phone in an empty workshop and the portentous episode title (“Bad News”) should have prepared us for the blow, we’re sort of at a loss seeing Lily (Alyson Hannigan) exit the cab and crushing a jubilant Marshall with news that his dad died of a heart attack.
It’s endearing that the folks at “HIMYM” seemed to have Dauber from “Coach” on speed-dial for frequent cameos as the senior Eriksen. And that labored character development, over six appearances over as many seasons, makes his death a lot less cheap than than it could have been.
“How I Met Your Mother” has always been about growing up, and for one of the primary characters to endure the devastating rite of passage that is losing a parent stays true to that. But the heartbreaking final scene was just a few seconds.
As with most episode-ending tragedies (the Season 5 loss of Buffy’s mother on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” comes to mind), the real test of how the death will be handled by the characters and actors comes in the follow-up.
We’ll have to wait a bit to see how “HIMYM” can hold onto its signature tone while tackling such a dark matter over an entire episode.