There comes a point in any show about friendship where you have to ask: why are these people friends? Not how did they come to meet, but just why have they decided to bond together as a social unit?
Don’t get me wrong, I love How I Met Your Mother, but you could see how this insular set of five characters, seen in the right light, could be unbearable. Ted, for instance: who is this tiresome marshmallow who keeps inflicting “the one” on his friends? Lily: who is this controlling princess who insists on her birthday being a freaking holiday of tribute? Marshall: what is this oversolicitous dude compensating for? Does no one get tired of Barney’s preening? And Robin: did she not have a single other friend before she met these other four people?
“Say Cheese” was a pretty basic HIMYM episode, but one that sought to answer this pretty basic question. It was a photo album writ literally, a walk down memory lane–or “Skank Lane,” as you prefer–not so much to revisit Ted’s quest for “The One” as to get the show back to the central theme of what bonds the five characters together.
The episode also defined one of the central problems of a friendship/romantic comedy like this, or before it, Friends. A tight-knit sitcom group of friends is sort of like a multiple marriage: it has its own rules and history, it may not make much sense to outsiders and neither the core group nor viewers care much for the interlopers who try to horn in on its sanctum sanctorum. Even if the show is about romance, dating someone new is like having an affair—cheating on the central group we’re all really tuning in to watch. The show Friends usually dealt with this by giving new love interests limited arcs, at the end of which they would prove to be crazy or otherwise impossible and we and the gang could all wipe our brows and realize that we dodged a bullet.
HIMYM has been more accepting of at least some of its love interests; it has to be, since that’s the premise of the show. But every once in a while it has to get back to the core group, and “Say Cheese” was a pleasant enough way of doing that, revisiting the string of events and shared woeful memories that bonds the gang. I especially enjoyed the return of Karen and the ill-fated Paris trip (“My balls were bleu. Bleu!”), not to mention the ’80s-sitcom-about-two-roommates-who-can’t-agree-on-anything pose.
It’s their gang, after all, and we’re only visitors. Their dynamic may seem strange to outsiders. (I mean, would you have returned your date’s calls after he dragged you to that get-together?) But if you don’t like it–go throw your own birthday party.