The premise of How I Met Your Mother focused on a central problem and pleasure of the show: the multiple layers of narration, all of varying degrees of trustworthiness. We know that Future Ted is telling this story to his kids and that he’s been known to change or embellish details. We know that he, in turn, is recounting the stories of people like Barney, who has something of a casual relationship with the truth. Is Ted telling the truth? Are his friends lying? Is Ted lying about his friends’ lies?
It is indeed a Nabokovian mirrored hall of lies and counterlies that HIMYM has potentially set up, a Pale Fire in the form of a romantic comedy. How do we know that Ted is telling the truth to his kids? How do we know that Ted has kids? How do we know that “Ted” is not, in fact, a lonely madman, convinced that he is the exiled king of Zembla, telling these elaborate stories of a past hanging out with friends in Manhattan as a ruse to mislead the imaginary enemies he believes are plotting against him?
Heady stuff indeed, so it’s best that “Zoo or False” chose to take on this recursive meditation on the nature of truth through a story about a monkey and a gun.
Playing with unreliable narrators here made for a solid episode that worked on several levels. First, the central plot grew out of character, because it makes perfect sense that Marshall would make up a story embarrassing to himself to keep Lily from worrying and getting a gun. (Rightly, it seemed, because Alyson Hannigan is perhaps the least convincing gun-shooter I have seen on television.) It made for the kind of twisty storytelling that makes HIMYM such fun to follow. It allowed for all kinds of subjective-truth hijinks, like Barney’s retelling of the story that gave the monkey a banana on a fishing line, and a ragtime-piano soundtrack. And as a side benefit, it held out the possibility that at least some of Barney’s toolish behavior with the ladies is actually an embellishment. (Who knows? Maybe the “real” Barney is an overweight virgin who only owns one suit!)
The only flaw, if it is one, was that while Ted told us “we never found out the truth” about Marshall’s monkey/mugging story (and I loved his “she’s my sister / she’s my daughter” moment at the climax), it seemed pretty plain from where I was sitting that he was in fact mugged, and did make the monkey story up. The CBS description for the episode seems to confirm that: “When Marshall (Jason Segel) gets mugged, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) decides she wants to get a gun for protection, so Marshall comes up with a convoluted story about the mugging to deter Lily from following through.”
Fortunately, Nabokov didn’t have to worry about the CBS publicity department spoiling his mysteries.
[Update: I can already hear someone typing the comment, “What, no mention of the awesome King Kong re-creation with paper airplanes and a model Empire State Building?” It was awesome. There.]