• Gina Denny

2.14 - Prescient

Updated: Jun 17

Ted tells his kids that Super Bowl Sunday was one of his favorite holidays. The opening scene is the Saturday before the Super Bowl and the whole gang is busy planning the Super Bowl party. But then Wendy the Waitress stops by and guilts them into coming to a funeral for Mark, someone who worked at the bar but the gang doesn’t remember. Carl the bartender lays on the guilt, too, and everyone decides to be at the funeral instead of watching the game.

They go to the funeral, recognize Mark, and get stuck at the wake until 3 in the morning. They’ve missed the game, but Ted argues that they need to celebrate together the next night.

In the flashbacks: Lily’s hair changes with the years, Marshall is the one who got Barney into gambling, they eat the same chicken wings every year, they all get up and leave while Janet Jackson is performing, and Robin doesn’t show up until 2006. (they also make a reference to a big argument between Ted and Lily in season 5).

Monday comes and everyone has to avoid talking about the Super Bowl or learning the score so they can watch it together. Ted decides to work from home, no problem. Barney handcuffs himself to Ted’s radiator to avoid seeing the scores. Robin works in the media, so avoiding media updates is impossible for her, and they show her struggling to maintain the secret. Marshall is visiting Lily’s kindergarten class, which should be pretty safe.

Side note: this is where we meet Doug, who is a significant plot point in season 3 for Robin.

Ted makes The Sensory Deprivator 5000: noise cancelling headphones glued to vision-blocking sunglasses. He can’t hear or see anything, so he can safely pick up chicken wings from a sports bar. Barney runs into Emmitt Smith, who says he didn’t watch the Super Bowl because he’s just not into it anymore. He says dance is more important than football; he had just won Dancing with the Stars a few months earlier.

This is all before social media, so avoiding spoilers was kind of possible, and the news cycle still talking about the Super Bowl all day on Monday was much more common.

But this episode was also written several months ahead of time and filmed several weeks ahead of time (at least). The writers had no way of knowing who would be in the Super Bowl, much less who won. The writers had to write a story that would allow them to talk about the Super Bowl without actually talking about the Super Bowl.

My favorite method is Robin’s reporting: And after the Super Bowl, the mayor of the losing team's city had to pay up, sending the mayor of the winning team's city 15 pounds of a delicacy his or her city is famous for. Better fire up whatever type of grill, steamer, or fryer one might use to cook that delicacy, Winning Team's Mayor.

This is an issue contemporary writers have to deal with all the time. If a book is released in 2021, it was likely acquired by the editor in 2019, signed by an agent in 2018, originally drafted and revised starting possibly years before that.

Here in a post COVID-world, we all can see this. How many books were set in 2020 but make no mention of a pandemic? How do you write about TikTok years before the app even launches, much less before it takes over social media? But how do you ignore these things?

Now, to be entirely fair, most sitcoms just never mention the Super Bowl at all. They breeze right past it. But HIMYM was broadcast on CBS, and every three years CBS has the rights to the Super Bowl and they want to make the most of it. This episode aired the day after the Super Bowl in 2007, and HIMYM would use the Super Bowl as a plot point again in 2010, when they had the rights to the name and the broadcast.

And the Super Bowl is a big deal, culturally speaking. It can be controversial, it is always a spectacle. It’s a multi-billion dollar business all on its own, not even counting the season that led up to it. You can see why the writers would want to write about such a big cultural touchstone.

But they had to do it without knowing anything about it, and without really dating the episode.

I bet you can’t remember who won the Super Bowl in 2007, and I bet you can’t even remember who played. (the Colts beat the Bears, Billy Joel performed the national anthem, and Prince played his epic halftime show, for those who are reaching for your phones right now). But you can remember how you usually observe the Super Bowl (even if it’s “I don’t care about football so I never watch at all”).

So let’s break down some things they did well:

  • They used a cultural moment that consistently happens but isn’t always the same. The Super Bowl happens every year. Major holidays, the prom, homecoming, summer vacation, etc. all happen every year, and everyone has a story. (Yes, your “I didn’t go to prom, I played D&D and ate pizza, so there” is still a prom story, friendo)

  • They focused on the emotional impact, not the specifics. Barney loses money, the friend group holds their tradition a day late.

  • They made reference to historical Super Bowls in order to give the audience something tangible to latch onto. You get into “Super Bowl Mode” by hearing about commercials, wings, beer, Janet Jackson, etc.

  • They wrote a storyline that relied upon not knowing the outcome. Rather than just sidestepping it awkwardly, they wrote an entire story that required the characters to never mention team names, scores, or highlights. This is the real cherry on top of this sundae of an episode. They could have gone generic, or used fake teams, or shot last-minute inserts or dubbed over dialog. But they decided to avoid the problem altogether and make it more about the memory, rather than the specifics of the event.

This is what contemporary authors usually decide to do: they focus in on emotions, rather than events. Even when contemporary fiction memorializes events and movements - I'm thinking specifically of the authors who used #BLM protests as the backdrop for their stories - those stories are focused on individuals, on personal stories, on how those big events affect these specific people. In "I'm Not Dying With You Tonight," the characters get caught in a #BLM protest that turns into a riot. It isn't about the event itself - the dollar amount of the damage, the specifics of the police movements, the detailed account of injuries - it's about how it affects these two girls. How they have to walk farther than they planned, and their shoes aren't cut out for the job. How they have to keep each other safe.

Writing Prompt: Take an episode of a sitcom that is at least fifteen years old. Imagine it was set today. Write down all the ways the episode would have to change. Would cell phones derail the plot entirely? Would social media throw a new wrench into your characters’ drama? What has shifted culturally, especially if your audience is too young to remember the cultural dynamics of the time the episode originally aired?

Listen to the episode here

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