• Gina Denny

Episode 1.15 - Game Night

Updated: Jun 16

Tonight, we’re talking about unlikeable characters. Barney has been a jerk from the beginning, his behavior is almost entirely inexcusable. There’s a fan theory that says Future Ted is actually exaggerating Barney’s behavior to justify his own, since Ted’s no shining beacon of morality during this story.

But, to emphasize and underscore Barney’s unlikeability, we open on a scene in which

  1. Ted reminds Barney that everything he says is unwelcome

  2. Barney acts like a petulant child when Ted reveals that Victoria doesn’t know about Ted’s crush on Robin

  3. Barney teases out the “re-return”, revealing that he has dirt on Ted that he’s willing to sabotage the relationship

Side note: the way Marshall explains games is how I feel about all cooperative tabletop RPGs. All of them. They’re all this nonsensical.

Marshall’s “game” turns out to be a thinly veiled ruse to determine Victoria’s suitability to be Ted’s girlfriend. Barney mentions the re-return again.

Lily reveals that she met someone named Shannon and Barney FLIPS OUT.

Lily reveals that Shannon gave her a video tape and Barney FLIPS OUT again.

Robin is being a serious Mean Girl in this episode. She’s being selfish and petty, when her predicament is entirely of her own making. She rejected Ted twice already and she chose work over her date with him. That’s perfectly okay, and I’m not judging her for that choice, but it does mean that she has sent Ted a very clear signal that she’s not interested. She isn’t justified in treating Victoria awfully, but the audience can see themselves in her. She’s wrong, but we’ve all made that mistake (or done something similar). They’ve taken a very likeable character and made her a jerk temporarily, in a way that the audience can identify with.

Barney destroys the videotape and tries to play it off, but Lily reveals that he destroyed Ted’s graduation tape and she had hidden the real tape in her bag. Note: when Lily gets up to get the tape, the camera didn’t follow her. The camera didn’t show her going into Ted’s room or her room or anything: she just got up and left, leaving the story open for this little twist.

They play this embarrassing tape (which also establishes a runner for the whole series - embarrassing video gets pulled up for every character) which - based on Barney’s character thus far - everyone surely assumes is a sex tape. But why would Barney be embarrassed of a sex tape?

The video shows Barney with long hair and a cheesy goatee, dressed like a revival hippie, crying about a girl who broke up with him. It gets better. He plays a keyboard and sings an original composition for her. Barney storms out and everyone is speechless.

Cut to the bar, they’re all sitting around, talking about him. Barney shows up. They want him to explain what the tape was all about, but he says it’s too embarrassing. He convinces them, in turn, to reveal their most embarrassing stories.

This is a fabulous episode structurally. As each person tells their embarrassing story, Barney reveals another piece of his backstory, Scheherazade-style. Instead of revealing one story after another, they layer Barney’s story in with the others. Something to think about, if you’re struggling with structure, even if it’s not the principle we’re talking about tonight.

First part of Barney’s story: he’s a new college grad, playing a keyboard in a coffee shop, preparing to enter the peace corps and serve in Nicaragua. A businessman orders coffee, showing us a mirror for Barney’s current personality. Barney’s a virgin and hates dudes in suits. Shannon never shows up for the night they’re supposed to leave for the peace corps.

I love Future Ted saying “I tell a lot of inappropriate stories, but there’s no way in hell I’m telling you [Victoria’s]” as a way to 1. Get through the stories faster 2. Manage content for TV ratings. It also reveals the first peek we have at Lily’s latent bisexuality.

Second part of Barney’s story: Shannon isn’t going to Nicaragua, but she’s insisting he goes. The peace corps is Barney’s dream. She says her dad won’t support her, but Barney soon sees her kissing a much older man, whom he assumed was her father.

Lily’s embarrassing story is really dumb: why wouldn’t the MIL just hang up??? But the story is short and stupid and gets us back to Barney really fast.

Third part of Barney’s story: he quotes the bible and finds out Shannon is actually dating a much older man. Shannon still encourages Barney to go to the peace corps and breaks up with him. Barney records his embarrassing video and sends it to Shannon. Shannon reveals that she showed her new boyfriend the tape, they laugh at Barney, he’s lost everything that matters to him.

Then he receives a flier for a suit sale. We’ve seen that he’s spiritual to some degree, so this feels like a sign. He cuts his hair and shaves his goatee and puts on a suit and is reborn as a jerk. Side note: the Darth Vader homage here is especially funny when you remember that this episode aired 8 months after Revenge of the Sith came out; meaning it was likely filmed while RotS was still in theaters. This joke would have landed as a topical reference at the time.

Barney won’t tell the fourth part of his story until Ted admits that he once went over to Robin’s place in the middle of the night and drunkenly barfed on her rug. Barney at least admits that Ted shouldn’t have been forced to tell his story.

Fourth part of Barney’s story: after storming out of game night, he tracked down Shannon, told her he’s a suit guy now and that he wants her to know how awesome he is now. Shannon has a kid and Barney seems sad that she’s not a part of his life, until her reveals that he’s very happy with his shallow existence and that he recorded himself having sex with Shannon, without her consent.

The wrap-up shows that everyone else moves on with their secrets and is fine, but Barney seems sad. Sitting alone in the bar, his expression is dejected and pensive. He hits on a new girl, but doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as he usually does.

And, beyond all reason, you feel a little bad for Barney. When everyone feels the need to comfort someone who was hurt that night, they all reach out to someone who isn’t Barney. Ted apologizes to Robin, Victoria makes sure Ted knows she’s okay with his past, Lily passes a cute picture on to Marshall from her students. Nobody reaches out to Barney. Yes, a lot of that is his own fault: he said he was “awesome” and full of “joy”, that he didn’t need any comfort or support. So he’s still alone.

Regardless of how you see Barney’s promiscuity, his behavior is inexcusable. He lies to women, records and photographs them without consent, steals from them, dodges paternity lawsuits. He’s disgusting. And yet, for a few moments here, you feel bad for him. He is human, he craves connection and he has none. He’s as alone as he can possibly be, and he was hurt badly. He’s clearly still dealing with the trauma from that hurt, and he’s not doing it in a healthy way.

This is all part of making your unlikeable characters more likeable. Barney can’t be just Barney for nine years. On other shows: Joey Tribianni can’t be just a womanizing airhead for ten years, Michael Scott can’t be just a bumbling loser for eight years, Sheldon Cooper can’t be just an arrogant toerag for twelve years.

This is different from a villain. Villains and antagonists fight against the hero’s efforts. In sitcoms, you can see Jeremy Jamm in Parks and Rec as a villain: he actively fights against Leslie Knope, and always for bad reasons. He doesn’t just see the world differently, he’s greedy and selfish and corrupt. He’s a villain. (there aren’t a lot of “villains” in sitcoms)

This is also different from antagonists. In Seinfeld, Newman is an antagonist. He and Jerry don’t get along, there’s a mutual dislike, for no good reason that we can see, and they go back and forth. Newman isn’t stopping Jerry from reaching his life’s goal, but he isn’t helping either. On Scrubs, JD has the Janitor, who hates him for absolutely no reason but isn’t actively sabotaging JD’s career or relationships. Just low-level mischief and pranks for laughs, annoying but not villainous.

In Parks and Rec, Mona Lisa and Jean Ralphio are both supremely unlikeable but aren’t villains or antagonists. They’re also just recurring characters, rather than being series regulars or main cast members, so they float in occasionally and act like jerks and they don’t have a tragic backstory. Most of the Bluth family in Arrested Development is unlikeable, and their dysfunctional upbringing accounts for most of their horrid behaviors.

No, this is just a very, very, very unlikeable character. Fifteen episodes in, Barney’s redeeming qualities are 1. He’s funny 2. He’s the push Ted needs to be brave like a Gryffindor, instead of overthinking like a Ravenclaw. That’s it. That’s not enough to fuel the most expensive salary for ten years, so they needed to give him something more. This is the first stage in them humanizing Barney. They’ll do it a lot more, really digging in to his truly tragic backstory, but this is the first step. TVTropes.org calls this trope a jerkass; someone who is reprehensible but still is kept around for comedic effect, and they even call Barney a character who moves back and forth from Jerkass to Jerkass With A Heart Of Gold.

For some other deeply unlikeable characters who turn out to have more depth to them and are more nuanced than season 1 would have you believe, watch Community. Considering the original format of the show was meant to be a way to force the wackiest ensemble possible, they ended up writing a pretty poignant arc about how education changes us and our found communities.

Writing Prompt: Pick a character that you really, really dislike. Bonus points if it’s from a sitcom and double bonus points if it’s a female in a sitcom. Write down all the things this person did on the show that rubbed you the wrong way. If you can identify a pattern, great. Is it looking like selfishness? Greed? Immaturity? Lack of communication/social skills? Now that you’ve identified what it is you dislike about this person, write a backstory that justifies that behavior in their mind. Barney becomes a suit-wearing jerk because he believes this will protect him from ever being hurt the way he was when Shannon dumped him.

Listen to the episode here

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