• Gina Denny

Episode 1.20 - Best Prom Ever

Updated: Jun 17

This episode opens up with Lily and Marshall rushing to book their dream wedding venue. They have this really funny scene where they are all running to get there and they trap the other couple in the elevator. This is one of those things that never happens in real life but always plays well on TV.

Then they show us that Lily is just absolutely freaking out about planning the wedding on a short schedule, but then Marshall does a good thing and books a band. But Lily won't sign off on it until she hears the band play.

Trivia bit #1: The 88 is a real band! They did the theme song for Community and they had songs featured in kind of a lot of TV shows and video games from this era.

The band is playing at a prom this weekend and Lily decides to sneak in. At the risk of sounding mean, the first prom dress Lily puts on is truly ugly. Then they go put on a pair of very casual dresses, leave their hair down and wear boots? I don't know who styled this prom, but it was ridiculous.

Then Lily starts having prom flashbacks.

Trivia bit #2: In the flashbacks, Lily’s HS boyfriend is played by Neil Patrick Harris’s real-life husband.

(Continuity problem: field hockey is a fall sport and prom is in the spring. Perhaps Robin is lying about why she never went to prom????????)

This episode uses flashbacks to actually advance the story.

Sitcoms often use flashbacks as a visual gag, an opportunity to show the characters - who are portrayed by beautiful actors and styled by professional stylists to look as in vogue as possible - in bad hair and bad fashion, usually with fake braces and prosthetics (Friends had pre-nose job Rachel and fat-suit Monica, Community had adderall-addicted Annie, Scrubs had bad-hair versions of JD and Turk, etc).

But without the framing device of the prom, Lily probably wouldn’t have reflected on her own prom, where she dumped her boyfriend because she had bigger dreams than he did.

(Friends used a flashback to advance the plot, but “hey I found this old videotape” is a lot clunkier than this HIMYM prom storyline.)

Lily's flashbacks give her a lot of pause.

At her own prom, she realized that she had big dreams, plans for her life. She wanted to leave NYC, be an artist, explore her sexuality, see the world. She went away to college, but not really. Wesleyan University is only a couple hour car ride from Long Island. Then she started dating Marshall right away and fell in love. She never got to see if her attraction to girls was something real, she didn't enjoy her semester in Paris (and Ted and Marshall crashed that anyway), she hasn't pursued art, she's a teacher to help pay the bills while Marshall pursues his dreams.

These prom flashbacks push the story forward, but they don’t resolve immediately. They won’t resolve this … ever, actually. This push and pull between Lily’s two dreams: wife/mother vs artist is at the center of Lily and Marshall’s conflict for the rest of the series. It comes up again and again and again. But in the short-term, this conflict plays across the next two episodes, giving us three solid episodes before we see the fallout of her flashbacks.

So why are these flashbacks so much more effective than a lot of other sitcom flashbacks?

Sitcom flashbacks are usually used, like we said already, as a visual gag. Maybe, if the writers are working hard, they'll be used to explain why a character is a certain way. The Office used flashbacks to show why Michael was so desperate for attention, for example.

But HIMYM uses this flashback to explain what Lily is about to do. This episode doesn't explain who she is now, but it lays the foundation for what she's about to do. When she makes the awful decisions in the next two episodes, you're ready for it. These flashbacks give her a reason, so that those awful decisions never feel like a ploy for shock value.

Even in novel-writing, flashbacks should be used to not just explain why a character behaves the way they do, but to help the audience understand what is going to come next.

Writing Prompt: Write the one scene that explains your character's motivation, the thing that happens before your story starts but actually affects your character's behavior and motivation

Listen to the episode here

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