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'How I Met Your Mother' review: Was John Lithgow truly a 'Legendaddy'?

The latest bit of back-story doled out by How I Met Your Mother was a key bit of the show’s mythology – or, in true HIMYM fashion, de-mythologizing. Barney found out that his dad was John Lithgow – that is, Jerry, to whom Barney had sent a letter earlier in the season. This was the pay-off of that action of Barney’s, and a satisfying one it was indeed.

The way Neil Patrick Harris and Lithgow played off each other was marvelous. The initial scene in the bar, with Barney and Jerry simultaneously ordering the same drink, high-fiving, and fulfilling each other’s fantasies about how cool they both were (“Do you get laid a lot?”: this is the kind of question a man can ask his dad when he hasn’t seen him for 30 years) was almost too good to be true… and it was.

It turned out that that first conversation was a hyped-up version Barney told his pals; the truth was more (excitingly, for the purposes of the show) prosaic. Jerry is actually a suburban schlub (a driving instructor in White Plains) who drinks skim milk and suffered guilt from his cowardice at never contacting Barney all these years. He lives a scant ten minutes away from Barney, with his wife, a daughter and another son, JJ (Jerome, Jr., – another big ouch discovery for Barney).

I want to pause here and add that it was very good to see Nancy Travis on TV again, as Barney’s stepmother, Cheryl. She’s a terrific actress, and one who starred in her own excellent, underrated 1995 sitcom, Almost Perfect, as well as Becker and movies such as Internal Affairs.

Lithgow was superb. These days, he’s most familiar for his award-winning role as The Trinity Killer on Dexter, and this was his first sitcom work since Third Rock From The Sun. HIMYM gave him a terrific showcase in the two parallel bar scenes. In the first, he was convincingly cocky and elated; in the second, he echoed the same physical movements, but with little, witty twists. For example, in Barney’s imaginary scene, Jerry rises from his seat, squares his shoulders, and saunters over to a girl at the bar and scores her phone number. In the second, “real” scenario, Jerry arose, squared his shoulders, but Lithgow gave a little wince of pain, signaling a middle-aged man’s twinge of a stiff neck, or perhaps a touch of arthritis. It was small gestures and intonations of weariness that gave Jerry the air of a man defeated in every way, by the fear-based decisions he’s made in a life full of regret. I’m really looking forward to Lithgow/Jerry’s return, in April.

Neil Patrick Harris was equally excellent. Barney’s bratty wisecracks while visiting Jerry’s drab home, his sneery insults to his 11 year-old step-half-brother, were all the better for the way Harris didn’t play them for irony or delayed poignance – he was in the moment, relishing the pain he was inflicting on everyone, because he felt he’d earned that right after all of his own years of father-less pain.

Oh, and “You ever bang Stevie Nicks?” for some reason struck me as one of the funniest of all the lines last night – I think it was because it was so abruptly rude, crude, and chronologically precise: Bravo, Barney.

As for the rest of the episode, there were two fine subplots. One was about the gaps in knowledge each of the chums have (Robin thought the North Pole didn’t exist; Lily has lousy aim; Ted pronounces chameleon “cham-a-LEE-on”). The other found Marshall wanting the gang to stop treating him with kid gloves since the death of his father; the blizzard of flashbacks, with his pals never chiding him for growing a soul-patch or adopting a possum, was terrific.

What did you think of John Lithgow and his “legendaddy” performance?

Twitter: @kentucker

Originally posted March 21 2011 — 9:57 PM EDT

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