How I Met Your Mother: The Bracket

It’s not difficult for me to hate characters like Barney from How I Met Your Mother. Last Monday’s episode, The Bracket, demonstrates it perfectly. It’s not a show I watch, for reasons Purtek highlighted in her review of another episode, and because I have no real desire to. I happened across five minutes of it last week, and sought out the full episode just to make sure what little I saw was as bad as I thought. That’s 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

The episode starts with Ted and Marshall devising a bracket system for betting on March Madness (basketball), but quickly the attention turns to Barney. Barney, it seems, has been having unusual problems with picking up women, which is ALL his character does. As he explains what happens in multiple scenarios, his friends make it a game to guess what his hook is in each situation: picking up women at a pet store, a museum, a hardware store. Barney’s got some ridiculous tactic for each of these places. He feigns comfort for a recently widowed woman, pretends to be going blind, etc. All funny, funny stuff.

Here’s where his problem comes in: he leaves his victims for a moment, and when he comes back they turn on him, slap him and run away. Poor Barney, how could this be happening to him!? ::rolls eyes::

Cue the next scene, which is Barney and Lily at the bar together. He leaves for a second, and when he comes back, Lily explains a woman (“Blonde hair. Boobs. Kinda trashy,” describes Lily.) came out of nowhere and warned her about his use-and-abuse them behavior. He’s shocked. He’s horrified. He can’t figure out how any of the countless women he’s slept with (described as “dead in the eyes, with an air of desperation”) would want to screw him over like this. Laugh track from audience. Because this, too, is funny.

The next thing we see, Barney has taken over the blackboard and Ted and Marshall’s bracket system. Lily objects to using these women as a game…until Barney brings out the beer and then everyone cheers. A montage of them figuring out which of the women Barney’s been with occurs, none of it funny but all of it getting laughs. He narrows it down to the top four out of 64, and tracks them all down, with Lily in tow because she knows what the mystery woman looks like, and she wants to make sure he apologizes. Here we learn more (funny!) ways Barney has mistreated women and feels absolutely nothing about it. He makes no apologies.

But none of the top four women are the one screwing poor, poor Barney over by telling the truth about him. Robin comes up with a plan to snare the “stalker” woman. Why she wants to help Barney is beyond me, and a big part of the problem I have with his character. They set up a sting, with Robin playing the part of victim. All they have to do is make a good show, let Barney walk away for a minute and then catch the mystery woman in the act.

It works. Barney leaves Robin for a minute, and then a woman saunters up and speaks to her. Barney’s agast – he doesn’t recognize the woman. He approaches her as she leaves and apologizes. What does he apologize for? Not recognizing her. Yes, he tosses in a “whatever I did to upset you…” but the thrust of his apology comes from his inability to remember her at all. And it turns out he has no reason to remember her – she’s Robin’s coworker, and has never been victimized by Barney.

At the end of the episode, Barney still doesn’t know who the mystery woman is. The audience is assured we’ll learn more about her later, whee! We see him typing on his blog, Doogie Howser style (the only mildly funny thing about this episode), in which he claims he’s learned something about himself throughout the whole “ordeal” (pan here to the deceived and used woman on his bed) – that he’s awesome.

So, let’s see if you can guess why I hate characters like Barney. Is it because his appalling behavior is rewarded and treated as funny? Is it because not one of his companions put forth any serious objection to him (oh, sure, Lily protested, but ultimately she was there to serve as his foil)? Is it because we are supposed to sympathize with him as he roots out this mystery woman, instead of all the women he’s wronged, like he’s the real victim? That through it all, Barney never learns anything except how awesome he is? All of the above, and more.

This is just a sitcom, I know that, but I cannot see how glorifying this character or any like him as funny and awesome is a good thing.


  1. Patrick says

    I’ve watched the show from the beginning (I’ll watch anything with Alyson Hannigan in it), and this episode bugged me as well. Normally, Barney is the object of comedy – one of the frequent jokes is that an episode will set up Barney to have hidden depths, only to finally reaffirm that he really is that shallow.

    But, as you noted, the narrative of this episode takes Barney’s side, which is especially troubling because the rest of the show clearly establishes him as a sociopath. For example, the first woman that Barney looks up (played by April Bowlby) had previously appeared, and in that episode Barney’s treatment of her was treated as funny in the “crosses the line twice” mode – the humor comes, not from her humiliation (which we don’t see), but from an awareness of what a lying, manipulative monster Barney is.

    This episode could have been funny, had it focused on Barney finally suffering for his actions. Instead, as you noted, it wants us to feel sorry for poor Barney because some shrew is out to destroy him by…. honestly warning away his potential victims. This is really bizarre, as normally we are never supposed to feel any sympathy for Barney – he is a prototypical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. (Unlike the other characters, all of whom are sympathetic. Well, Ted was until this season.)

  2. sbg says

    It was just awful. I give some leeway to Lily for at least voicing how putridly Barney treats women, but it still came off as playing up the funniness of the unfunny plot point to me. But when Robin did that whole, “Come on, if these girls hook up with someone like Barney, they should have known what they were getting into…” spiel, I just about threw something at my computer. Maybe it was supposed to come off as ironic or tongue in cheek, it still smacked of “these women don’t deserve sympathy.”

  3. says

    I’m glad, Patrick, that you describe this episode as out of the ordinary mold of the show’s treatment of Barney, because as I was reading the article, I felt decidedly confused. The character is horrifying, yes, but the whole point of the character until now has been that he’s meant to be horrifying. He’s there to be mocked and his redeeming value is that you know (and the other characters know) that although he represents everything that men are supposed to be in order to achieve the pinnacle of masculinity, he so obviously lacks anything legitimately satisfying in his life.

    It sounds like they’ve lost sight of their own character with this one, though, and I’ve been getting the impression that’s more and more the case. I’ve never been remotely satisfied with the way the show treats Lily or Robin as either foils to the sexual escapades of the men (the ones they’re not themselves sleeping with, of course) or buddy sidekicks who, by virtue of being female, normalize and make okay the objectification of the one-night stands. This episode (and that line from Robin, which I’m more than a little glad I missed) sounds like it goes all out on that one, too.

  4. SunlessNick says

    Is there a progression of “clueless -> innocent -> sympathetic” running through their minds, I wonder?

  5. Scarlett says

    Patrick, whenever I watch the ads for this show I cringe. This doesn’t endear it to me anymore. About the only enlightening thing I find is further proof that some men will follow someone as unconventially pretty as Hannigan to the ends of the earth :p

  6. Patrick says

    Yeah, that line from Robin was really bad. Not simply because it tried to “justify” Barney’s behavior, but because of the victim-blaming. Because these women do not sleep with “someone like Barney,” they sleep with whatever person Barney is pretending to be to get into their pants. Even this episode makes it clear that Barney’s approach is not “I’m hot, you’re hot, wanna do it?” but to manipulate and deceive women into sex before abandoning them. And as Purtek noted, normally this is meant to be horrifying, and the redeeming value of the character is that for all his claims to happiness and fulfilment following this model of behavior, he’s really just unsuccessfully trying to buy into a formula for happiness and fulfilment because he feels he failed at achieving it on his own.

    (Some backstory: Barney used to be a kind, positive “granola guy” devoted to his girlfriend and to making a difference. He and his girldfriend were “saving themselves” for each other, and were going to go on a Peace Corps mission to Nicaragua. When she proved unable to travel to Niacaragua at the last minute, Barney discovered that she had been sleeping with a “suit guy” and had come up with the Peace Corps idea as a way to get rid of Barney. Devastated, Barney basically has a nervous breakdown and tries to remodel himself after the “suit guy” and his ilk, since they are supposedly the happy, successful ones.)

    The fact that Barney constantly reaffirms his awesomeness is important here, because it reflects that he ultimately has pathologically low self-esteem. He’s bought into this popular-culture image of “awesomeness” and has to keep telling himself that this really is what he wants and he really is happy… which is usually a pretty good sign of the opposite.

    But with this episode, the producers really seem to have lost sight of all this, and regard Barney’s behavior as funny in and of itself, not because of what it ultimately says about Barney. It seems like the writers themselves are suffering from what TV Tropes calls “Misaimed Fandom,” where a satirical character with a lot of subtext is taken, and disturbingly appreciated, at face value.

    I know I seem to be putting a lot of thought into this, but normally I find Barney to be a fascinating character precisely because of all of the subtext. To see an episode like this, that drops all of the subtext and embraces him with “haw haw, manipulating and deceiving people is funny” is really disheartening.

  7. Patrick says

    I watched Date Movie for Alyson Hannigan. That probably counts as masochism.

    But yeah, the show has really, really gone downhill this season with episodes like this and “The Belt.” Ted has become increasingly shallow and petty, but only the occasional episode calls him on this. Robin has pretty much ceased to have any story focus now that there is no longer a potential/current romance with Ted. Lilly and Marshal have mostly been relegated to spectators. And this article and discussion demonstrate pretty clearly how the writers seem to have lost their grip on Barney.

    It’s a pity, because I used to quite like this show, and the cast is still very talented.

  8. says

    Patrick, you may feel like you’ve put too much thought into the show, but that comment was such a great explanation for the original appeal of the show, and why it’s failing so miserably now, not to mention a great analysis of why Barney matters as a character in the first place (there’s a lot to explore thematically in the misery of a fragile constructed identity). Misaimed Fandom is a completely apt description, here.

  9. says

    Okay, I was getting this feeling from SBG’s post, and now having read more comments (and especially Robyn’s line about how the women should know what they’re getting into), and I have a theory:

    I think some male screenwriters are jealous of men who can get women into bed easily, and writing characters like Barney is their revenge against all the women who turn them down. It’s their fantasy that the men these women do NOT turn down are mean, using beasts who hurt them. Because those damn bitchez shoulda known they should beg to suck Nice Guys like our screenwriters instead of interesting, attractive men who may or may not be users (but at least that night before they never call back might be memorable).

  10. sbg says

    Patrick – having some background on Barney would have helped, true. But as a casual non-viewer stumbling on this particular episode, there is no WAY I’d become a dedicated fan.

    Of course, I’m still wondering how in the hell Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men became such big hits. It shouldn’t be possible. I am clearly not a member of the target audience.

  11. says

    sbg – If this had been the first episode I’d seen, I would dismissed it as hopeless, standard sitcom trash…as it is, I may now have dismissed it as having *become* standard sitcom trash, and what’s so sad about that is the knowledge that it was once better.

    I think “Everybody Loves Raymond” is possibly the clearest, most apparent example of the divide between myself and the majority of my family members, because I can’t watch more than thirty seconds without literally starting to grasp at my hair…while my relatives have been known to cite the show as gospel truth about the way marriage works. (Thus far, the best strategy I’ve found for tolerating visits to my family is to treat it as an anthropological experiment, walking into a world where people actually fully accept this stuff, and then use it to fuel my desire to write things for this site).

    But no, it shouldn’t be possible.

  12. Patrick says

    Ah, yes, Two and Half Men. Because nothing is funnier than a drunken, misogynistic ass with a massive sense of entitlement, and a self-destructive, misyginistic ass with a massive sense of entitlement, sniping at each other.

  13. Jennifer Kesler says

    If ELR represents how marriage really works… why on earth would anyone subject themselves to that on purpose? No, let me rephrase: why would a sane woman subject herself to that? I can totally see why a man would: Raymond’s a complete boob, yet he gets this wonderful helpmate, and all he has to put up with is her occasional rants that really don’t affect him in any significant way.

  14. Firebird says

    Of course one has to wonder what kind of intelligence puts a line like “Come on, if these girls hook up with someone like Barney, they should have known what they were getting into…” into a show about stopping a woman from informing women that they are, in fact, about to sleep with a man line Barney. That’s deep irony there, and just too bad it was apparently too deep for the writers who created it, LOL.

  15. SunlessNick says

    That comment also belongs in the “misogynist who gets the girls” thread.

    Also, I agree.

    But who can pass up a chance to blame the womens?

  16. Kat says

    Wait, people actually take the marriages in ELR seriously? I find ELR funny because it’s basically a completely unrealistic portrayal of how to deal with family members who are . . . disturbingly like those in real life (or at least in my life). I find it funny because I see, like, five million ways in which the stupid little strategies the characters employ to deal with Raymond’s family members would fall apart in real life.

    But people actually take it seriously?!!!

    There goes all my faith in humanity . . .


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