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Carter Bays on the 'How I Met Your Mother' Countdown Episode

by Joel Keller, posted Jan 4th 2011 11:30PM
'How I Met Your Mother' - 'Bad NewsIt's been a whole day since the interwebs were set abuzz by the shocking ending of last night's episode of 'How I Met Your Mother.' The episode had a lot going on, from the discovery of the gang's last doppelganger to a montage of Robin's embarrasing on-camera moments.

But the most talked about aspect of the episode, aside from the shocking ending, was the cleverly-presented countdown from 50 to 1, telegraphing the 'Bad News' of the episode's title. Many people got caught up in finding the numbers and figuring out what they meant. But as far as executive producer Carter Bays was concerned, he would have been content if people hadn't noticed them so quickly.

"I was surprised that people caught it, actually," he told me earlier this evening. "I thought it would be a thing you notice three viewings in, but I guess it was a little more visible than we intended."

What people found out about the countdown was that it wasn't counting down towards a happy event, like Lily (Alyson Hannigan) being pregnant after months of trying. It ended up counting down to a tragic event, the death of Marshall's (Jason Segel) father, played by Bill Fagerbakke.

It was a tough ending for fans of the show to take, but Bays and his producing partner Craig Thomas felt that it was an issue they had to explore. "As difficult as it is to say, that is real life. These kind of moments happen when you don't expect them. We wanted to shock the audience the way the characters were shocked. So much of what we love about the show is the relatability of it, and we try to create characters and stories that people see themselves in. As we've ticked off every milepost of young adulthood, sadly this is another one of those mileposts."

So they used the countdown, a conceit Bays admitted was cribbed from the 1988 movie 'Drowning By Numbers,' to give viewers a sense that something was coming. "It's hard navigating the amount of a sucker punch you want it to be," he said. "We wanted to have a little bit of foreboding in the air, and a little bit of raised eyebrows and suspicion that maybe something bad was going to happen. That's why we called the episode 'Bad News.'" A line Lily utters in the early going about "a black cat running through my uterus" also foretold what might happen.

"You talk about a difficult assignment... It's hard to add a sense of foreboding to a sitcom," Bays said. "But we wanted to add a sense that something was amiss, and this kind of felt like the way to do it." Bays credited episode writer Jenni Hendricks and the props, senic and post-production departments for making the countdown possible, even if it was more obvious than he expected.

That countdown got a mixed reaction from fans and critics; if you noticed it the first time you saw the episode, it made the shocking ending more dramatic, but if you didn't notice it, going back to look for the numbers felt like a distraction. Even the folks here at TV Squad were split on the device; Mo Ryan hated it, while I bought into that sense of foreboding Bays talked about.

'Bad News' had many callbacks to previous episodes, from the re-appearance of Alexis Denisof as Robin's (Cobie Smulders) old co-anchor Sandy Rivers, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) in the Sensory Deprivator 5000, and the appearance of Barney's doppelganger, who just happened to be a fertility specialist. While it's fun to call back characters from five seasons ago and props that people haven't seen in a few years, Bays and Thomas still try their best to make the show accessible to people who haven't been ardent fans since day one.

"Our yardstick is always, if yo've never seen an episode of the show, you know what's going on," Bays said, adding that "We never want to be so up our own asses that you don't get the joke or it's not funny at all unless you've seen the other episodes."

So what does the death of Marshall's father mean going forward. Firstly, it won't mean that Marshall won't become the downtrodden middle-aged man we've seen him as in earlier episodes. That was more of a function of how Segel played him, according to Bays.

"I think the first time we did it, I remember thinking that he acted so old, I was like, 'How old are these guys, really? They're like 50 but he acted like an 80 year old.' But, yeah, this season is a big journey for Marshall, certainly, and stuff we've established early on.

"I wouldn't say Marshall is beaten down by the world in any way," Bays continued. "He's still Marshall-like, he's just older a little bit and a little bit more distinguished. But, this certainly will change a lot of things for them; it's as big a deal as you might imagine it would be for Marshall in the coming episodes."

What will we see in the second half of the season? More Jennifer Morrison as Ted's (Josh Radnor) frenemy Zoey, if Bays gets his wish. He'd also love to work with Kyle MacLachlan -- "He's just been one of the finest actors we've ever had on our stage," said Bays -- and Bob Odenkirk again.

But, mostly, the tragic event in Marshall and Lilly's life is going to be what reverberates from here on out. "I feel like the first half of the season was us getting all our ducks in a row, and the second half, from this event that just took place, the reamining 11 episodes will be how things unravel as a result of this little particular spark. Barney's search for his dad, Ted's relationship with Zoey -- or Ted's friendship with Zoey -- Robin's new career, all of these things will be affected by what just happened."

'How I Met Your Mother' airs Mondays at 8PM ET on CBS.

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/joelkeller.)

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Jimmie Ray Giboney

Hello Meg!
Huh? I thought they were lottery numbers both times I looked at the episode. The second time I was writing them down as I caught them, hoping there was more to it than a count down.

January 06 2011 at 7:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jimmie Ray Giboney

Hello Eric!
Heh! I thought it was obvious there was something going on, when the "Heinz 57 Steak Sauce" bottle's label was altered to "47"!

January 06 2011 at 7:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched the episode twice, both times on DVR. The first time right after it aired and then again a couple hours later when my boyfriend got home from work.

The first time I only caught on to a couple of random numbers throughout, and that was only because they REALLY stood out from the prop that they were located on (almost like they were edited onto the prop after the fact) and didn't think anything of a countdown until I saw the 6 in the doctors office and thought of Marshall's dad asking if he had any 6's and they made the countdown to 1 pretty obvious from there.

Then when I watched it the second time i caught on to the 50 and 49 in the doctors office right away (perhaps because I was looking for them?) and by the time it got to 45 we realized it was a countdown and started looking.

I do have to say they got a bit lazy with some of the things (like tons of consecutive numbers in the late 20's on the stock ticker at the news station) and I liked the ones that were hidden on random props (door numbers, background posters, beer bottles, books) better.

January 05 2011 at 5:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

He thought it wasn't as noticeable as it was? I noticed the countdown before they were onto #47...and they started at #50. It was so blatantly obvious by #40 that even Helen Keller would have seen it. I liked the episode but the writers could take a lesson or two in subtlety from the writers on "Community".

January 05 2011 at 9:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jimmie Ray Giboney

#00; Typos! "senic and post-production","if yo've never seen",& "he reamining 11 episodes".
#01: If it were for the DVR menu provided by "Dish Network", I wouldn't know what the episode's title is. "TV Guide" doesn't publish them and they aren't scene in the actual episodes. What's up with that anyway?
#02: This was the first episode for me to see after having seen "Gulliver's Travels" Sunday afternoon.
#03: I noticed the numbers and I was hoping it would be something fun for us, like a lottery/sweepstakes/contest event. Not a countdown to tragedy or even a pregnancy.
#04: I didn't see them as a countdown though until I began to note them down. I saw other numbers too, like the one behind Ted's head in the credits, and the "100" on the big cake behind Robin. Did they really use a high five as the number 5?
#06: What's so funny about Robin Sparkles anyway? Better than the spectacles wearing Robin!
#07: Alyson as "Willow" delivered bad news about the death of Buffy in an episode of "Angel" and Dennis was in that episode. Now he's in one in which Alyson as "Lily", another plant-themed name, then delivers bad news about someone's death again.

January 05 2011 at 12:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Jimmie Ray Giboney's comment

I didn't notice the countdown the first time (at ALL- none of the numbers!), but I was sort of multi-tasking. I'll blame it on that. Someone commented on the recap about how Marshall's dad had been asking for sixes, and the doctor threw out the file with the six. I didn't think much of that at first, but Bays and Thomas don't miss a trick, so maybe it was intentional!!

January 04 2011 at 11:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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