Birthdays are a great narrative device for any TV show.
Unlike other major holidays such as Christmas, Halloween or Thanksgiving (the latter two being especially favoured by US TV while Christmas it seems belongs to everyone) which aren’t about anyone in particular (anyone mortal anyway), birthdays are about one person and one person only, and allow great writers to draw something out about that character in a series of interactions with everyone else in the show.
Shows like The Gilmore Girls (Rory’s birthday parties were legendary), Friends (“The One Where Everyone Turns 30” is a classic) and Modern Family (I have never laughed so hard watching an episode of this show as I did when Mitchell desperately tries to get rid of all evidence of a The Wizard of Oz theme when he finds out his Kansas-raised boyfriend Cameron has tornado issues) skilfully use birthdays to advance plots, bring to light something new about a character, and do something out of the box that ordinary day to day life doesn’t easily lend itself to.
It’s a lesson that the writers of one of my favourite TV birthday episodes have learned well.
In the season 1 episode of smash hit sitcom New Girl, “The Story of 50”, the gang learns via a melodramatic announcement by Schmidt (Max Greenfield) that he has lost his booking on the party bus – complete with a very tasteful “love grotto” and stripper pole – he had booked for his 29th birthday which he views as his last real chance to celebrate before he turns 30 and “it all goes downhill from there”.
It is an episode that takes place roughly around the halfway mark of the debut season where we are still getting to know each of the characters, and the exposition of what makes them intrinsically them is in full swing.
On the surface we see Schmidt in usual full douchebag mode – the title of the episode refers to the amount of money accrued in the “douche jar” into which Schmidt must deposit money every time one of his housemates deems him to have acted in a less than socially acceptable way (hilariously illustrated by a series of vignettes inserted into the credits) – and in the hands of a less talented team of writers this is pretty much all we would see.
But thanks to the talented production team , led by showrunner Liz Merewether, and actor Max Greenfield’s remarkable ability to find the simply humanity in a character who could simply have wound up as a skirt-chasing slime ball, we see a lost little fat kid behind the douchebag who still longs for real love and acceptance.
To get that he was still willing to do pretty much anything – lose all the weight he arrived in L.A. carrying on his self-conscious frame, put up with the “friendship” of Benjamin, a crass, narcissitic man he admits he hates, and describes in true Schmidt style as his “bronemy”, changed his style of dress and as he admits to Jess “I even dropped my voice half an octave”.
He is even willing to sing an insulting version of “We Built This City” by Jefferson Airplane – “We Built This Schmidty / On tootsies rolls” – with Benjamin every time he sees him just to retain some friendship from this odious man who despite his many flaws is still one of the few people with which he has shared any type of emotional intimacy.
And the desperate lengths he is willing to go to feel some measure of social acceptability, however precariously balanced, are laid bare when he and Benjamin break into the hurtful ditty in front of Jess, Nick and Winston as they’re about to board the school bus Jess has hurriedly fashioned into a replacement party bus.
Their collective shock that Schmidt would submit to this just to keep a “friend” is palpable and real, as is their growing distaste for the deeply flawed, and highly conditional friendship that Benjamin offers Schmidt, a man he clearly holds in contempt.
In stark contrast to Benjamin’s louche, uncaring treatment of Schmidt is the effort that his housemates, Jess, Nick and Winson go to to fashion the school bus from Jess’s school into a replacement party bus so Schmidt’s pivotal party can go ahead.
And they go to an amazing amount of trouble, corralling guests at a moment’s notice, and decorating the bus so beautifully, complete with keg, “kosher yoghurt and honey”, and “the R-rated section in the back with the stripper pole, normally used for stability but tonight it’s gioing to be used for $50 worth of semi-nudity” (used by a male Gospel-singing stripper mistakenly booked by Jess).
While the party’s execution may have been a little, in Jess’s words “flawed” – they crash it into a pole and a giant pile of garbage ending the party’s bus’s journey of fun – Schmidt is amazed that his friends care so much and they would do all this for him.
As he says to Jess as they’re waiting for the tow truck, a crash caused by the way by Schmidt and his friend’s rejecting Benjamin’s sleazy behaviour in definitive fashion, the night was “10s across the board, no splash.”
He admits that “no one has ever done that for me before”.
It is touching and sweet, and while Schmidt almost immediately reverts to his douchebag persona by trying to kiss Jess (which in a way is refreshing since a fairy tale change to perpetually lovely Schmidt would have been unrealistic, not to mention fingernails-on-a-chalkboard annoying), it reveals a soft fiercely protected side of the birthday boy that elevates him far above the simple comedy cliche he could have so easily been.
And enriches the whole show in the process.
The revelations and frank conversations are of the kind that could really only take place at a significant event like a birthday when pretty much everything about who you are and what matters to you in life is rawly exposed, whether you’ll admit it or not.
New Girl recognises that truth and runs with it, and in so doing gives us insights into one its main characters that arguably couldn’t have taken place in any other type of episode.
It is a truly funny, remarkable episode that beautifully illustrates that birthdays are so much more than just another day on the calendar, and a powerful way to bring alive a character and yes, an entire TV show.