I was just asking about where our family came from. What are we?
That scene of the Pfeiffer family eating dinner the night before Paul’s bar mitzvah is probably my favorite scene of the series yet. I was misting up by the end of it. Paul’s family is so well-casted and persuasive in their joy about Paul’s bar mitzvah, I was moved.
The detail and fidelity with which Paul’s culture are depicted power the rest of the episode by serving as a contrast to the Arnold’s aloof, preoccupied attitude about Kevin’s birthday. The fact that all of the Pfeiffers shower love on him while all the Arnolds seem intent on ignoring Kevin also contributes to his frustration. Jack spends the episode trying to get his car to work, oblivious to Kevin’s identity crisis. Norma tries to help, but her explanation that Kevin is, in his words, a “mutt” hurts more than it helps in his desire to develop some cultural identity.
Kevin admits that he really wants some rite of passage that ties him to his family and his history. He starts getting that when he helps his dad work on the engine, but in a painfully realistic moment, Kevin’s dad snaps at him and the feeling gets away from him.
In the end, Kevin realizes to accepts that there’s nothing that he can do the fill the void. And this, ironically, gives him something that actually gives him a sense of identity and belonging: the opportunity to support his friend on one of the biggest days of his life.
The writers allow these moments and realizations breathe: Paul gets nearly a minute just to say his Jewish prayers; Karen reads a few full stanzas of her wonderfully awful poem; Grandpa Pfeiffer gets to tell his chicken story even though it has nothing to do with the plot.
I also thought the characters seemed so realistic. Never did it feel like the characters were behaving solely to advance the plot or to affect the protaganist. Everyone has their own agenda and busy lives.
There are so many places Birthday Boy could have gone wrong: The episode could have emphasized too heavily the rift between Kevin and Paul or bogged down Kevin’s entrance to the bar mitzvah with unnecessary narration or given Kevin a pat solution to his problems. But everything clicked, everything worked, and we got a complex portrait of exactly what can be lost in America’s “melting pot.”
I might even go out on a limb and call Birthday Boy the series best episode yet. Great, great work all around.
A few more dayenu-style notes:
- Birthday Boy features career performances from the whole cast, particularly Fred Savage, Dan Lauria, and (my always-favorite) Josh Saviano.
- Paul’s family is well-cast and interesting. I hope we see a lot more of them. I definitely want an episode focusing on Debbie’s crush on Kevin.
- Karen’s poem was wonderfully awful. I kind of wanted to hear the ending of it.
- Mrs. Carples and Grandpa Pfeiffer are numbers one and two in some order on my ranking of best guest appearances yet (I’m not including Ben Stein, as he seems to be “recurring,” not “guest”).
- Wayne and his friend’s gradually increasing jealousy during the opening bus ride was excellent.
- The episode played Paul’s revelation about the date of his bar mitzvah to Kevin beautifully. I felt bad for both characters and didn’t blame Kevin when he reacted the day that he did.
- Another potential pitfall for the episode was making sure that Kevin didn’t come across as a selfish jerk, but they avoided it very well by showing how Kevin and Paul had historically shared birthdays and that his family wasn’t really trying to make it much of a special birthday.
- If I had a complaint, it’s that the closing moments would have worked better if they hadn’t closed as a montage of pictures with sentimental music. Fading out as the family danced to Hava Nagila would have matched the understated tone of the rest of the episode.