Do people really believe in cursed days or is it just sitcom characters? It’s a sigh of a trope, because one of two things can happen and we’re already mentally skipping ahead to what to do after the episode ends. Either The Day That Shall Not Be Named will turn out to be perfectly safe and there was no need to worry—until the moment the victim lets his guard down at the end. Or, more likely, it will lead to a series of comic misfortunes that should have been—and in fact, were—anticipated. A certain amount of predictability comes with the territory, but there are causes for concern over and above this Hollywood-manufactured engine, such as Trophy Wife’s penchant for overdoing it. There’s also a certain amount of condensation in the setup scene. If Pete’s birthday is so traumatic that he spent one in a coma, you’d think Kate wouldn’t need to have that impressed upon her again at dinner the night before. All that in mind, I’m pleased to report that “The Big 5-0” is both surprising and restrained, another little story about this interior culture clash in southern California. There was nothing to worry about after all.
The plotting goes exactly where it has to, especially once Meg stops by. No way is Pete having a smooth birthday with Meg kicking things off. I mean that in a cosmic way, not a physical one, because after supplying Kate with the goods for her three-phase, one-on-one surprise party, Meg’s gone. Yes, she just stops by for a scene, like a real-life friend and neighbor, not a character in need of three beats (or an actor paid by the episode). She gets to make a funny face, she gets Kate to say some funny lines (“50 is the new 40, 40 is the new 30, and I’m 30, so basically we’re both 30”), and then she’s gone. See, Pete? The day isn’t all bad.
Kate takes it from there, and everything goes wrong, but look how the writers mitigate the obvious. Predictable drags like the DMV get fast-forwarded after a few quick zings (“SIR, I AM ASKING YOU TO CALM DOWN!”), while sleight of hand turns other obstacles into surprises. Pete briefly takes his eyes off the road, which is Hollywood for car crash. But the thing is, he’s sharing a sweet moment with Kate, and they’re not going very fast, so the bump into the police car actually regains a bit of surprise. For another example, a long setup bit where Pete’s secretary messes with him and he tries to crumple up a file distracts us so it’s less obvious that there are other businessmen in the office when Kate walks in wearing nothing but a trenchcoat, promising a blow-ing wind outside, yeah, a really blowing wind, hence the coat. Topical!
And the best surprise is that Pete’s cursed day isn’t actually cursed to him. It’s Kate making a big deal out of him turning 50. He points out her sexy outfit, fast car, and two-bar restaurant before I put it all together. “Are you having my mid-life crisis?” This plot may be a hand-me-down, but it’s been deeply retro-fitted for this particular family where a 30-year-old woman is a 50-year-old lawyer’s third wife. She immediately starts crying but Pete summarizes: “So you’re uncomfortable being too comfortable getting older?” First-world problems should be a special-occasions hashtag, but I think this qualifies. Life is just too perfect? Come on, Kate. No—come on, writers. Isn’t there any part of Kate that’s responding to the age difference? The cop mistook her for his daughter, after all. It’s not like they’re in any danger. From the sweet looks at dinner to Pete’s climactic romantic gesture, these two are rock-steady. Maybe next time the age-related conflict can be something other than a dramatic whine that Kate has everything she wants.
On the other hand, isn’t there something wonderfully Californian about the idea that it’s hard to be this happy? Or maybe it’s a particular breed of Los Angeles that’s become synonymous with the whole state through the power of the media (Texans know what I’m talking about). At any rate, the show is called Trophy Wife. At first the series was a bit geographically ambiguous, the better to be everycity, but 11 episodes in, the Harrisons officially live in southern California. Or as Pete tells his road test officer when asked to parallel park, “It’s Los Angeles. We valet.” Later Pete and Kate dance to “California Stars,” and coupled with its sunny, poolside Christmas, Trophy Wife is starting to feel more rooted in L.A. than most of its neighbors.
Lucky for budding vegetarian Bert, he lives in a relatively amenable location. Jackie will be so proud when she finds out! What begins as Crazy High Jinks involving birthday lobsters for Pete becomes a story about Bert being repulsed to discover that meat is made out of animals. By the end he’s just down to bologna, since scientists still haven’t determined where it comes from.
And it’s just a hop and skip from Bert giving up meat to Jackie and the New Age community. This plot also begins with a birthday gift for Pete and winds up a lesson in compassion. Sitcoms are weird. The point is Diane gets to be comically abrasive with vendor friends of Jackie and then comically submissive when Jackie makes the very good point that those people are her friends, which is reason enough to be nice to them. More proof that the writers know what they’re doing: There’s a big, goofy prop, a set of obnoxious wind chimes, but they’re so big and goofy that they require no extra effort on the part of the actors to be funny. Just trying to lay the wind chimes on the counter is funny enough, and Diane’s actually trying to be gentle about it which is even funnier. But back to the birthday curse, now that Diane learned to be grudgingly nice, Pete gets to keep the obnoxious chimes. Hopefully they’ll go the way of the dog.
- The hazards of note-taking: “Pete’s grandfather was a birthday.” I know there was some kind of joke here, but technology failed me and I can’t remember. What was Pete’s grandpa? A robber-baron?
- Kate catches herself before she curses at the dinner table. “This is such bull… poo.” Bert still gasps.
- Ridiculous Jackie is a noodle-wall of jokes but there’s always something that sticks. “Let’s make this quick. I’m double-parked behind an ambulance.”
- Let’s not dismiss Diane here. “Nothing is non-refundable.” Now that’s someone I want in my corner.
- Jackie takes Diane on a tour of Portlandia. “One scorpion honey tea coming right up, just give me 40 minutes.”
- The masseuse has trouble with Diane. “Your muscles feel like… commercial fishing net?”
- A lesson for us all. “In the New Age community, what’s done is never done. It may not have even happened.”