Trophy Wife: “Happy Bert Day”
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Trophy Wife: “Happy Bert Day”

Sympathy for the villains

Happy Bert Day! Yes, everyone’s favorite banshee is turning 8, and because he read 100 books in a year, and because Pete signed a crayon contract about it, Bert gets to have any kind of party he wants. “So I was thinking chocolate and vanilla ice cream,” he tells Kate. “And?” she asks. “Napkins?” She’s trying to impress the neighborhood soccer moms, so she wants to throw Bert an extravagant party, and he comes up with an Aladdin theme. And she really does knock it out of the park (or kick the hell out of a related soccer metaphor): There’s a fire-eater on stilts, a genie’s lamp turned into a chocolate fountain, a magic carpet ride (on a cart). Bert gets to ride a pony, he gets a costume change so he can be Aladdin and Prince Ali, and at the end he gets to center a dance number to Flo Rida. For Bert, and me, the party is a parade of delights, every new scene revealing another cool surprise.

For everyone else, the party plays a bit differently. First the bakery sends them the wrong cake (“I don’t recall two naked men oiled up and wrestling with a unicorn in Aladdin”), so Diane takes Pete to go trade the cake for the one they were supposed to get. But Pete’s embarrassed, annoyed, and personally terrified that Diane bulldozes her way through life with no regard for the rest of society. Unsurprisingly, Bradley Whitford makes the most of that cocktail of emotions. Then Hillary gets a crush on one of the dancers, and in the process of scoping him out for her, Warren falls for him himself, but as friends, probably. And then Kate finds out why the soccer moms have been pursing her out: Jackie started a rumor that Kate used to be a stripper.

The spine of the episode is that last one, and it’s surprising how cold it gets. There’s no punchline to Kate saying, “You know what? You are desperate. Not in an adorable way. In a sad way.” It’s true, and we all know it’s true, but does she really have to say it out loud? Then Kate gets to learn what any genie could have told her: Be careful what you wish for. The soccer moms are terrible. Which we know from the start. Their first scene on the sidelines is hilarious. They speak in chirpy, overlapping nonsense, and when Kate gives up on the awkwardness and leaves, they bid her adieu in the dying monotone of passive-aggression: “Byeeeee.” “Good to see yooouuu.” Don’t let the words fool you. Those lines are black holes of enthusiasm. When Kate finally has an in with them, she keeps trying to change the subject but all they want to talk about is how desperate Jackie is. The episode supplies the evidence with a few different cutaways to Jackie, alone at the party, doing something strange in the background. It’s uncomfortably dark, even for a sitcom where everything’s going to be okay by the end. Jackie is so pitiful. 

That’s one of the most beautiful things about Trophy Wife in general and “Happy Bert Day” in specific. It finds sympathy for the villains. Diane’s reign of terror involves cutting in line at the bakery (“There’s a line, lady.” “It’s ‘Dr.’”) and convincing a cop that she ran a red light at a particularly dangerous intersection because Pete’s having a heart attack. The cop notices Pete’s ashen visage, probably a result of Pete nearly having a legitimate heart attack at the intersection, and escorts them through the traffic. How does Diane always get away with it? It’s a legitimate question, one that is bigger than this particular episode. She has her moments, but in “Happy Bert Day,” she’s nothing but entitled, the better to make us laugh. And then she walks right into Pete’s screen door, smashing a cake in the shape of the sultan’s palace all over her, which Bert and a flock (Capri-Sun?) of children proceed to eat off of her body. There’s no lesson or contrition. Diane is still a ridiculously assertive jerk. But “Happy Bert Day” manages to find this mitigating moment that simultaneously punishes Diane and inspires sympathy for her. 

Warren’s the least villainous villain and unquestionable star of the episode, but he’s still lying about his new friend, Graham, just to keep from having to choose between him and Hillary upon their inevitable breakup. Not that there’s any choice in his mind. Hillary thinks he’d choose her, but he keeps saying he’d choose Graham. He sums up: “No, not you. I’ve said Graham twice now. Stop.” Warren is on fire throughout, whether bonding with Graham over surfing and dancing, telling Hillary that Graham’s necklace is a blood diamond and not the good kind, or simply on his own, rubbing the chocolate fountain lamp while wishing for more chocolate. When Graham shows him that he has pictures of his parents in his locket, Warren pulls glossy photos of Pete and Diane out of his pocket and I lost it. His sympathetic comeuppance: He admits that there aren’t many people who like him back. The Harrisons are really cutting to the core this week.

Hillary tacitly agrees to let Warren have this one, I guess, and Pete lets go of all his frustrations with Diane once he gets a photo of her humiliation. But Kate and Jackie need a more solid resolution, and it’s touching. Jackie is awful and desperate and weak, but she’s also lonely, and she’s creative, and she’s family. Even Bert feels for her. He wants Chris Harrison to bring her a rose, because he clearly hasn’t been watching this season of The Bachelor. So Kate immediately forgives her, Jackie grovels until the words sink in, and they agree to share wine at the next soccer game.

Bert Day is a success. There are some missed opportunities along the way—I’ve been waiting half a season for another good Hillary-Kate plot, and they finally have a scene together but they’re talking about two completely different things—and the plotting is awfully casual beyond the main story. But how exciting to see a family sitcom actually earn its heartwarming ending.

Stray observations:

  • Pete has some advice for the soccer team: “If we don’t touch the ball, we have a chance of tying the Camels.”
  • Graham bonds with Warren: “Between dancing and surfing, I don’t have time for a girlfriend.” I will not read into this. I will not read into this. 
  • I love the running gag where Kate would complain that the soccer moms think she’s a stripper and the Harrison family members saying how ridiculous that is because she can’t dance. 
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