Ben And Kate is not my regular beat—I’m subbing for Molly, who will be back next week—so I feel a little bad breaking the A-ceiling on a show I can’t technically call my own. But “21st Birthday” is a fantastic episode of television. Four episodes into a new show, you begin to get the sense of what it is good at and where it might be heading, and what amazed me about “21st Birthday” is how many unconventional and yet heartfelt directions the show takes in one short episode.
“21st Birthday” starts on the eve of Kate’s 26th birthday, which is to be a subdued affair as usual. Ben, BJ, and Tommy quickly form a plan to throw Kate a surprise party—and not just any surprise party, but a surprise 21st birthday party, because Kate never had a good old-fashioned alcohol-soaked rager to celebrate the legal age.
It’s worth pointing out that upon learning the premise of this episode, I wasn’t that excited with where it was going. Watching an unwanted surprise party sounds like that type of awkward, excruciating humor that makes me uncomfortable and leaves me feeling emotionally drained (like Louie, and the presidential debates). I was sort of hoping Kate would find a way to escape the inevitable party and run out to have ice cream with herself (in fact, aromatherapy and a glass of wine sounds awesome).
But what I like so much about Ben And Kate is how quickly it subverts my expectations. Rather than place the party at the close of the episode, as the big reveal that brings all the plot threads together, the writers place it in the middle, letting action rise up to the party and then fall after it. Much like real life, the party isn’t the most interesting thing that happens in the episode—in fact, after spending the first third of the episode bickering about the party, both Ben and Kate ditch it almost immediately. Kate runs off with her friend Molly to a club, and Ben goes to his ex-girlfriend’s house to dig up the tree planted in the backyard.
Er, yes—the ex-Future Mrs. Ben Fox has moved into the home that she and Ben dreamed of living in one day, except Darcy is living there with her current husband, not with Ben. This gets Ben a little riled up, and he goes into her backyard to dig up a tree they planted together. For some reason, he brings BJ, and when Ben loses his nerve, BJ reacts by throwing the shovel at the window, summoning the ex-Future Mrs. Ben Fox to the scene.
That brings us up to about four swerves from the opening premise already, and this is only about halfway through the episode. Swerve one: episode structure. Swerve two: Kate finds out about the party almost immediately after they start planning it. Swerve three: Ben and Kate aren’t even at the party. Swerve four: What on earth is BJ doing?
BJ’s character is endearingly chaotic. She’s almost exclusively self-serving, but then every now and again something happens to make you believe that her erratic nature is rooted in something strangely logical, an emotional life that she rarely expresses. In the first few scenes of “21st Birthday,” she vacillates from stingy mooch to grating patronizer, putting down Maddie’s totally awesome mermaid party idea and asking the guys to pay for the party as she pockets a wad of bills. But then at the party, when she sees Kate reunite with her old friend Molly, the camera cuts back to BJ again and again, showing her pain as her best friend engages with another friend who isn’t her.
Her moment of emotional insecurity is never brought up verbally, but it might go toward explaining why BJ is the way she is, which is a mixed bag of tricks, playing everyone around her hot and cold. She tells Ben she threw the shovel at the window as a favor, so he could talk to his ex. And then when he’s talking to Darcy through what must be a very painful moment for him, BJ switches rapidly between supportive and aggressively objective. What comes across, as she meanders through a speech meant to defend Ben from Darcy’s criticism (which instead puts Ben down in several creative ways), is that BJ has some trouble reconciling her selfish nature with her affection for her friends, but she tries anyway. She’s got a weird way of showing she cares, but she does care—which is, in essence, the heart of this show.
And the scene of her trying, which starts with the monologue and ends in the most awkward kiss I’ve ever witnessed, is hands-down the most hilarious scene in the episode.
Meanwhile, Molly has dragged Kate to a club, and as they’ve both hit the tequila pretty hard, Tommy comes along to be their designated driver. He’s not a fan of Molly, because she owes him “like 20 bucks” from high school, and so as Kate tries to remember how to be a kid again, Tommy glowers from a distance, and Kate calls him out on it. What’s the deal with the debt? Just get over it! He tells her: That was money he had set aside in high school to ask a pretty girl out on a date. Said pretty girl? Why, Kate, of course. (Just like, shut up if that’s not one of the cutest things you’ve seen on a sitcom.) It’s seven years later, and he feels like he lost his chance, and he’s still upset, but hey, Kate, would you be interested in going out with Tommy?
Kate avoids the issue like a champion, and her evening with Molly turns instead to her friendship. Again, with the theme: Molly cares, but shows it by acquiring drugs. Kate has to tell Molly that she isn’t who she used to be in college. She’s a mom and an adult, and she can’t spend $40 on unspecified drugs at a club. Molly looks pained for a moment, and then bursts out: “Are we still friends?” And Kate hugs her. “Always,” she says. “Always.” Molly is not framed as a bad influence, she’s just different, which is far more generous than most sitcom throwaway characters get in this world. And Kate’s pain about being in a situation she’s uncomfortable with connects to Molly’s pain at feeling distant from Kate.
At the end of the episode, Ben takes Kate to the ice cream parlor where she always gets her birthday sundae, and Ben explains to her that he threw the party so she wouldn’t be so alone on her birthday. (Ahem, theme: It’s a weird way of showing affection, but he tried.) But Kate says that she was never alone. The camera flashes back to show us Maddie in various stages of babyhood, eating ice cream with her mom. The crucial thing here is that while Kate’s loved ones are patting themselves on the back for their well-intentioned charity, Kate is happy with the life she’s chosen, where her treats are aromatherapy baths and sundaes. Being a single mother is hard, but not a mistake.
Somehow the episode finds humor and joy in all of the characters’ moments of individual pain and relationship drama. And they all manage to connect through their difficulties to each other, mostly because it was hard, but they tried anyway. It’s really kind of beautiful, and it is made doubly charming because you have no idea where the episode is going to go next.
Witness the last scene: Tommy has given up his pursuit of Kate, but offers to pay for the ice cream as its her birthday. She refuses, and leaves her cash on the table, but then tells him he should save his money to ask a nice girl out—a nice girl like Kate herself. And then she kisses him on the cheek. He is enormously pleased with himself for a moment, before asking, quite rightly, “Wait, what does that mean?”
- I'm hesitant to call Ben And Kate a sitcom because it feels more like a lighthearted drama. It’s funny, but that doesn't seem to be the whole point. Thank goodness! I like living in a world where different shows can be good at different things.
- I’m very interested to see how Darcy’s conversation with Ben will affect his character. She addresses something pretty fundamental to him, which is that he is a flake. Lovable, sure, but still unreliable. I doubt that the writers will take this to a conventional place, which means this could be a lot of fun.
- I am very excited by a potential Tommy and Kate romance, but it is possible it would ruin the show, too. Thoughts?