The Wonder Years: “Birthday Boy”

Kevin and Paul are born four days apart and usually have a joint birthday party. The episode begins with clips of these celebrations, starting with days when Kevin and Paul were babies. However, this year – the boys’ thirteenth birthdays- the celebrations will be different. Because Paul is Jewish, his thirteenth birthday means a bar mitzvah, a ceremony that signifies that the boy has become an adult and is ready to accept the moral and religious responsibilities.  The bar mitzvah also means a big party, with lots of food, presents, and dancing. Meanwhile, Kevin, when hearing of Paul’s celebration, is left feeling a little jealous as he compares Paul’s plans with his own. While his mom is eager to celebrate Kevin’s birthday, Mr. Arnold’s anger regarding the costs to repair his car make it evident that Kevin’s celebration will be not be on the same scale at Paul’s.

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Credit: ABC

I thought the episode was eye opening in terms of better understanding the characters and a more general, sociological lessons about American culture.  First, the Arnold family members came off as very self-involved compared to the Pfeiffer family. While the latter embraced tradition and rallied to support Paul on his big day, the former (with the exception of Mrs. Arnold) was too engrossed in their own individual problems- car, money, friends- to take the time to celebrate Kevin’s birthday in a meaningful way.  In watching prior episodes, I have thought the Arnold family to be somewhat dull (compared to other TV families, like the Cosbys from The Cosby Show or the Bravermans from Parenthood), but this episode really made me think it’s not they are dull- it’s just that they are lacking in the familial love that makes other tv families so enjoyable and endearing to watch.

Another important takeaway from this episode is the question of how American culture marks beginning of adulthood. The bar mitzvah is one example of rituals done across the world to show a transition from childhood to adulthood, regardless of whether the individuals are emotionally or physically there yet. Kevin just wants a similar type of acknowledgement that he is growing up, but the American culture doesn’t have the same type of formal ceremony to do so.  Do we therefore define the transition by other life changing ceremonies, e.g. job, driver’s license, marriage? However, even the law has it confused, as we can drive by 16 but can’t vote till 18 and drink until 21. I can therefore understand how Kevin feels lost and disappointed.

I felt bad for Kevin throughout the episode and wish his father had stepped up to the plate to provide him some guidance. However, I thought the ending of the episode was well done. Kevin didn’t necessarily get the acknowledgement of his growing up but was able to celebrate Paul’s bar mitzvah, and use that as a good substitute, especially since it occurred on Kevin’s birthday.

About Sarita

I am known in my friend circle as the person who is most likely to know random television/Hollywood trivia. Thrilled to put my tv knowledge to use in writing reviews. In addition to writing, I love to read, and welcome the opportunity to talk on twitter on books, tv, or movies.

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