Many TV enthusiasts have wanted, at one point in their lives or another, to escape to the fictional worlds inhabited by their favourite television characters. Who wouldn’t want to share a booth at MacLaren’s with Barney Stinson, research the new “big bad” with the Scoobies, or travel through time and space with The Doctor? Yet despite the promise of adventure that these fictional worlds offer, there is one occasion on which you are better off in the real world – your birthday.
In TV land, birthdays are the testing ground for Murphy’s Law, the adage which states “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” At the best of times character birthdays pass unnoticed, or wacky but ultimately harmless hi-jinx ensue. At the worst, the character is put through the wringer with lasting consequences. One of these sub-sections of birthdays gone wrong even has its own TV trope , the “Ironic Birthday”. This occurs when:
“A character has had to make a tough decision or has just lost something of extreme value to him, and upon walking into a room is greeted with a surprise birthday party. This is not a celebration that makes everything all right; this is about the character having to pretend to enjoy what should be a happy time while secretly suffering.”
The example of this trope that sticks with me is Buffy’s seventeenth birthday, when she comes home to celebrate with her mother after her vampire boyfriend Angel loses his soul, taunts her mercilessly, and tries to burn the humanity out of the population of Sunnydale. Instead of making a wish, a melancholy Buffy lets the candle on her cupcake burn.
Although other shows have featured the birthday where everything goes wrong, Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the cake (excuse the pun). After watching her boyfriend become a monster on her seventeenth birthday, Buffy begins a pattern of birthdays where everything that can go wrong does. For her eighteenth, Buffy’s trusted watcher Giles drugs her in order to remove her slayer abilities, and an insane vampire kidnaps her mother. The following year an old foe turns Giles into a demon and an unknowing Buffy almost kills him. As the slayer enters her twenties, her sister Dawn discovers her origin as a ball of energy put into human form, and narrowly escapes the God searching for her, while season six sees Buffy and her party guests trapped in the Summers residence with a sword wielding demon, after Dawn wishes that people wouldn’t keep leaving her. Her latest birthday disaster causes Spike to ask Buffy if she had ever thought about “Maybe, not celebrating your birthday? Just try it, I mean.” Perhaps Buffy took his advice. The final season of the show didn’t feature a birthday episode for Buffy.
It’s easy to forget that Buffy wasn’t the only character on the show to have a birthday where everything went wrong. Tara’s birthday involved her family arriving in Sunnydale to convince her that she was a demon who had to leave behind her girlfriend, Willow, and her independence. In order to prevent the group from seeing the demon she believes she is, Tara casts a spell that makes all demons invisible, which renders the slayer unable to see her opponents. Fortunately, this birthday ends on a high note as Tara realizes who her real family are and is defended by Buffy and her friends.
Cult favourite Firefly, also created by Joss Whedon, features a TV land birthday as well. The birthday celebrations for Dr. Simon Tam are cut short when the engine room is engulfed in flames and life support is disabled, leaving them stranded with only a few hours of remaining oxygen.
Similarly, Isabel Evans begins her birthday with a party at the Crashdown Cafe in Roswell, but must abandon her party when she receives visions of fellow alien Tess in danger. Although Isabel rescues Tess from her kidnapper, she also finds out that in her past life on Antar she betrayed her family for love.
Sitcoms are not immune to the birthday curse. On his 30th Birthday Ted, upon finding out that Barney and Robin slept together, tells Barney that he no longer wants to be friends with him on the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. The following year, Ted’s architecture contract is passed over for Swedish rival Sven, and he has an infamous encounter with Missy the goat.
Yet it is Ted’s former flame Natalie who has a true TV land birthday when she is dumped by Ted through a message on her answering machine during a surprise birthday party. Three years later, when he decides to re-date her, he breaks up with her on her birthday once more.
I wasn’t looking for adventure, but a year ago I experienced the perils of a birthday fit for TV land. After an afternoon watching the excellent Queen musical “We Will Rock You”, my birthday quickly descended as our dinner waiter was stoned and we walked through the pouring rain to the movie theatre. By the end of the walk we were soaked, and upon arriving at the theatre we discovered that the movie had begun ten minutes earlier. Since there wasn’t another showing, I had to choose between my friends as some disbanded to a movie theatre closer to home while others, who I saw less regularly, had to remain in Toronto. Although the company was excellent, the night did go as planned and we can still remember the misery of being caught in that downpour.
This year I spent a quiet, but enjoyable, night in with my family. Sometimes not being a fictional character has its perks.