Basically, there are three ways to approach birthdays: 1. ignore them, 2. quietly celebrate over dinner with family and/or a few besties, or 3. have an extended, carefully choreographed affair. Fortunately, for Portlandia viewers, Nina (Fred Armisen) and her reluctant boyfriend Lance (Carrie Brownstein) decide on celebrating her 32nd birthday in a big way, leading to lots of sadly familiar and laughable situations along the way.
Three weeks ahead of the big day, Nina wakes Lance up to discuss ideas she’s bookmarked in Birthday Magazine. She sends out the party Evite with a detailed itinerary, beginning at 5:30 a.m. with a pre-dawn horseback ride, crafting sessions, a disco nap break, another horseback ride with mariachis ($15), a poker tournament with a $200 buy-in and a tapas dinner. The Evite suggests partygoers bring sunscreen, hats, coats, sundries, lots of cash and absolutely no kids.
The celebratory theme runs through most of the sketches, uniting both regular characters and guests, leading to one of the more cohesive Portlandia episodes we’ve seen in a while. Comedian Patton Oswalt stars as Thor83, a habitual RSVPer who’s earned a rep for being the guy with the best Evite replies. (He responds to Nina’s Evite with a “+97.”) At a coffee shop, he pushes himself past a bout of writer’s block: “You have invented the world of funny Evite replies…now rule your kingdom.” When approached by fans Fred and Carrie, he tells them that he’s going to RSVP Fest this year and can get them wristbands, and, no, he doesn’t go to any of the parties.
Other guests in this week’s episode are just as good. Maria Thayer (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and SNL writer Mike O’Brien star as a couple who are short on funds and have too many friends with birthdays this month. They can’t possibly miss Nina’s party, and decide to go to dinner only since “tapas are small plates but they cost as much as a normal plate.” (No truer words have been spoken!)
They run down their options for attending the party and end up talking to a bank’s Birthday Loan Officer, played by the hilarious comic Kumail Nanjiani. He offers them a loan with 6.5* percent interest and tells them that the asterisk means they round the loan up to eight percent.” (6.5* percent is just the name of the loan.)
“Nina’s Birthday” is filled with great characters, including the ever-annoying Dave and Kath, just back from a trip to Spain and only too happy to show off their knowledge of Spanish cuisine and culture. They help ensure that everything at the tapas dinner is authentic—from ragging on the choice of pinot not a rioja with dinner to even showing the chef how the food is really prepared in España.
“Nina’s Birthday” works well because the situations and characters are all too familiar. Who hasn’t been to a birthday dinner when there’s that awkward moment when the bill comes, leaving the guests to figure out who drank, who ate more and how much everyone owes. And haven’t we all been invited to a birthday where the celebrant makes his/her friends participate in activities that no one wants to do? And don’t get us started on splitting tabs at group dinners.
Even without big MTV stunts (OK, there’s one at the end with No Doubt), this episode is our favorite of the young third season because Portlandia does what it does best: it dissects the first world problem of birthday planning, makes a total mockery of it and then holds the mirror to our faces. We laughed at the misadventures and then ourselves because it’s all too true.