Which Sitcom Did Leap Day Best?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 1 2012 11:08 AM

Which Sitcom Did Leap Day Best?

Still from 30 Rock episode "Leap Day"
Still from the 30 Rock episode "Leap Day."

Photo by Ali Goldstein/NBC

As Christine Becker tweeted late in 2012’s bonus day, the Brits may have their awesome Christmas specials, but at least we Americans are well supplied with Leap Day shows. This year, at least four U.S. sitcoms—30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, The Middle, and Modern Family—celebrated Feb. 29 with very special episodes. Who handled it the best?

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. Follow her on Twitter.

That’s easy. 30 Rock created a brand new holiday that will surely take its place alongside Festivus and Chrismukkah, festivities invented from whole cloth that are celebrated long after Seinfeld and The O.C. went off the air. Just six days after “Leap Day” was first broadcast, a surprising number of real-life New Yorkers were spotted wearing yellow and blue, the colors worn by Leap Day William when he emerges from the Mariana Trench every Feb. 29 to exchange children’s tears for candy.

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None of the other shows had the ambition to create an entirely new tradition; instead they each focused on a character celebrating a Leap Day birthday.

In Parks & Rec, poor, put-upon Jerry was the birthday boy. He’s a credible Leaper. What else but years of skipped celebrations—it’s not technically your birthday, they would’ve told him—could create a guy so patient and forbearing. In last Thursday’s episode, Ron Swanson attempted to convince Leslie Knope that she needed to take a sabbatical from her job at the parks department, because running for Pawnee City Council was stretching her too thin, allowing key tasks to fall through the cracks. It was only when she forgot to invite Jerry to the surprise “Sweet 16” birthday party she’d organized for him—and then got delayed by campaign tasks, only delivering him to the bash after all the guests had gone to bed—that Leslie realized Ron was right. True to form, modest, much-abused Jerry insisted that his irregular birthday was easy to overlook. “Let’s face it, it’s a tough one to remember.”

In The Middle, Sue Heck—the most enthusiastic, optimistic character on television—refused to believe her mom’s repeated assurances that she would not be getting a surprise party. “You regular birthday’d don’t understand what it’s like for us Leapers,” Sue told her. Mom Frankie was true to her word. There was no surprise party. In fact, thanks to the endless distractions of work and family, everyone forgot Sue’s birthday completely. When Frankie remembered in the middle of the night— “It’s Leap Year. We don’t usually have this day” was her excuse—the family rapidly assembled a makeshift celebration that convinced the ever-credulous Sue that the 4 a.m. festivities were the surprise she’d be longing for.

Over on Modern Family, Cameron turned 10—or so he insisted—and he was also the kind of Leaper who insists on a massive party. Naturally, though, this being Modern Family, everything went wrong. In the wake of two disastrous attempts to mark the momentous day appropriately, Cam’s partner Mitchell realized that his birthday mania wasn’t really about wanting an elaborate commemoration; Cam was simply in denial about turning 40. The setup did allow for one of the series’ more risqué jokes. When the family found themselves celebrating the birthday at a fairground, Mitchell comforted Cam by telling him he was really just 10. “In fact, you’re still that sexy little eight-year-old I fell in love with.” As they embraced, the mom of a little kid standing next to them at the rifle stand pulled her son away in alarm.

Even Olympic Games come around every two years now, so I salute these shows for jumping on a quadrennial event that hasn’t gotten much attention in the past. It’s a little odd to see so many shows tackle the same subject, but you can’t blame them. As Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope pointed out, Jerry may not be around for his 17th birthday, and although viewers might not like to face it, given the life span of a TV show, it’s unlikely that any of these characters will get to celebrate another Leap Day birthday.

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30 ROCK -- "Leap Day" Episode 609 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jack McBrayer as Kenneth Parcell, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy -- Photo by: (Ali Goldstein/NBC)

Ali Goldstein