When our son graduated high school recently, we recognized a hero among his classmates: the young man who had come into our kitchen to hug our crying boy when a fifth-grade birthday party had gone hopelessly wrong.
We wanted to hug him back, because his act of good will had saved the day. After all, as any modern parent knows, birthday parties can be hell.
Just how awful was brought back to us in Channel 8's brilliant new series The Madness of Modern Families (Thursday, 21:45), which opened with a shot of a merry-go-round and the explanation that parenting nowadays is sort of like riding one. "Once you're spinning, a certain madness will descend," offers the deadpan narrator. "You just keep going 'round and 'round the bend ... forever."
With one parent describing it as "the annual exam," the program featured UK parents commenting about the awful challenge of the birthday party, and offering some of their worst horror stories.
"You're judged. It's like a dog show," said one, while another admitted that she was happy when her daughter was invited to three on the same day, meaning she could only go to one.
It was a hoot hearing the parents recounting the theme parties they've tried, reminding us of ones we'd tried as well. One mom recalled the shocked reaction of parents arriving to find their kids on the floor with a giant boa constrictor over them. Another mom recalled dressing up as Christopher Robin, with not one of the kids having any idea who she was supposed to be.
From the invitation list ("If your child was invited by another child, you must return the favor. It's an eye for an eye sort of thing.") to the food selection (with a reference to attempts at healthy snacks, featuring a piece of broccoli with a birthday candle stuck on top of it), the series never takes itself too seriously. But it's uncanny how spot on it is, whether observing that the food the kids like best is the stuff "with additives so powerful they can lead to a lifetime of deviant behavior" or noting how the parents often end up hanging around in your house, eating your food and drinking your liquor.
Our favorite was the father who'd decided to tell a story about a talking hamster, holding the furry critter in his hands as he did. How was he to know that he was being upstaged by a little guest standing behind him making choking sounds yelling: "I've eaten peanuts!" The story was ruined, but it turned out the boy wasn't allergic to peanuts - he just didn't like them very much.
Entertainment for the parties is also examined, with one father noting that frequently, the same performer turned up at several parties. "It's a bit like sleeping with the same women when you're at college," he mused. Another recalled a fire swallower who kept setting off the smoke detectors at the local pizza place hosting the party.
"The day of the birthday party is the most stressful day of my entire year," offered one dad, as the parents prepared to discuss the most awful moment of all, the one that set off our son all those years ago: Pass the Parcel.
"Moon landings require less skill than that," one dad recalled, before the entertaining BBC 2 series moved on to the next issue - the party bag - described as "the window on the soul of humanity" by one harried parent.
"The children have chucked their last cupcake and the taxi has removed the inebriated," intoned the narrator as the episode ran down, not before reveaing that some parents had had the cheek to go abroad simply to avoid having to throw a birthday party for their kid.
We'd never do that, although going into the Witness Protection Program has seemed like a good option some years. With a bat mitzva ahead, Lord knows how we'll survive, but for a look at parenting that's both tongue-in-cheek and absolutely accurate, The Madness of Modern Families is more fun than a roomful of birthday balloons.
With our season of asking forgiveness almost up - this is being written just before Hoshana Raba, traditionally the last day on which to confess one's sins - we 'fess up to messing up badly in a recent review.
Our Blood Ties write-up mistakenly identified the vampire
character, whose actual name is Henry, we were reminded by angry fans of the show who wrote in to complain. Turns out that watching the second part of the two-part pilot would also have explained some other things that we didn't quite get right.
Having vampire fans angry at us is not the way we want to start off the new year, so while we still can't say Blood Ties is for us, we're sorry we made a bloody mess of that information.
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