Sometimes, Modern Family goes to the trouble of supplying each of its sets of characters a subplot of their very own, which may not have much to do with what the other characters are up to, at least until the concluding voiceover that explains the thematic connections. The plots may be contrived or cartoonish, but even so, one appreciates that the writers made an effort. Sometimes, as in the recent episode about Jay’s eagerness to have a family dinner at a restaurant where he planned to gorge himself on what Gloria referred to as “drunk cow,” the whole point is just to get everyone together so that their individual quirks and pet peeves and bottled-up resentments can start chewing on each other, which is usually a destination worth getting to. Tonight’s episode might as well be titled “The Gang Goes To A Fair.” Here’s the plot: Everybody goes to a goddamn fair. Once they get there, they split up and go their separate ways. It all makes for the lamest of both worlds, though the actors do as much of the writers’ work for them as they can.
It’s Jay, a man it is hard to imagine much wanting to spend the day licking cotton candy and hanging out at the petting zoo, who gets to interact with tonight’s special guest comedian, Jordan Peele. The two of them have a hoary meet-cute scene in which they’re both wedged halfway into the same parking space, with neither inclined to give an inch; it’s at least partially redeemed by Peele’s and Ed O’Neill’s way with a put-down. (“I got all day and satellite radio,” O’Neill sings out. “I don’t care if parking here is on your bucket list,” replies Peele.) Once they’re both inside the fairgrounds, it turns out that wacky Gloria has signed Jay up as a “fair cop.”
“It’s for charity,” explains the McLovin wannabe who hands him his police cap and props. “People pay for you to arrest and throw someone in jail for 10 minutes.” Anyone ever hear of this before? Is it a real thing? It seems like a surefire way to guarantee an icy ride home with whomever you’ve had jailed, but maybe I just don’t understand how fun works. Peele is, three guesses, Jay’s fair-cop partner. They warm up to each other, but not until after Peele tells Jay that he “looks like some kind of old washed-up golf pro who drank himself off the tour and is one step away from writing a suicide note with one of those little pencils.” Maybe this just struck me as funny because I have a feeling that, in Jay’s world, it just might be a compliment.
If one of the storylines is meant to be the A-plot, in terms of importance and emotional impact, it’s probably the one about it being Phil and Claire’s anniversary, an event that seems to come with greater frequency every year as this show progresses into its dotage. Phil is psyched because he’s planning to jump onstage with a band called the Dad Beats and serenade Claire, perhaps with one of his own compositions. (“She’s a pretty sight/ Wise as a Buddha/ But brother, watch that bite/ ‘Cause she’s a Claire-accuda!”) Claire, meanwhile, is tense with anxiety because she is hoping to break her tradition of giving Phil bad anniversary gifts. Her plan is complicated when Phil playfully arranges for Jay to “arrest” her. In the end, though, she is able to delight her husband with her uncharacteristically whimsical offering of Chinese acrobats cavorting on their front lawn. “Oh my God,” Phil cries, “Chinese acrobats!” A lot of actors would be so thrilled to get to say a line like that, they’d think that inflecting it would be gravy, but Ty Burrell sends it into home plate by letting his voice sail up a few octaves. You don’t get four Emmy nominations for just standing there.
If Claire seems to have swapped personalities with someone for this episode, that can be preferable to being stuck repeating the things you’ve done a hundred times. Manny arrives at the fair toting an enormous cake that he’s entered in a baking contest. Midway through the episode, Gloria, as she patiently explains in voiceover, is seized by a fear that her little boy, because of his un-macho creative interests, will never fit in with other kids his age. It’s as if she had some kind of brain tumor, whose symptoms include flashing back to previous episodes in which she did something zany because of this very fear, except that in those episodes there was a little more preparation for it. So when Manny isn’t looking, she sabotages his cake.
Manny thinks the culprit is another contestant named Enid and plots revenge, thus providing Rico Rodriguez an excuse to say, “Wait till I smash this thing on Enid’s piece of sheet cake.” Gloria confesses, and says “I think I worry more about you fitting in than you do,” to Manny, who for some reason does not reply, “No duh, Mom, we’ve established that all the other times that’s been your motivation for freaking out on me. I think maybe you should see somebody.” Happily, Cameron happens to detect Manny’s fighting spirit and drafts him to join the football team he’s been coaching into the ground. The team wins for the first time with Cam at the helm, Jay is pleased that Manny has succeeded at something male-oriented, and a couple of things in this episode actually tie together.
Not for the first time, everything to do with the Dunphy kids amounts to waste motion. There’s a little promise in the set-up of Alex wanting to solidify her blossoming friendship with a new girl at her school before the girl finds out that Alex is a social leper, while Luke complicates things by developing a crush on the girl. It’s over before it gets developed, though. (That said, I did laugh when Luke, competing with his sister for the girl’s attentions, cried out, “She’s a nerd! Her friends are books!”) All the darkroom technicians in the world couldn’t develop the off-site story about Haley barging into Jay and Gloria’s house and meeting Adam DeVine, still hanging in there as the new male nanny. The show seems to be toying with the idea of letting an attraction develop between them, which would be creepy even if the guy in that equation weren’t Adam DeVine, because of the age difference. As it is, it’s doubly creepy, because, Adam DeVine. If the show is looking to raid Comedy Central to pump in some new blood, it would better much off having Jordan Peele and Jay become drinking buddies.