Modern Family becomes a high-wire act when it separates its characters into three storylines with no overlap between them. Without a nifty structure to string together the disparate plots, the parts get more scrutiny, because they aren't contributing to a greater whole, and in latter-day Modern Family, those parts are often middling on their own. Such was the case with “ClosetCon ‘13,” a shambling episode with a smattering of funny lines and a sequence that worked far better than it should have, but without a ton of meat on its bones.
I was prepared to like “ClosetCon” from its opening scene, in which Jay and Claire check into the hotel for the titular convention, where all the power players in the cutthroat, high-intrigue closet game come to intimidate their lessers. The prospect of Claire in this setting was exciting because it seemed as though the writers were about to go somewhere different with a character whose Type-A lunacy typically makes her the object of ridicule by her family and the audience alike. Once the convention trip was framed as an odd-couple pairing of the jaded veteran and the wide-eyed rookie, it seemed like a prime opportunity to present the rare situation in which Claire's fastidiousness and enthusiasm would work to her advantage.
The episode played it differently, though, leaning on the old joke of any professional convention quickly devolving into a full-blown orgy, after which you wake up in bed with a vendor rep nuzzling each side of your neck and a vague recollection of puking in your commemorative tote. It’s a funny idea if you’ve never heard it before, and perhaps I’m overestimating the degree to which that's a well-saturated joke, because I still remember the sage words a professional mentor gave me before I first attended my first National Association of Black Journalists convention: “If you can’t get laid at NABJ, just go ahead and join a monastery, because if it won’t happen there, it won’t happen anywhere.” But if you’ve heard the joke, it seems a bit stale as a sitcom set-up, with the conflict stemming from Claire’s suspicion that Jay might have cheated on DeDe in conventions past.
The issue with using Jay's suspected infidelity as the complication is that it isn't much of a complication; Claire makes pretty clear up front that, as one would expect given the characters’ histories together, she’s never been all that fond of her mother, and would understand if Jay had strayed during their marriage. It wasn’t a bombshell that had the potential to upend everything Claire thought she knew about her parents, so it was a bit inert. Of course, after Claire overheard the wrong conversation fragments, she believed it to be true, only to find out later Jay was hiding another secret: He had tried to get Phil a job out of the area in order to keep Claire and Phil apart. Again, it's no big shock that Jay, who has made no effort to hide his impatience with Phil, would have tried to derail their relationship in the past. Naturally, Claire doesn't see it this way, so she initiates MegaShrew mode as she so often does.
My problem is not only that this plot is so vanilla, or that it only serves to move two pieces slightly before moving them right back, it’s also that more closet minutiae would have made it funnier. One of the best lines was a convention throwaway, with Jay giving Claire the back-story on a colleague at the bar: “He took a bath on automated closets. No one’s ready for that yet.” I suspect I'm comparing “ClosetCon” to the U.S. Office’s “The Convention,” and it’s completely unfair to compare a currently airing sitcom in something of a creative slump to the glory days of Dunder-Mifflin. That said, what works about “The Convention” is that it allows Michael Scott to be the heel and the hero. Claire doesn't get that opportunity nearly enough, and I hope the “Claire works with Jay” subplot produces more than further opportunities for her to be needy and shrill.
Miles away, Mitch and Cam are in Missouri visiting Cam’s family farm, and Cam has to play straight for his grandmother, who was never let in on his sexuality. This too feels like a plot retread, but I granted it a pass because it’s a scenario that plays out so often in families of gays and lesbians. There’s always one family member about whom everyone thinks “Surely, someone else will tell him,” and no one ever gets around to it.
But besides its relatability, it offered up more opportunities for Lily to spike her one-liners. Her folksy, plaintive “Y'all fightin'?” was one of the episode's biggest laughs for me. Aubrey Anderson-Emmons is nailing it, but Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd also deserve credit for Lily’s ascent; because the character has been part of the show since its inception, there was a smooth transition from Luke to Lily as the show's fountain of precocious bon mots. (And there’s no rockier a transition in a long-running family sitcom than the Passing of the Cute Kid Torch.)
The rest of the clan is at Jay and Gloria’s house preparing to head out for dinner when Phil finds the door to Jay's secret tchotchke closet ajar, and what would you know, clumsy Phil winds up breaking Jay's decades-old Apollo 13 model. Thus begins one of Modern Family‘s many cinematic homages, and “A Fair To Remember” might have taken a bit of the heat off the ball with Jordan Peele and Ed O'Neill as racially-diverse buddy cops. Plus, as far as this thing goes, the show may never manage to top its nod to The Godfather.
Much of the plot felt tossed together, and it also sort of undermined the Claire and Jay story, as this particular faux pas—Phil mucking things up due to his inability to observe personal boundaries—is exactly the kind of behavior that had Jay acting as Phil’s employment concierge years earlier. But I giggled at Gloria's "Houston’s, we have a situation," mostly because I often admire the groundwork the Modern Family writers are willing to do to set up one killer line. (“The Gift of the Vagi” is another example that comes to mind.)
Not to mention, the final montage was deftly assembled, and made me laugh in spite of its obviousness. Given that the Modern Family team seems unwilling to tinker with the formula, we can only hope for these increasingly rare examples of the show delivering in laughs what it lacks in daring.
- Fred Willard was back as mission control for Phil’s failed invasion-of-personal-space mission. Notably, he says goodbye to Jeannie as she’s letting herself out. Is that a fledgling relationship or just a successfully extended contract? This needs to be a web series.
- I also liked the Houston’s line because I like Houston’s. The spinach dip is delicious, and they keep it as dark as a dive bar, which makes a rube like me feel like a fancy grown-up at dinner.