Tonight’s episode is proof that getting the whole ensemble together isn’t always the best idea. In “After the Fire,” the whole gang pitches in to help some neighbors, the Rands, who have lost their house in a fire. In the process of learning just how each of the branches of the Pritchett-Dunphy clan relate to the Rands, we find out that Jay and Gloria live close enough to be in the same school district (Manny and one of the Rand children go to school together), that Cam and Mitchell live just a block or so from the fire-gutted house (close enough to smell the smoke), and that Phil and Claire share a neighborhood with them (Claire organizes all the neighbors to provide clothes and supplies, and Phil finds them a house). This is by far the most intriguing aspect of the episode for me. And here I thought that the fact that they are always driving to each other’s houses, and the exterior styles of their houses being so different, meant that they were not in such close proximity! This calls my whole Modern Family universe into question. If you need me, I’ll be in the basement revising my maps.
Actually, there was another aspect of the episode that I treasured, and that’s the brief interlude where Alex saves the day by using her nerd-girl powers on a pack of nerd-bullies (“We can be both!”). She approaches the conflict over the helicopter that Manny and Luke lost and the bullies are refusing to return, letting her hair down with a flourish and flaunting her physics T-shirt. And they crumble at her advance: “Oh God, she knows your name!” one mutters in awe. Turns out she’s a fantasy object to the nerd crowd, and she knows how to use it; “Your fans will be working for my fans someday,” she crows to an astounded Haley.
Other than those moments, this was an episode crowded to Malthusian proportions with typical sitcom misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Claire resents Mitchell’s closeness with Gloria! Cam tries to prove gay stereotypes wrong by driving a truck! Phil wants to prove himself to Jay! Jay doesn’t want to get emotionally entangled with Phil! And that’s not even going into the several permutations of the Claire/Mitchell conflict, which involve both Oedipal and Electra complexes as well as sibling solidarity. There's even a heartwarming scene at the end where everybody gets to say what they'd grab in a fire, as if we didn't have enough conventions already on the pile. Really, the only one of the, like, six storylines that’s simple enough to fit in this overstuffed half-hour is the one where Luke and Manny convince themselves that the helicopter meant for the Rand kid is theirs by right because “He won’t even share his toys? Screw that guy!” and also because the fire proves that life is short and every moment needs to be seized.
I get a little thrill at Phil proving competent at something, though. Yes, he goes overboard with the burning sage (“Thank you,” he whispers to the ember as he sets it down), and his method of warming the oil in his pants (“Now to make sure that the oil is a perfect 98.6…”). But for once, his enthusiasm is earned; he’s a tremendous masseuse, and could have made a career of it if not for the siren song of real estate. Here’s hoping we see more of his massaging prowess and less of Claire’s constant jealousy of any life form that crosses her path. The latter is not only predictable, but dreadfully wearying.
- Jay notes proudly that the closet he installed in the Rand house was “the only structure to survive the fire.”
- Phil’s interaction with Jay is further complicated (yes, further!) by the defection of some agents from his office. “They took two secretaries and a tube dude!” he exclaims, setting off a mesmerizing sequence in which Gloria imitates a tube dude.
- Major props to the creative team for filming a sequence during the season opening shoot in Wyoming that’s used as a throwaway flashback for Jay’s worry about letting Phil help him out, which is based on the way Phil constantly brings up the one favor he ever did for Jay: hooking up a wireless printer. “If the printer breaks from here, I can fix it on my phone,” Phil says confidently on horseback with Jay riding pillion. “I can, but I won’t need to, because I fixed it forever.”
- “I have three kids, at least one of which is going to college. Worst case scenario, they all go.”