Modern Family: “Australia”
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Modern Family: “Australia”

Putting the ‘aww’ in…well, y’know

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Modern Family

"Australia"

Season 5, Episode 20
C-

Modern Family

"Australia"

Season 5, Episode 20

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At the risk of sounding incredibly cynical, has anyone else ever gotten the impression that television producers shoehorn their narratives into whatever far-flung destination they’ve chosen for their next vacation? “Australia” demands an answer to that question, refusing to justify its existence to the audience, or at least the members of the audience who don’t hold a personal stake in the health of Sydney’s tourism industry.

This episode of Modern Family had to take a toll on those who were already fed up with “Las Vegas” for the brazenness of its destination pimping. “Australia” doubles down under with its shameless promotion of Sydney, its bridges, its wildlife reserves, its sick-making yeast goo, and its most well-worn pop culture references and catchphrases. And compared to “Las Vegas,” which at the very least belongs on a shortlist of the season’s best episodes, “Australia” doesn’t have half the structural brio and perhaps even less of the jokes. “Las Vegas” was classic, cleverly executed sitcom with Sin City as its backdrop. “Australia” is Modern Family plus Australia.

What makes “Australia” even more frustrating an episode is that it isn’t without its charms. It lands some decent, if intermittent jokes, and while Elaine Ko and Danny Zuker’s script isn’t a structural marvel, it’s quietly elegant. Given how often Modern Family’s minor plots feel half-formed to an episode’s detriment, it’s no small feat that “Australia” managed to successfully split the family into even more factions than usual. And while there is a clear hierarchy among the plots, each one felt well-conceived, if not necessarily satisfying. It’s often a visually nifty episode too, directed by co-creator Steven Levitan, who clearly had a great time figuring out how best to shoot Luke’s underwater boner mishap.

Despite those selling points, “Australia” never manages to feel like something more than an episode of Modern Family that began with someone saying “We’re shooting on location in Sydney; make it so. Put ‘em in Sydney somehow. Hell, make it a dream sequence if you want to. I don’t care about internal logic or adherence to format. I care about kangaroos.”

The info dump in the opening scene is quite a mouthful, with Phil explaining he was conceived in Sydney or something, so his late mother left him money to take a trip to the city where his parents got lucky, and the whole family decided to tag along. Sigh. Fine, whatever, but it must be said that this barely makes sense as a trip for Phil, let alone the entire family. I guess the kids would have been upset about missing two wacky vacations in a row though.

The episode’s engine is Claire and Jay contriving ways to sneak away from Phil and Gloria to work on a bid for a big job that will otherwise go to their sworn enemies over at Closets Closets Closets Closets. There’s a decent emotional payoff as Jay realizes he’s gotten a second chance to vacation with the daughter he had put second to building a successful business. But I didn’t find Phil’s escalating mishaps particularly funny, maybe because there was so much direct acknowledgment of how many unpleasant mishaps he was having.

Mitch and Cam provide their weekly dose of awfulness, this time developing an instant connection with their estranged, irritating friend Fergus upon finding out he’s a local celebrity along with all the perks that usually entails. Classy gays, those two. Classy, indeed. Rhys Darby nails the affable talk show host, whose greatest crime is poor vocal modulation and probably lying about Hugh Jackman’s boat. But the very idea of the story is just so goofy that I could never get past it. The story might have worked better with a stateside setting, so I didn’t have to first swallow this wispy backstory about why Mitch and Cam have a frenemy in Australia.

The stuff with the kids was cute on the fringes, with Luke and Manny sneaking off to a topless beach, while Alex brainstormed on her college admission essay and Haley overplayed her vacation hook-up hand.

The broad problem with the whole episode is that it’s like the writers tried to shoehorn every Australian reference they could come up with into the script, and at a certain point it took me out of the story, because by the time I was introduced to “Crocodile Dunphy,” I could barely hear the TV over the sound of gears turning. (I’ll admit though, I did laugh at “A wild dog took my laptop.”)

I’m all for a Modern Family vacation, but hopefully Levitan will decide he wants to visit someplace less intrusive.

Stray observations:

  • Luke on boobs: “I think I could have handled one, but they ganged up on me.”
  • I think the tag should have been a PSA from Nolan Gould and Rico Rodriguez, warning kids of the dangers of leaving your group with random-ass grown men who invite you to go on a walkabout.
  • I loved Lily’s dig at Haley. “Lily, what did I just say?” “I don’t know, something about shoes probably?” 

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