(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
At this point in its run, Modern Family isn’t really a sitcom anymore. I mean, obviously, it’s still a sitcom. But because of its place as one of TV’s undisputed comedy kings, and because it’s won the last three Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, the thing has become an institution. And it’s rare for an institution to be all that risky or to push too many boundaries. So Modern Family is a sitcom, sure, but it’s also one that has to stay as close as possible every week to what works, lest it stray too far from the stories and characterizations that work, lest it end up in some place where it alienates its massive audience.
I’m trying hard to not make this a bad thing. One of the nice things about TV institutions can be just how professional everything is, how clear it is that you’re in the hands of master craftsmen. The shows that jump all over the place and try new things every week, they can be a little uneven at best and impersonal at worst. Institutions, meanwhile, offer up a rather limited range of options, but within that range, they really know their shit. Cheers is one of my favorite shows ever made, but for most of its life, it was a TV institution, telling stories within a very limited range and trying its best not to rock the boat, even as it put Sam and Diane (or Sam and Rebecca) together, then tore them apart again. (See, rocky romances were a part of the franchise, so Cheers could get away with them.) There’s a certain comfort in seeing a show where you kind of know what you’re going to get, and those types of hit shows are far more typical than the Seinfelds of the world, where the show becomes popular because it keeps pushing at envelopes.
The series Modern Family reminds me most of in this regard is The Cosby Show. Like that earlier show, Modern Family had a surprisingly big breakout season, for which it won the Emmy and critical plaudits for being groundbreaking in depicting a minority group as just another part of the big, American tapestry. After that, it declined slightly and went through some bumpy times, before settling onto a rough plateau where it more or less sat for several seasons. Modern Family very rarely produces A or A- episodes anymore, but this season in particular, it rarely produces episodes that fall beneath a B- either. It knows exactly what it does well, and it performs at that level almost ruthlessly. Just as Cosby had its go-to jokes—and always left a little time for its star to riff—so, too, does Modern Family have its stable of gags—and it always leaves time for Ty Burrell to perform some pratfalls. Modern Family gets shit all the time for playing it safe, but I think it’s important to note just how hard it is to create a show that plays it safe but is still mostly satisfying. Hell, this show had a lot of trouble with just that in its third season, but its fourth season has been an improvement in most ways.
And, look, even if it’s not the most innovative show on TV, it’s still a fairly safe way for the things other innovative shows do to filter out to the broader public audience. I didn’t laugh uproariously at the process by which Jay ended up telling Gloria that he’d cut baby Joe’s hair—which involved (and I’ll almost certainly miss a step or two here) Mitchell agreeing to go to Missouri with Cameron, Cam giving Manny the solo he wanted, Manny forging Phil’s signature to acknowledge a bad grade for Luke, then Luke promising not to tell on Jay for calling in a ringer in his bowling match against Closets Closets Closets Closets (be sure not to stick the fifth Closets on there)—but I did smile a lot, and I liked that the show was trying it at all, particularly in a deftly edited little sequence of gags. I thought the episode’s heartwarming conclusion—where Phil and Claire reaffirm their love for each other (or, at least, their love for all their stuff)—had come a little early, so I was delighted to see that the show was closing with a very fun comedic sequence, instead of yet another heartwarming voiceover. (The show has actually pulled back on these in recent years, but they pop up often enough—and the hint of one popped up here, though it was quickly undercut by the “reveal” that Gloria had gone to the spa, something I hope everybody reading this saw coming from miles away—that it’s still easy to slag on them.)
The storytelling, such as it is, ends up being a little cluttered, which is the story of the show now that it feels the need to have full stories for all three families in every episode. (In this episode, at least, Alex and Haley don’t turn up until the tag, for some agreeable physical comedy.) Mitch and Cam continue to be basically two giant, walking stereotypes, to the degree where their tie into ABC’s big “Oscar” theme night—which popped up on the other three comedies airing—involves dressing Lily up as various starlets to photograph her. (Hey, at least Mitch realizes they’re a cliché.) But the show has also course-corrected with these two just enough to offer them a handful of good one-liners every week, so it’s never too objectionable to realize they’re basically sidekicks from an NBC workplace sitcom that launched in 1998. My favorite tonight involved Cameron talking about how, like a hobo’s body in the woods, Joe had been discovered, but the two get plenty of good jokes each week, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet have an easy, bantering chemistry. Plus, the big plot point here—that Joe gets a wig glued to his head—was driven by Lily doing the awful thing, when you just know Cam would have back in season two (and not just because Lily was a baby back then).
The Jay and Manny storyline is basically irrelevant here, though the conclusion where Jay drives alongside Manny on the bus and encourages him to overcome his stage fright by singing is probably the episode’s most genuinely heartwarming moment. (The show can make these moments feel forced, but it earns a surprising number of them.) On the other hand, the center of the episode involves Claire and Phil going to her college reunion—well, Phil surprises her there—and running into an ex-flame of hers who just happens to be her former professor. Now, there’s no danger of Claire leaving Phil for an old flame, so the conflict is nonexistent, but the whole thing is mostly an excuse for Burrell to fall over a bunch, which he does with aplomb.
Or, rather, it seems like that’s what the story’s an excuse for until the professor’s wife turns up and rants about how he doesn’t make enough money to buy her things, and Claire leaves the party with Phil, grateful that her husband can buy her stuff. It’s a really weird, sour note to leave the storyline on, but it’s of a piece with the show’s basic relationship to consumerism, which is as if the show is saying, “Hey, everybody involved in this show has lots of money because they’re on a massive, hit TV show! Aren’t you, too?” This is a show that used to have certain tensions inherent in it, but as it’s moved toward becoming an institution, those have disappeared. And while that’s fine in some ways, it also leads to some weird moments in any given episode, and this was one of the weirdest. That’s the thing about being an institution: You rarely make anything that will ruffle anyone’s feathers for any particular reason, but you’re also sort of hemmed in by your own closed-off point-of-view. The institution must be protected at all costs, and at certain points, it becomes difficult to remember how things are on the outside.
- I’m all but certain I’m going to miss some big guest stars who were in this because my Slingbox is so terrible. But I could swear I knew who the actor who played Tater was. I could be mistaken.
- I would definitely watch a full episode of Phil and Jay bowling together. Consider this an open story submission, Modern Family writers.
- She has been a cast member for a season and a half now, and I am still not used to second Lily.
- This almost goes without saying at this point, but the three Dunphy kids are the most reliable laugh generators for me at this point in the show's run.
- I’m giving this a “B,” because while I could easily see going lower, the experience of Modern Family, like the experience of watching The Big Bang Theory, is essentially an exercise in watching largely non-objectionable, well-executed television comedy. The show aims to be a “B,” and it pulls it off quite well.