"Benched" is about naked desire ... the kind that everybody can see except the people closest to you. I think there's a great theme in there somewhere, but this episode stumbled. Clumsy exposition, inconsistent timing, and a lost opportunity at a big setpiece mean this one counts as middling at best for Modern Family.
Phil's desire is to be the man of the house, but Jay grabs the scepter at every opportunity, starting with micromanaging the steaks on the grill in the first act. When Phil decides to confront the abusive coach of Luke and Manny's kiddie basketball team (the Little Dribblers!), Jay takes over that job, and then relegates Phil to assistant coach after the yelly dude takes a powder. "Phil, I coached football," he explains condescendingly, then turns to his new young charges: "Okay, boys, we're going to hit 'em and we're going to hit 'em hard!" "I sleep with your daughter," Phil mumbles passive-aggressively.
Mitchell and Cam have that only-in-a-sitcom problem of conflicting desires that they hide from each other. Mitchell wants to go back to work rather than stay home "and plot the death of Dora the Explorer," but can't tell Cam because it's his turn to enjoy the world of work. Cam just wants to get back to being a "stay-at-home dad slash trophy wife" and bonding with Lily, but he wants to support Mitchell in his new role. Even though you knew it was coming, Cam's delivery of the "I am in a really dark space ..." confessional was one of the episode's highlights. When Mitchell reluctantly/eagerly calls a major environmental donor on a tip from his dad, their pretense overflows into bumbling tension, snippiness, and social gaffes.
And Claire and Gloria's mutual desire is to return to simpler days. "I miss babies; they never tell you to go away," Gloria says. Manny sent her away from the basketball game for embarrassing him, heedless of her promise to stay quiet ("we both know that your Latin blood makes that impossible"). And Alex ditched Claire at the mall for the crime of being her mom. The rejected mothers fight over Lily, whose prelingual willingness to be shopped for makes her the ideal antidote to their thoughtless children.
I wish there had been more of the basketball game. C'mon, there can never be too many cutaways to Manny ducking to avoid a pass, or being hit in the head by the ball. And wouldn't a little more contrast between their coaching styles have been welcome? "Everybody dies, boys, let's focus on what's important!" But the intercutting between the three simultaneous stories made it impossible for the game to get the momentum it needed to make that ending -- where Manny sets the pick, gets the bounce pass, and whiff the shot -- really work.
And maybe I'm personally too sensitive to awkward parties and job interviews, but I was too busy worrying about Mitchell and Cam at the beach house to laugh much. Especially when they were breaking stuff. Thank goodness that rich enviro-guy took the pressure off by being a bit of a douche ("Hey Jenny, the beard is on!" he shouts to his girlfriend after asking Mitchell's professional advice about facial hair). But that whole scene was too Curb Your Enthusiasm for me to feel comfortable. And while Alex deserved what her mother did to her at the end (although Manny didn't deserve his treatment in the epilogue), it was so mean ... and even a little bitter.
Heck, even Cam's knocking over expensive knick-knacks took place off-camera. If I can't have my feel-good group hug ending, guys, can I at least have my physical comedy?
- Phil explains to late-arriving Mitchell the situation on the sidelines: "Your dad coached football." "Ah, a fellow victim," Mitchell realizes.
- The director went back to the blubbering-Cam-confessional well once too often, I thought. However, Phil trying to fix Claire's despair about Alex's teenage behavior -- "I think I can help: You're not your mom" -- couldn't have been more right on. "Wow, that's your mom," he exclaims after her withering look. "I just got chills!"
- "It's a uniquely frustrating group of boys."
- "Well, she did lose interest ..."