There’s no good reason that “Best Men,” the 86th episode of Modern Family, is the first full half-hour of the series I’ve ever seen. I can recall the buzz around its first season, the favorable comparisons to Arrested Development—but I had limited time for new shows then, and 2009 was the fall of Community’s première and Parks And Recreation’s blossoming, so the faux-documentary about the new normal (hey, that’d be a good name for a show) for the American family wasn’t a high priority. And then the thing started gobbling up awards and Nielsen victories at the same time critical consensus suggested it peaked early, so I figured I just catch up with the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker-Delgados in syndication. That seemed like the best way to digest the other megahit sitcoms of the era: Flattening the highs and lows of How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory into something you can watch at the gym or over a laundry basket makes for a great way to get the feel of the biggest TV comedies of the past five years.
Modern Family won’t hit syndication numbers until the end of its fourth season, but if “Best Men” is any indication, it’s already arrived at a point where the barriers to entry are lowered and the casual viewer can jump in on any given Wednesday night. (Or weekday afternoon, come fall 2013.) It’s the type of episode that’s difficult not to damn with faint praise; adjectives on the “competent” spectrum leap most immediately to mind: “Slickly directed,” “capably acted,” “adequately written.” It neither justifies an ongoing ignorance of the show, nor does it suggest that I’ve been missing anything. There are some big laughs—that Ty Burrell sure has a long career of bumbling and stumbling ahead of him, huh?—and heartwarming moments—it’s neat how the wedding vows from Elizabeth Banks’ character end up reflecting positively on Cam and Mitchell’s relationship—but otherwise, it’s just sort of there.
And that’s kind of the point of a hit comedy rounding the bend toward its fifth season and big, fat syndication paychecks. You can sense the complacency of previous shows that have hit this milestone while hanging on to a big chunk of the ratings pie: Aside from the look on Eric Stonestreet’s face that suggests the sound of wedding bells in the distance, there doesn’t appear to be any rush to shake up the show’s Etch A Sketch. Tonight’s episode betrays the show’s age in the way it feints toward small developments like a Pritchett-Tucker wedding or the evolution of younger Dunphy daughter Alex. Modern Family is a show that hasn’t exhausted all of its potential storylines, but it’s also a show that’s most comfortable rearranging the deck chairs for episodic larfs.
To that end, “Best Men” largely plugs character combos into pre-fab sitcom plots. Banks’ barely reformed party girl/bride-to-be gets cold feet, prompting some coaxing and coaching from Cam and Mitchell. (It feels like I’m typing “Cam and Mitchell” a lot in this review—does Modern Family usually go to greater lengths to not treat Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a single unit?) Manny develops an age-inappropriate crush on his baby brother’s nanny, affections innocently channeled through tasteful nudes and candlelit pizza dinners. Claire and Haley fail to understand one another, before both failing to understand Alex. Phil plays Cyrano De Bergerac for Luke, thus initiating a mini-farce in which he initiates a “date” with the mother of Luke’s romantic interest. It all feels rote yet specially attuned to the sensibilities and strengths of these characters and actors. For example, Banks plays TV’s umpteen-hundredth variation on the reluctant bride, yet she’s employed in the service affirming and reinforcing the distinct, shelf-papering-at-10-p.m. bond between one of Modern Family’s central couples.
Of course, from a storytelling perspective, “Best Men” is absurdly overstuffed. I gather from recent reviews that this has become the norm for Modern Family circa 2013, and it necessitates a pacing that’s not so much efficient as it is breathless. The resolution to the wedding plot seems particularly willed out of thin air, while Haley’s sudden return to the coffee shop, while touching, removes some of the necessary sting of her decision to ditch Claire with the Electric Light D’orchestra. There’s no real sense of hierarchy to any of the proceedings, either—the wedding could be considered the main storyline because it’s a wedding, but at times it feels just as minor and everyday as Claire waiting for Haley to return from the “dark side of the moon” that is adolescence.
However, this even playing field could very well explain the show’s ability to hold onto a mass audience for so long. It could be read as pandering if it weren’t so damn savvy: Some viewers love the father-son connection between Burrell and Nolan Gould, while others love watching Julie Bowen get wigged out—“Best Men” satisfies both camps. (Having caught a bit of the Jay-Manny plot from “Bad Hair Day,” I’m going to go ahead and assert that Modern Family excels at the earnest humor of scenes like Phil and Luke’s post-date debriefing.) In presenting an episode in this manner, Modern Family establishes itself as a sitcom—if not the sitcom—of the on-demand age. You can pick and choose from the parts of “Best Men” you like the best and ignore the other aspects of the episode. After all, it’s not like Jay and Gloria’s attempts to figure out what Manny’s deal is overlap with Cam and Mitchell’s preparations for the wedding. The episode is modern TV comedy presented as a Whitman’s Sampler, multiple variations on the same show housed in one convenient package. And when you can please that many segments of an audience in a single half-hour, longevity and syndication are almost a given.
When it comes to what I’d come back to the Modern Family sampler for, it’s hard to top the real, honest sentiment in that wedding sequence. I could do with some more Burrell takes on primetime farce, too. (“Oh Phil, you are hilarious.” “Yep, that’s how I got my wife of 20 years!”—a solidly written punchline that sings thanks to the actor’s part-terrified, part-flattered reading.) But to jump into Modern Family now is to jump into a show that, barring any late-period turnaround, has seen better days. Of course, those better days will return to Fox affiliates in major markets a few months down the line, so maybe I just need to exercise the patience “Best Men” eschews in its race to the finish line.
- About the grade: A “B” is typically the middle of my personal grading scale (which defeats the purpose of grades “C” through “D,” but oh well). “Best Men” didn’t bowl me over, but it didn’t find me cursing its cast and crew, either—and it earned a few solid chuckles. As such, it ends up in the middle of the scale, a passable episode of television that’d make a good grading yardstick. (“Was it better than ‘Best Men’? Well then it deserves a ‘B+’ or higher.”)
- Jokes about Gloria breastfeeding in inappropriate places feel like the show scraping the bottom of its comic barrel, but I like the weirdly specific image of Phil almost swallowing a candle because he didn’t expect to be flashed by his stepmother-in-law during dinner.