Before we dive into the season-ending run of Modern Family, I need to thank John Teti for his able extended stint in this space. For the last two months, my ABC affiliate has been showing SEC basketball on Wednesday nights and airing MF in the wee hours of the morning (meaning that sometimes TiVo captured it, sometimes not). You always want to see your favorite shows come back strong after a post-sweeps hiatus, and I think the show finds its way to a truly delightful setpiece and a nifty bit of thematic work this week.
As usual there’s nothing particularly innovative about the theme—trying something new, stretching out of your comfort zone, and allowing those you know best to surprise you—but “Boys’ Night” really exemplifies Modern Family’s approach to the sitcom plot pool. It recasts a typical concept in terms of its 21st century blend of characters. While there’s nothing innovative about a scary old man across the street (the weaker of the two storylines, bolstered by the always-delightful Philip Baker Hall as the crotchety neighbor), Jay’s intersection with Cam and Mitchell’s gay night at the bar definitely takes the theme in a new direction.
Jay ends up at the bar because he refuses to go to a symphony performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. (He thought he was going to see Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and the double-generation gap even means his “I’m gonna walk like a man … right to that bar” joke falls flat with Gloria and Manny.) At first, Mitchell is terrified when his friends Pepper, Longines, and Crispin insist on waving Jay over to their table in the middle of their conversation comparing first gay crushes. (“He knows you’re gay,” Pepper objects; “He doesn’t know I’m this gay,” Mitchell mutters.) But from the first double entendre (“What does a guy have to do to get a drink around here?” “Nobody say anything!”), Jay fits right into the group, giving as good as he gets, and charming not only the gay friends but Mitchell too.
I had a huge grin on my face throughout this scene. We see so much of the comedy of discomfort these days that a simple portrayal of everyone having a wonderful time riffing off each other can be a revelation. All the better that the writers give this assignment to Jay, a character who often gets the curmudgeon role. When he sings, drinks, and roars with laughter, it’s impossible not to smile along.
Or maybe it’s just that Philip Baker Hall was bound to out-curmudge Ed O’Neill, so the latter might as well swing all the way to the other side. Mr. Kleezak’s property adjoins the Dunphys’, but they’ve always written off whiffle balls that end up on the wrong side of the wall because the old man is scary. Luke knocks on his door, misunderstands the oxygen tank as evidence that there’s no air inside the house (taking a deep breath before diving in to retrieve the ball), and strikes up a friendship based on classic westerns. Trying to exercise some parental oversight, Phil and Claire tiptoe into the house to poke Mr. Kleezak and end up provoking his stereotypical wrath. Then Luke shames Mr. Kleezak into making an overture to Phil and Claire as an apology for flying off the handle. Despite a lovely bit of physical comedy when Phil is startled by the old man awakening (after Phil touches him and exclaims “He’s ice cold!”) and an attempt by the parents to assess the situation in terms of pop culture messages about old people and kids being friends (Up, Gran Torino, True Grit), it’s an unexpectedly straightforward recreation of a classic sitcom from half a century ago.
All is forgiven, though, for the way Jay’s boys’ night out ends: with him slumped over the counter unable to open the aspirin bottle, desperate for an exit strategy from the date he drunkenly made with Pepper to drive out to the desert to look at a classic record collection, and his wife gleefully refusing to help him. This may not have been a Gloria-centric episode, but Sofia Vergara should submit that final scene on her Emmy application. She dramatically feigns illness at Jay’s urging, turning the wracked-with-pain expression on and off like a light switch, then pulls the double fake-out when Pepper shows up, shrugging off the headache with the explanation that she was just eating ice cream and telling Pepper how much Jay has been looking forward to getting out and doing something different.
That’s the secret of Modern Family. We don’t want our sitcoms to surprise us any more than we want our family members to spoil our pet prejudices about them. But isn’t it wonderful when they do what they do best in a way that we couldn’t have predicted ahead of time? And if that allows a few of our favorite actors or characters to cut loose against type, we can have a whole different category of fun than the kind we expected.
- As a parent who employs babysitters for the purpose of date night with my spouse, I find the Haley mini-plot a bit too close for comfort. One always worries that one’s sitters are inviting over their boyfriends. So when Haley appears in Mitchell’s voice-over montage of “people can surprise you,” my reaction was “No! She didn’t surprise us at all!”
- Giving the Haley storyline its due, however, I did laugh when Luke was pulling all the big knives out of the knife block while Haley was talking about how responsible a babysitters she is. And you can’t beat Dylan calling the next morning explaining why he didn’t notice he’d left his shoes at Haley’s uncles’: “I go a lot of places without shoes. I’m not wearing shoes right now.”
- The joke Mr. Kleezak told Luke: “Two Krauts walk into a bar and one of them has a limp …”
- Mitchell’s first crush was Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire. And when he waxes philosophical about the episode’s theme, he’s really talking about how Lowe has never gotten his due as a versatile actor, possibly because his good looks have held him back.
- Jay’s big example of trying new things is that he thought he didn’t like crabcakes, then tried them and found out he did like them. Confronted with Vivaldi, however, he proclaims that the crabcakes were “a fluke.”
- “You drool all the time. Mom had to take you to a specialist.” “I’m still growing into my tongue.”
- “I’m five away; I hope you like blueberry scones and Dusty Springfield!”