I certainly do appreciate the Emmy voters for making my job impossible this season. Modern Family may have slipped from its early promise, but it’s still capable of solid comedy and the occasional bit of brilliance. If it were a forward-thinking piece of semi-experimental television, no one would begrudge it acclaim and awards, even if it were just as hit-and-miss in practice. But because it’s a fairly conventional piece of 21st century television, with gags and funny accents and adorable precocious kids, the hardware it’s piled up just seems ludicrously out of proportion. In some of the acting categories this year, more than half the nominees were from this ensemble. It’s like the people who print the Emmy ballots were amnesiacs who forgot the names of all the other programs, but happened to have the Modern Family press kit in front of them.
So there’s no way for season four of Modern Family to overcome this glaring mismatch between its moderate ambitions and Steven Levitan’s groaning trophy shelf. And there’s no way to assess the show on its own sitcom merits, absent the looming specter of the injustice it’s inadvertently done to more challenging and courageous shows. All we can do is try to remember to laugh when the show is funny and not let our bitterness blind us to any good qualities it might have.
In that light, this season’s premiere comes off pretty well. We begin the morning after last season’s finale, with Gloria trying to figure out how to tell Jay she’s pregnant, Cam and Mitch mourning the adoption that fell through, and Haley and Alex recovering from prom. It’s also Jay’s birthday, and although he’s been very explicit about wanting a quiet day with no surprises, Phil has read between the lines and enlisted Jay’s friends Shorty (Chazz Palminteri) and Miles (Ernie Hudson) to whisk him away to a fishing trip. This is probably the hoariest storyline of the episode, featuring repeated gags where old people fall off boats, but it also showcases Modern Family’s ongoing strength in the Phil Dunphy industry. When Phil decides to kidnap Jay quite literally, complete with zip ties around the hands and a hood covering the head, he has to fend off suggestions that Jay get shoved in the trunk (“You said there were no bad ideas!” Shorty protests) and jump in the lake after him. (“I’m sorry I punched you in the head, but it really was the best way to save you since you were bound and hooded, which leads me to my second apology…”)
Manny, predictably, starts to worry about the new baby stealing his place in Jay’s affections, but thankfully, he processes this anxiety Manny-style, deciding to put off Poetry Camp this year and giving the excuse that he can’t decide between specializing in sonnets or free verse. Cam and Mitchell also have to help their child deal with change, or in their case the lack of it. When Lily learns she’s not getting a little brother named Larry, she demands a kitten named Larry. (“Is Larry on a show?” Mitch wonders; “He’s not—that’s what’s weird!” Cam mouths.) It leads to a traumatic repeat of their adoption nightmare when the pet coordinator presumes the right to judge their fitness to take a cat home. (“I thought the process was that I say ‘We’ll take this one,’ and you say ‘Thank God because we have too many cats,’” Mitch snaps at her.) Even the Goodwill rejects the large stuffed animals friends gave them as slightly premature baby gifts, which makes for a rather delightful extension of what at first looks like a one-off gag. In act one, Mitch demands they talk about the elephant in the room (a giant stuffed elephant) and then contemplates the 800-pound gorilla (pan over to a similarly-sized gorilla). In act two, after being turned down by Goodwill, the animals are tied to the minivan roof in positions that invariably turn sexual, especially when Mitch “makes the car dance” at Lily’s insistence by pumping the brakes. (“In light of that tableau, I’d like to take back the phrase ‘receiving end.’” Cam retreats from his monologue about Marilyn Monroe to the pet lady.)
But best of all, because it’s simultaneously ultra-sitcom and meta-sitcom, is Haley’s request that Dylan move in to the Dunphy household because, after their plan to get an apartment together got nixed, he can’t afford his own place. Claire holds her ground despite Dylan’s escalating sob story: It’s okay because he can stay at a friend’s house; well, not in the house but out back in the garage; “Actually there are no walls, it’s more of a porte-cochère; there’s a bathroom; a half-bath; it’s a coffee can.” And then, just when you think that the story of season four is going to be the Dunphys with a wacky houseguest, the episode takes a turn. It jumps forward several months as the camera circles Jay hugging Gloria upon hearing the news that he’s going to be a father again. Gloria’s belly is round, Mitch’s face is scratched (“Larry,” he explains), Manny is composing poetry about how old his dad is, Phil has taken Shorty’s advice and grown a beard, and Dylan is finally being shoved out the door by Claire after an extended, but entirely elided, stay.
I love this. It’s a fantastic way to remind us that as standard-issue as we might peg Modern Family to be, it’s not going to let us characterize it as lazy. And rest assured, Dylan can stay at his friend’s place. Actually, not so much a place as a storage pod, and not so much a friend as a raccoon.
- Manny begins the episode by ribbing Jay a la Dean Martin roasts, which he’s been watching on the Internet: “Think of all you’ve seen in your life: The dawn of flight, printed books, agriculture…”
- Shorty thinks that if Phil grew a beard, he’d achieve a “sort of Jon Hamm between projects” look.
- Ty Burrell may not be television’s comedy golden boy anymore, but his Phil is still the gift that keeps on giving. When Luke expresses surprise that his grandpa could still “do it,” Phil admonishes him: “Don’t be disrespectful; anybody can do it with Gloria.”
- Cam reporting on the Goodwill folks’ dissing their donation because of bedbug fears: “I was so offended, I almost didn’t buy this Fiestaware creamer.”