Last week’s episode of Modern Family was a high point of the series, building to a multi-layered, non-stop third act that was a cornucopia of comic gifts. This week the big set-piece gets deconstructed into three mini versions, each with its own buildup and delightful individual rhythm.
Any time something like this gets attempted, the smart money is on Phil Dunphy to be in the driver’s seat. Sure enough, it’s his emasculating search for the chirping smoke detector that creates the classic escalation effect. As soon as he agrees to run Claire’s errands for her while she recuperates from a cold, the machine kicks into high gear. Making ladyfingers, breaking a nail, wearing an apron (“Is that Mom’s apron?” Luke asks; “It’s an apron,” Phil retorts), recoiling from the handshake of the manly co-worker who shows up to return Claire’s phone, and of course, jerking his head up every time the elusive chirp sounds.
Meanwhile, Luke makes his case for TV sidekick of the year by wearing an astronaut helmet and gloves as protection from his mom’s germs (class trip to Disneyland in two days—good thinking), then trying to eat a ladyfinger in the background as Phil pleads with a client on the phone. The satisfaction of seeing him foiled by the glass dome in between his mouth and the cookie in his hand is matched only by the predictable yet perfectly pitched hilarity of Phil trying to ignore the sag in the apron front where the boobs go.
A more nuanced and sophisticated version of the genre plays out at Jay’s house, where Manny and Jay engage in a contest of wills after Jay fires Manny’s favorite loading dock worker for letting Manny drive heavy equipment and injure himself. The plotline doesn’t have the frantic pile-on effect of Phil’s search for his manhood, but its pleasures are typified by its first joke: “I see you’re still forklifting,” Manny observes to Jackson, Jay’s employee. “More like lifting the fork!” he crows back, patting his belly. When Jay refuses to consider rehiring Jack, Manny attempts to engage Mitchell as his legal counsel, then, rebuffed, informs Jay they have nothing more to talk about: “These will be my last words to you.” “Knock knock,” Jay responds, getting the reflexive “Who’s there?” from Manny.
But it turns out Manny has an ace in the hole; he knows his mother best, and Gloria has planned a whole romantic evening for the anniversary of something or other in her and Jay’s relationship. Jay doesn’t know what the anniversary is, so he doesn’t know where to go for the big date, but he can’t ask because he’s supposed to be as into the commemorations as Gloria is. “We finish each other’s sentences,” he attempts. “Like, tonight we are going to ...” “Have so much fun!” Gloria auto-completes, unhelpfully.
And the most basic of the three takes place entirely in Claire’s bed, where Haley has crawled to recover from the cold along with her mom. Claire decides to take the opportunity to nudge Haley away from Dylan, who she thinks is getting a little too steady-leading-to-marriage with her daughter. So, she points out how on the soap opera they’re watching, “Sonya is drinking because she married a buffoon when she was young,” and “Now, she’s just a bitter ghost of a woman.” Unfortunately this all takes place with the backdrop of Phil failing to fix the chirping, or do anything else that Claire asked him to do (“Did you make the ladyfingers? Did you go to the gym?” she interrogates him; “Boy, you’re really starting to sound like your old self,” mutters Phil through a forced grin), so Haley thinks Claire is trying to tell her that their marriage is falling apart. “Maybe Sonya and her husband just need to work a little harder,” she suggests; “Can she get those years back?” Claire insists.
There’s one more storyline, but apart from a never-not-funny cameo by a guy in a colorful lizard suit named Save-zilla, it doesn’t have the lovely ascending—then crashing—arc of the others. Cam signs up Lily for a role in a commercial for a baby furniture place over Mitchell’s objections, then has to admit Mitchell was right when the commercial turns out to be a Japanese monster movie parody for which Lily was perfect not because she’s a great talent but because she’s Asian. Great Cam moments abound, as they almost always do (Cam never objects when Mitchell gets Lily books that fail to live up to their promise: “How was it a big day for Biscuit? How?”), but unlike the Phil and Haley storylines which converge in salvation for Phil’s masculinity and marriage (if not the California housing market), and the grace note of Jay returning to get the last bit of the secret for where he’s meeting Gloria from a long-suffering Manny, the finale of Cam picking up the wrong Asian baby is more like a rimshot.
It’s probably impossible to contrive as beautifully choreographed an ensemble piece as last week’s Halloween house of horrors bit every week. In the meantime, even though these three molehill versions took a while to get cranked up, they provide satisfying and even elegant expressions of what the art of Modern Family is all about.
- Haley’s phone conversation with Dylan could be thought of as a nano-version of the same dynamic, especially since it occurs in the context of her mother seething about the relationship while stuck beside her in a sickbed. “It’s just a cold—you don’t have to conceive of a world without me!” Haley reassures Dylan, convincing Claire that the Dylan problem needs an immediate solution.
- Phil’s motto is “You can’t get back on the horse until you fall off.”
- Cam believes that Mitchell doesn’t understand “theater folk” like him and Lily. “You did one production of Godspell in a barn. You’re barn folk!” Mitchell retorts.
- I wasn’t on board with Phil’s off-camera destruction of the smoke alarms with his old cheerleader’s baton (with the exception of the little twirl he gives it before going to town) until the third screamed catchphrase: “I just detected your ass getting kicked!”
- “You’re worried about germs? I’ve seen you kiss a pigeon on the mouth.”