Tonight, Modern Family doesn’t quite find its way past the most basic family sitcom plot of all: Parental Insecurities On Parade. Most of the problem is not with the plot but with the way the characters were kept in separate silos throughout the episode. There were some mixing and matching in the groups that pursued the various plotlines, with Manny, Luke, Jay, and Phil going to the mall, and Gloria and Claire competing to be top mom at the school dance. It’s not unusual for episodes to split the characters up this way among storylines, but the fact that they were kept in these bottles for almost the entire running time created a sense of stasis verging on claustrophobia at times.
If I’m being honest, “Dance Dance Revelation” didn’t work for me because of the Claire storyline. So far, the creators have managed to keep Claire from becoming a shrew even when she is obsessive and controlling and exasperated at everyone around her. (The acid test was last season’s finale “Family Portrait,” which was driven by Claire’s perfectionism and yet, to my mind, still kept her relatable.) But her need to be the hero of the school dance committee rubbed me the wrong way. When Gloria volunteers as the co-chair of an event she has always controlled, Claire does her best to keep Gloria out of the loop and is furious when she shows up for setup and decoration. (Funniest moment: The mom who tells Claire the school would fall apart without her proceeds to flip for Gloria’s alternative table arrangement: “I am seriously freaking out about these tables!”)
Compare Claire’s meanness (sending Gloria into the dank under-stage storage area to pull out chairs, professing shock at the cut of her dress) to Jay’s much more character-driven aggression in his plotline at the mall. Jay thinks Phil isn’t teaching the kids how to be a man when he lets someone else steal a parking spot and cut in front of them in line. The concern is far more casual, in its way, than Claire’s petty power games; it stems from Jay’s notions of manhood and self-sufficiency that we’ve seen on display in other settings, and thus comes across as natural in the situation. Same thing for Phil’s stressed-out bonhomie as he lets the situations slide; he knows he’s going to get an earful about it, and in some ways, he wishes he could push back just a little, but he knows it’s not in him. And that creates more stress, since he hates Jay riding him about this stuff much more than he hates anything else about it. In the confessional, he shrugs it off as just the way he and Jay joke with each other: “The key is, I never let him see how much it devastates me.”
Not only do I not like Mean Claire, I don’t think she’s a natural extension of the Claire we’ve come to know. Yes, we saw in “Halloween” that she feels her domain has been taken over by Gloria, and here we have that accusation again in the confrontation between the two of them in the bathroom. It was a bit too familiar and therefore didn’t ring as true; how many “one things” can Claire whine about keeping to herself? I think Claire wouldn’t need a whole day to figure out that it’s not about her but about the kids. Certainly that kind of mom is a stereotype that can be a potent source of humor—funny ‘cause it’s true—but the rather sudden and total transformation of Claire into that kind of mom seemed facile and mean-spirited to a character who needs a bit more understanding if we’re going to stay with her.
Meanwhile, in Ring Number 3, Cam and Mitchell find out that Lily is a biter and go through some soul-searching about their abilities as parents to stop this horrendous behavior. Some funny stuff here (especially Cam’s horror at the smiley a mommy-forum poster appends to her advice to put pepper in the kid’s mouth: “Oh, the smiley face makes it okay! ‘I waterboarded our toddler, LOL!’”) and Lily has the best improv of the night with her startled reaction to Cam yelling “Idiots!” Cam’s ukulele song about not biting (with the conclusion “and as a side note, private-parts-are-private!”) was nothing short of adorable. But the couple's isolation from the rest of the ensemble is nearly complete. Wouldn’t you like to hear Claire matter-of-factly telling Mitchell how she responds when Luke bites (because you know he still does)? Unfortunately Claire’s too busy being Overreacting Bitch to participate in their storyline.
So chalk up one to the inevitable down week. Even though I got some good laughs, I don’t think this was the best way to portray Claire or to promote productive interchanges between the families or to handle plot ideas in desperate need of some freshness.
- Manny’s the hero of the night comedy-wise, as should be expected. He responds with sarcasm when Gloria offers him an item to serve as his teal pocket square: “Except that it’s turquoise—and a bra!” (When Gloria retorts that people in her village didn’t have pocket squares, he rolls his eyes: “Oh, here we go with the village.”) He warns Luke to tread lightly when they show up with the same color tie. And when the guy who cuts in front of them at the cash register initiates a complicated transaction, he moans, “At this rate I’ll miss the first dance—at my wedding!”
- Not to mention his anguished cry when Mitchell reports that Cam lent his teal pocket square to Andre and Jay mutters, “Flag on the play.” “What does that mean?!” Manny demands in desperation.
- I hope we all enjoyed Danny Trejo as Gus the Janitor, with whom Claire flirts to get lights fixed and messes cleaned up, but who deserts her as soon as Gloria shows up. “Gloria, Gus is a symbol,” Claire non-explains.
- The little flashbacks did have some life to them in this episode, whether it’s Jay being unable to pronounce Dunphy without saying “dumb” or Mitchell using his teeth to open snacks and wine bottles.
- “Do you mind if I lug this over to Lamps Galore?”
- “Here’s something I didn’t know about mannequins: They don’t have a wiener.”