Modern Family: “Disneyland”
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Modern Family: “Disneyland”

There’s something old-fashioned and utterly fitting about this half-hour ABC-funded commercial for Disneyland. After all, Walt Disney was one of the first masters of synergy and product placement. He produced movies and television shows that were nothing more and nothing less than commercials for some other part of his vast empire. Watching the cast gather in front of the Disneyland sign in that utterly retro font, the one that screams “you should be watching this projected in Super-8 on a screen set up in the living room,” I forgave the crass cross-promotion instantly.

And how many sitcom trips to Disneyland these days are so relentlessly old school? Main Street, Dapper Dans, Jungle Cruise, Flying Dumbos, Matterhorn, Hall of Presidents—it’s like the last 50 years never happened. The featured costumed characters are Chip and Dale and Little John, for crying out loud. By the way, Little John trying to get back together with Haley? Comedy gold. You cannot go wrong with a costumed character pantomiming emotions it’s not supposed to have, like wanting to fight a romantic rival, or explaining why it’s not in Wyoming.

So even though this wasn’t the funniest episode bow to stern, and even though the corporate synergy makes one’s eyes roll back into one’s head, I found it charming. Somehow, the writers found a few new angles on the hackneyed theme park plot. Having just run after my son bolting headlong through a local festival last weekend, I can appreciate the realities that lead to Lily-on-a-leash. And when she gets tangled up with twins on their own double-leash, leading to dialogue between Cam and the twins’ mom like “They’re so feisty today!” and “She’s not dangerous,” the execution of the bit was a thing of beauty. Bonus points for having her run after giant squirrels as soon as she is released from her tether, but take some away for having Mitch point it out.

In Pritchettland, Jay tries to get Gloria to admit that wearing six-inch heels to Disneyland was a bad idea, “just like that jacket you refuse to bring when I say take a jacket.” Manny, meanwhile, doesn’t want to be there at all, because the stocks he bought with his imaginary $1000 investment for a school project are tanking, and his rival is about to win the game by buying IBM “because he thinks it's funny to say.” The sight of Gloria in the oversized Minnie Mouse slippers Jay buys for her isn’t as hilarious as the episode wants it to be, but her relief upon donning them—”they’re so soooft and comfortable, what ees thees?”—made me laugh. Similarly, Manny’s constant cell phone conversations with his broker classmate don’t really work, but when Gloria points out that he isn’t as happy as a kid flying an elephant ought to be, there’s some redemption. This is the virtue of the paper-thin storyline: It doesn’t take much to make it worth our while.

Phil’s desire to ride crazy thrill rides with Luke, and his fear that aging will take him out of that game, hits home. I love roller coasters, but I can see a day in the not-too-distant future when my kids will have more courage and stamina than I do. This plot works because of Phil’s oversized-kid identity. When he’s afraid that Luke has bypassed him, it’s a cue for a sweet moment where Luke promises to push his wheelchair as fast as he wants, even take it to the top of a big hill and let go. Claire pushes nice-boy Ethan onto Haley, only to see her plan backfire when he and Alex hit it off (“I’ve inadvertently set up my 14-year-old-with a college boy”). This leads to the aforementioned Dylan-as-Little-John hijinks, so that’s a clear win.

It’s all supposed to hang together because of Jay’s story about taking his kids to Disneyland while engaged in a fight with their mother because he taped over an episode of Dallas with a football game. (“Ironically, Dallas was playing in the game.”) He was ready to leave her until he saw Lincoln talk about duty or the union or something, a moment Mitch and Claire remember as Abraham Lincoln making their dad cry. “He was a great president, and he was the first robot I ever saw,” Jay defends himself, but really, it’s because he decided that staying with his kids was more important than leaving his wife. Sentimental? Maybe. But in fact it’s not always great art that moves us and changes our minds. I’ll bet Jay Pritchett isn’t the first person to be inspired by an animatronic chief executive. And for all the blarney and hokum and naive, whitewashed nationalism of Disney, there was something genuine behind it, deeply buried. A belief that these things mattered, even when they were presented by automatons and projected as illusions. I liked seeing that reality come to life.

Well, what I really liked was Dylan’s little dance in the Little John costume when he’s trying to steal a conversation with Haley. “This is what Little John does!” he insists, revealing that he hasn’t paid nearly as much attention to Robin Hood as he did to the Dapper Dan training. Any sitcom that can produce that moment has got enough on the ball to transcend its corporate co-opting.

Stray observations:

  • Phil wants to be enthusiastic after getting off the Indiana Jones ride, but can only muster, “It just kept going.” He also performs a spot-on lurch to the right, as if he were trying to run a dizzy bat race.
  • Cameron insists on pronouncing Toontown as “Toonton,” leading Mitch to observe that he’s watching too much PBS.
  • A subtle joke: Claire thinks that Haley takes after her in liking bad boys, the ones who whisk you away on the back of their motorcycles. When Phil reminisces about the good times he had on the back of his college roommate’s motorcycle, he reveals that he, too, was into the bad boys. Maybe Haley doesn’t get it from her mother after all.
  • All Phil ever wanted to do was do stupid things with Luke, like pogo stick basketball or trying to get a swing to go all the way around.
  • Haley doesn’t think that now’s a good time for Dylan to declare his love, but Littlejohn knows differently: “It has to be now. I’ve got a parade at three.”

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