If I had been looking for it, I might have seen it coming—the sudden and momentary convergence of all three storylines in a montage of door-to-door solicitation: Manny getting a lesson in school fundraiser salesmanship FROM his hard-driving dad; Claire collecting signatures on her petition to get a stop sign put up at a neighborhood intersection; and Gloria and Cam looking for Stella the dog who escaped when Gloria left the gate open. I should have seen that the “Door to Door” of the title referred to all of these plots, but I had associated it with Manny only and let my guard down. When the brief intercutting of knocking, door opening, and unhelpful neighbors commenced, therefore, it was an unexpected delight, all the more so for happening in the second act, rather than at the end of a long buildup, and for being so short. This montage wasn’t the reason for the episode; it was a way to add a little value, a bit of virtuoso flourish, to an episode whose elements were solid but generally not original.
And that’s why I continue to appreciate this show. Its creative team seems unwilling to settle for just the required elements and is always looking for ways to do a little more with the family sitcom hand it’s been dealt. None of that is intended as too much praise for an episode with plenty of clunkers, especially in the lead-footed Cam-in-Streetcar posturing. (Nothing wrong with the idea, but to pull it off you need crackerjack pacing and fade-to-callback structures, and instead the episode just shoved it back to the forefront over and over.) Yet one also shouldn’t overlook how nicely Modern Family can save a standard-issue setup by layering on some character bits.
Take Claire’s stop sign crusade, for example. We’ve seen Claire in this mode plenty of times, but the episode doesn’t rely on her civic energy and righteous indignation to fuel the comedy by itself. By placing her family in the background as Greek chorus, audience, and rueful shirkers, “Door to Door” creates opportunities for rapid reveals and muttered asides. Claire compares her effectiveness to Norma Rae and the women in The Blind Side, and Phil gathers the kids to muster some support: “We need to protect her like Blind Side,” he posits, adding to the mix the classic identification of a character with a title. “Mom just said she was Blind Side,” Haley protests, and Phil states definitively: “She’s mistaken, Blind Side was the black kid who played tight end.” “Offensive line,” Alex corrects him in her usual know-it-all way, leading Phil to respond confusedly, “I’m sorry, African-American kid.” It’s a tiny touch of Abbott and Costello in the middle of this scene, and it’s possible because we have so many characters whose traits can be thrown into the blender to generate escalating comedy.
And that’s not to mention the joy that is Phil and Luke’s effort to recreate the serendipitous moment they failed to tape the first time: Luke bouncing the basketball off his father’s head and through the hoop. Just Phil saying “Take twelve” is fabulous, presaging as it does many, many iterations of Luke whipping the ball at his noggin (and at least once, inevitably, groin).
Manny and Jay’s adventures in salesmanship are nearly as good, with the understated failures at each door undercutting Jay’s teaching authority. One neighbor doesn’t believe in wrapping paper (Jay: “It’s not Bigfoot. It exists!”); the next says she’s Jewish, leading the game Manny to try, “Well, then you must appreciate a good value!” Perhaps the most charming moment of the entire episode is when Jay offers one of his sales proverbs: “What’s the difference between try and triumph?” and Manny’s expression changes from puzzlement to tentative excitement when he realizes that he’s broken the code: “A little umph?”
Even the very, very stale Mitchell and Cam storyline gets a shot of invention at the end. Cam has made a huge mess making crepes with Lily, and Mitchell is determined not to let his distaste with the chaos goad him into cleaning it up. At the end of the day, Mitchell has succeeded in leaving the mess alone, but Cam has not succeeded in executing his typical maneuver of getting out of the cleanup. We know the rescheduled visit from the adoption agency will happen at the moment of most chaos, but it’s still terrific when she shows up to a room that Mitchell has trashed in an effort to wring a confession from Cam, featuring whipped cream on Lily as a hat and on Cam’s shirt as a smiley face—one eye of which plops to the floor as Cam observes that his phone-message-taking “system” of writing on the covers of celebrity magazines in the bathroom might need a little work.
This show is capable of more, but we still should appreciate that even when it’s not giving us its all, it can give us more than the bare necessities. At this point, with characters capable of memorable moments just about any week, we should expect the home runs but appreciate the frequency of extra-base hits.
- Nice callback from Alex when Claire first gets exercised about the dangerous intersection: “What is your obsession with traffic?” (“It’s an obsession with safety.”)
- Manny’s wrapping-paper enterprise underwrites a performance of Les Miserables, the plight of whose hero alarms Gloria and leads to Manny beginning to explain, “It wasn’t about the bread, it was about the society …”
- Phil thinks the dangerous intersection is the one “where desire meets jealousy and the result is murder!”
- The confessional hasn’t been all that effective this season, but it’s surely worth it for the one with Phil and the kids, where they gripe about the stuff their mom normally hounds them to do, like do their homework and put on pants. “Like the queen’s coming over, am I right?” Phil expounds, getting nods from the rest of the couch. When Mom’s got a project, though, they order in pizza wearing no pants.
- Another going-the-extra-mile moment: David Cross appears as the chairman of the traffic committee about to enjoy a birthday party when Claire shows up with her petition and not very happy when he finds out that the cake is regular, not ice-cream. Phil: “Permission to approach, your honor!” Cross: “I’ll allow it.”
- “I am an inadvertent Stanley Kowalski. How can you not be delighted by this?”
- “Something something firm handshake.”