When season two started a year ago, Modern Family had just won its first Emmy for Best Comedy, and I was worried that the hype would overpower it. Fast-forward to now, when Modern Family nearly swept the comedy categories and the backlash is in full swing (especially since Louie was shut out of its few nominations). It would be too bad if a show with this much potential and accomplishment became a catchphrase for populist mediocrity because it won a bunch of awards.
But there’s no doubt that people will be lying in wait for any missteps, so it’s too bad ABC chose to air two episodes this first night, rather than just sticking with the strong first half-hour. “Dude Ranch” makes good use of its whole-ensemble premise, which (like the Emmy-honored “Halloween” of season two) allows all the families’ tensions to intertwine in beautifully choreographed scenes. Claire has been persuaded to allow Dylan to come along on the family vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the drawling cowboy host Hank (Tim Blake Nelson) gives everybody a nickname and flirts with Gloria (or “Cactus Flower” as he calls her). Phil has been practicing his shootin’, ropin’, and pancake eatin’ skills in an effort to impress Jay with his manliness, but Jay is either distracted by Hank’s attentions to Gloria, aggravated with his horse (“she’s veering left again—when we get back I’m going to see if she can track a pencil with her eyes”), or making cracks about disappointing sons-in-law in reference to Dylan. Mitchell has his own issues with manliness, since he and Cam are thinking about adopting a boy and he’s worried that he doesn’t have the interest in the Three Stooges that it takes to father a male. And Alex has her first kiss from a confident Italian kid and decides to embrace the vacation romance.
Sofia Vergara picks right back up where she left off in season two, yelling for the first half of the episode because she can’t get her ears popped from the flight. And Nelson’s hamminess as Hank—intoning that the guests “might encounter a piece of yourself you never knew was there,” a prediction recalled in the final Phil voiceover, “just like the horny cowboy said we would”—makes for a great climax when Jay abandons his horse and doubles up with Phil to save Gloria from Hank’s advances. “Only we touch our women when they don’t want us to!” Phil thunders. “I will only be checking ‘somewhat satisfied’ on my comment card!”
We’ll have to agree to leave the Alex plot aside; the broadness of the pint-sized Brooklyn stereotype doesn’t work nearly as well. And while Mitchell, Cam, and suddenly-talking Lily (!) give good performances in their subplot, it feels like the kind of conflict we’ve seen introduced and resolved about a dozen times already in the series. But Dylan doesn’t disappoint. His improvised song: “I rode a horse for the first time today/wasn’t surprised when it went neigh”; his erratic yet principled reactions to what he interprets as Claire hitting on him; and of course, his romantic response to Claire interrupting his proposal to Haley at the campfire (“Just so you know, there’s a fan in my cabin that sounds like someone crying”)—all comedy gold. Even better is the appropriately wacko resolution, in which Dylan spends the night in the stables, takes a job at the ranch thanks to “a woman named Jake who was strong like a man,” and lets Haley down easy: “We’re from two different worlds—you’re a high school student, and I’m a ranch hand.”
Not so successful is the second of this twofer, “When Good Kids Go Bad.” Once again, we have Mitchell and Cam Storyline B3, in which Mitchell thinks Cam isn’t raising Lily right and later has to face his own responsibility for the problem. This time, it’s because Lily isn’t taking the idea of a new baby in the house well (saying things like “I hate the baby,” “no new baby,” and “I wanna make the baby dead”), and Mitchell is sure it’s because Cam coddles her. This leads to the funniest bit in the episode, the montage of Cam’s coddling behavior, which includes Cam walking around with Lily clinging to his neck like a stuffed animal with velcro hands, and Lily holding Cam’s hand through the curtain while Cam takes a shower. Cam is determined to change his ways, so when Lily asks “Daddy up!” he responds with exaggerated calm, “Those days are over. Here’s your lunch, get your bag, we’ll be leaving shortly.” When Mitchell gets a different perspective on Lily’s anti-baby behavior from the preschool teacher—she’s having difficulty sharing—he realizes that she’s gotten that from him (“I do it too make a point sometimes, like if you want the chicken, order the chicken,” he excuses himself to Cam).
The bad behavior exhibited by the other children ranges from petty theft (Manny, who picked up a locket dropped by a girl in the hall and failed to give it back) to baby-brother manipulation (Haley and Alex, who want to persuade Luke to move into the attic, so that each girl can have her own room). But as in the main storyline, the kids’ problems reveal more about their parents: Claire is mocked for always needing to be right when she feuds with Phil about who is responsible for her supermarket tumble into a stack of cans, and Gloria, in another virtuoso turn, fixes Manny’s problem and tells him to keep quiet about the fact that he never saw the principal, fessed up, and got punished. The best moment here is Gloria on the phone protesting to the principal that Manny is being racially profiled for the theft: “You think that all Colombians are criminals because the Colombian necktie is a symbol of violence all over the world?” Which the principal apparently interprets as a threat.
Everyone comes together in Mitchell and Cam’s crowded living room to hash it all out, where Mitchell inadvertently lets slip the impending adoption and Cam hurriedly releases his banner, starts the Footloose soundtrack, and tries unsuccessfully to light sparklers. Bits and incidents in this half hour work, but the episode as a whole seems unconnected, overstuffed, and occasionally poorly motivated. Is the whole moving-into-the-attic subplot worth it for the one funny moment where Phil pokes his head into the trapdoor opening and expresses excitement about the space? The denouement in which Jay triumphantly proclaims that he’s been proved right, causing the whole rest of the family to express recognition of where Claire got it from, seems weirdly out of tone and perfunctory. Compared to the heights of this show honored from last season, and the rapid-fire rondelay of the premiere, episode two is the kind of by-the-numbers sitcom that the backlash crowd are looking for to prove their point.
Grades: "Dude Ranch," B+; "When Kids Go Bad," C+
- Cam can’t wait to share his politically-incorrect joke about adopting an American child this time: “You might say we’re buying domestic.” “In private— you might say that in private,” Mitchell adds.
- Hank’s cowboy nicknames: Hollywood (Manny), Old-Timer (Jay), Bossy (Claire), and Buffalo Phil (“Worth the wait,” Phil muses happily when he finally gets a moniker).
- “It’s just when you say ‘Phil is my son-in-law,” it sounds like ‘Phyllis, my son-in-law.’”
- I miss cute toddler Lily with her unstudied blank quietness, but smiling preschool Lily has her good points, like when she says “We got matchy hats!” after revealing that Cam took her shopping instead of to preschool.
- Gloria has an object lesson, drawn from a relative, about how a single criminal mistake can mark you for life: “After that, everyone thought of her as the girl who steals cars.”
- Alex meet-cutes Jimmy the Italian lover when his cannonballs splash pool water all over the paperback copy of Freakonomics she’s reading.
- “What if Dylan and I share a horse?”