Since I’ll be stepping in for Donna for the next few weeks while her ABC affiliate goes basketball crazy, I thought I should start by giving you guys the official Meredith Blake® opinion on Modern Family. For me, the show has always been an ideal in-betweener, a happy medium between the cheerful, formulaic sitcoms I grew up with and the fast-paced, acerbic comedies I tend to prefer as an incredibly sophisticated adult. To put it in another way, it’s not a show I watch in real time, but one I’ll wait several weeks to catch up on during a DVR binge-and-purge session.
Like many viewers, though, I have found myself growing a little weary of Modern Family this season. Cam and Mitchell’s endless sniping is depressing, Claire is a shrill maniac, and Phil has what might be called the Michael Scott problem—he’s such a buffoon it’s hard to imagine that someone would pay him to flip burgers, much less sell their house. What I’m not entirely sure of is whether Modern Family has appreciably declined in quality, or whether I’ve just become more sensitive to its (relatively minor) flaws. “Egg Drop,” a mostly very funny episode with a few brief, problematic moments, suggests it’s probably more the latter.
“Egg Drop” is in many ways a showcase example of what Modern Family does best; that is, taking a stale sitcom plot and making it seem fresh again with clever writing and some well-observed family dynamics. The kid-with-the-science-project plot has been around since time immemorial (or at least the ‘50s), and with good reason: it’s an easy way to have some fun at the expense of overbearing parents and nerdy kids, those two beloved sitcom archetypes. In this particular instance, Luke and Manny, like millions of American school children before them, have to construct a device that will keep an egg from breaking in a one-story fall. Both boys are ill-suited to the assignment. Manny, who calls the project “a nice break from the life of the mind I usually lead,” is the un-handiest kid on earth, while Luke just doesn’t have the smarts. (As Gloria delicately puts it, "Isn't he a little...ehhhh?")
It’s a story that’s been done a zillion times before—kid has complicated school project, parent butts in—but what elevates it is the supremely clever way that Luke and Manny become proxies for their hyper-competitive parents. Jay is sure Claire is helping Luke, and Claire is certain the same is true of Jay and Manny. Claire decides she needs to stay with Luke to (not) help him with the project, so Phil calls Gloria for help with his seminar, prompting a whole new flurry of anxious speculation from Jay. Father and daughter try to outwit each other. Jay stops by, pretending to need a soldering iron for Manny’s; Claire makes ridiculous claims about testing the broken eggs on the kitchen floor to make sure they weren’t using “a super-strong batch.”
The intra-generational rivalry culminates at Luke and Manny’s school, where both eggs survive the single-story plummet. Obviously, a tie won’t do, and Claire and Phil decided to test the contraptions from the third story. Sensing that they’ve unleashed a monster, Luke and Manny come clean: they intentionally pitted Claire and Jay, in hopes they’d do the projects for them. It’s a nice little twist, one that proves Manny and Luke can read their parents just as well as Claire and Jay can read each other. The plot resolves on a sweet but not cloying note, with Jay telling Claire that he loves what a fighter she is. “Why would I discourage something that I love?” It’s nice to see Claire’s, ahem, intense personality spun in a positive light for once, and it’s doubly nice that the heartwarming moment didn’t involve a sappy voiceover.
The B-plot, in which Phil gives a disastrous, convoluted presentation to a roomful of potential clients, is also solid. I give the writers credit for diving further into Phil’s professional life, and for showing him worried, for once, about how to make ends meet. (I like to think the writers are responding to widespread criticism of the Dunphys’ privileged lifestyle, but who knows.)
The storyline also delivered two of the biggest laughs of the night, or at least it did for me. With Haley and Gloria stranded at the nail salon, Phil has to wing it on his own. He calls to yell at them just as he’s going onstage, but is simultaneously trying to provide his own introduction. Inevitably, he messes up. “Stop making excuses--” Phil hisses at the audience. “And start making your dreams come true!” The second guffaw came shortly thereafter when, due to a malfunctioning microphone, Phil nearly makes out with a male audience member asking a mind-numbingly dull question about escrow. It’s hard to find fault with this storyline, though I sometimes wish the writers would just let Ty Burrell do his thing, and not rely quite so heavily on gimmicks and elaborate technical snafus for laughs. Burrell is more than funny enough on his own.
Sensing Phil’s frustration, Gloria forces him to get angry with her and insists he stop putting her on a pedestal. She happens to say this while standing on a pedestal, a joke that’s way too pun-tastic for my taste, but I may be alone in my dissent. Phil complies, telling her how furious he is, a sure sign to Gloria that she and Phil are family. It’s a cute callback to Gloria’s phone call home at the beginning of the episode and, again, it’s heartfelt but doesn’t spike my blood sugar levels. I also find the joke about Phil’s attraction to his own stepmother-in-law to be endlessly amusing, so I enjoyed their awkward final embrace. (“Just like family,” Phil reminds himself; it’s his version of “Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day.”)
As happens all too often on Modern Family, Cameron and Mitchell are stuck with the fuzzy end of the lollipop, plot-wise. We don’t even lay eyes on them until the second act, and their storyline is pretty forgettable. They meet with a prospective birth mother, but Mitchell’s nit-picking and Cameron’s ego threaten to drive the young woman away. In the end, it’s Cameron’s pitchy rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” that screws it all up for them—driven to tears, the mother-to-be decides she’s going to keep her baby.
Trust me, Peter Cetera can do that to a lady.
- “Luke and Manny had as much to do with this project as they did the Manhattan Project.” (Not the most believable line, maybe, but still pretty funny.)
- For the record, I built one of these egg-drop things in my gifted class in the 5th grade; mine broke. #humblebrag
- Phil on Gloria’s perfect hair: “Really, that just happens?” (No, Phil, it doesn't.)
- “Woosnum, Kinnealy and Dunphy.” Say that five times fast.
- “There’s this really cute boy who’s into my feet." "Be careful that can get creepy fast."