These last couple of episodes have been a mixed bag. We're seeing, I suspect, an excellent sitcom experiencing the growing pains of a long American season. Tonight there were at least two moments that rank among the best the show has produced. Yet the overall storyline doesn't feel like it has the energy or inventiveness we saw at the start of the season. That's probably because the rest of the writing staff is getting involved, and they haven't yet gotten the rhythms or emotional beats as intuitively as Levitan and Lloyd, the creators.
Turns out Manny is a terrific fencer, a fact that surprises Gloria not at all ("His father was a master swordsman -- a legend with the sword!" she enthuses). And at the local championships, he's made it all the way to the finals, where he's set to face a girl. While Cam documents the proceedings with cinematographic flair ("I don't make home movies; I make home films"), while Jay enthuses over how great it is to have a boy in the house who's really good at something, and while Mitchell nurses a secret grudge against Claire, who ruined his one chance to make his dad that proud of him, Manny plans to retire from fencing rather than dishonor himself by beating a girl.
Phil takes Jay's crowing over Manny's prowess hard, and decides he's going to find out what his boy Luke is good at. First attempt: Baseball. "Our journey of 10,000 hours begins with a single pitch," he assures Luke, before spending the first of those hours chasing every ball Luke throws over his head. But when he takes Luke along on an errand to show a house, he discovers what he believes to be Luke's real talent: selling. At just the right time, Luke shows up to reassure the client that it's a perfect house for kids. "Our house sucks compared to this one," he tells the prospective buyer, softening her skepticism.
Meanwhile Cam pushes Mitchell to confront Claire about his resentment. She quit their figure-dancing partnership Fire & Nice just before the 13-and-under regional championships, cutting him off from his dream of sports competence and fatherly pride. When confronted, she claims that she was trying to save him from embarrassment since he was always dropping her in practice. "I dropped you twice! ... three times," he retorts. And after Gloria and Jay persuade Manny that his respect for women can't be real unless he's willing to compete with them on an equal level, they discover that his opponent is a terminally ill orphan who can't even go out for ice cream after Manny humiliates her on the mat ("She's diabetic," her nurse explains.)
"En Garde" pushes a bit too hard for the heartwarming ending. Mitchell and Claire get to perform their routine in the parking lot, Jay gets a big trophy to put on his mantle, and there's harmony in the family again. But it's worth it for those two belly-laugh moments. First, Phil in the confessional explains how easy it is to be a great salesman. You just remember the ABCs of salesmanship: Always be closing. Don't ever forget great home ideas just keep lurking, mostly nearby. Often people question realtors' sincerity. Take umbrage. Violators will ... well, I'd give anything to know what the last three words were, too.
And second, Phil's conviction that Luke is a natural salesman leads to a hilarious breakdown when they go back to close the sale on the home. Luke takes a tumble down the stairs, moans about how the floors are as slippery as ice, and intones, "I saw a ghost." And when Phil tries to take everyone upstairs, his foot slips between the risers. "Acting like a natural shoehorn," he observes. "Let's all take our shoes off for this expedition, shall we?"
It might be slimmer pickings here in midseason until the writing team gets their sea legs. But Phil is picking up the slack.
- Cam made the mistake of bringing a wind machine to enhance his cinematic vision for his nephew's first birthday party. "Who puts wheels on cribs?" he demands to know.
- "You love me in my yellow shirt." "It makes you look like the sun.
- A nice callback: Jay likes to make t-shirts for family sporting endeavors, like the "Who's Da Manny?" shirts he hands out for the fencing championship. Claire models a "Claire and Present Danger" tennis t-shirt at one point.
- Phil half under the car during the 10,000 hours of baseball montage: "This one's really in here, buddy."