I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials and Christmas episodes lately, in part because I’ve been required to for my work here at The A.V. Club—I have kind of a weird job, I admit—and in part because that’s what I’d be doing at this time of year anyway. I won’t allow even the hint of a carol or a thread of tinsel in our household before Thanksgiving, but from Black Friday to Christmas Eve, I slather on the yuletide cheer. Christmas music in the car, Christmas cartoons during dinner, special trips to visit spectacular neighborhood lights displays… the works. (Then, after the presents are unwrapped, I take a long nap and start thinking about football.)
I bring this up because I have to give tonight’s Modern Family credit for one thing: It has a premise I don’t think I’ve seen before, on any sitcom, special, or ABC Family Original. And I’ve seen a sackload of those things.
The episode begins with the Pritchetts and Dunphys and Delgados and Tuckers all gathered around the pool on the morning of December 16th, when they suddenly realize that they’ve all miscommunicated their respective plans, and that they’re not going to be able to have any kind of traditional family Christmas together. So Phil comes up with an idea: “Express Christmas.” They’ll buy a tree, finish the present-shopping, and cook a dinner all in an afternoon, and then go their separate ways, content that at least they got in some holiday family time.
I haven’t had a chance to write about Modern Family in a while—not since the first season, if I recall correctly—and I have to be honest, I haven’t been enjoying the show lately as much as I used to. The situations seem increasingly contrived, the characters have gotten broader and thus more distant from each other, and the bicker-level has gotten so high that most weeks I don’t really want to spend time with any of these folks, outside of Phil. (God bless Phil.) But “Express Christmas” held a lot of promise, at least at the start. The plot’s not too crazy, plus it allows the family to divide up in unexpected ways before coming back together, which often leads to Modern Family comedy gold. Phil and Manny go buy food; Jay and Cam utilize the latter’s mobile wrapping station; Gloria and Luke retrieve the ornaments from the attic; Mitchell and Alex and Lily go tree-shopping; and Claire and Haley head to Target. Good pairings, all.
And there’s some funny business early on in “Express Christmas.” It’s fun to see how much Mitchell and Alex have in common as they go looking for a tree with perfect symmetry. And although the “emotionally remote Jay” shtick has been done to death, it was somewhat refreshing to have Cam instead of Phil be the one trying to rip through the layers of metaphorical “tape” that Jay puts over the present that is his heart. (Plus there’s a terrific sight-gag in the Jay/Cam storyline when Cam lifts up his arms in his Christmas sweater and we see the huge sweat-stains in the pits of his dress shirt.) I also enjoyed the fine bit of farce when Phil meets a Craigslist baseball-card-dealer in an alley with Manny. Already anxious because Luke had teased him that he might be kidnapped during his upcoming trip to Mexico—and not made any less anxious by his mother saying, “Kids get snatched here, too. All the time.”—Manny misinterprets the dealer’s insistence that he’s “takin’ the Butterball” as a direct threat, and he pulls out a stun-gun, which accidentally zaps Phil. A spasming Phil then takes his Joe DiMaggio card from the dealer, but his uncontrollable hand crumples it repeatedly while he keeps downgrading its condition from mint to near-mint to fair to garbage.
But the Phil/Manny storyline also serves as a reminder of the ways that Modern Family has gotten lazy lately. Manny’s fear of kidnapping is yet another in a string of rote digs at the dangers of Latin America—a cultural slam not made any less dicey by the way that Gloria’s storyline in this episode largely relies on the joke that she sounds the same when she says “Luke” and “look.” And Phil destroying the expensive gift he bought for Jay would’ve been funnier if two of the other storylines didn’t also end in disaster. Mitchell and Alex’s tree goes flying off their car and gets destroyed in traffic, as does the tree-topping angel that Gloria and Luke retrieved. It’s become a default mode for this show to have things not just go wrong, but to go wrong with a goodly amount of attendant property damage. I guess since the characters all seem to have plenty of money, we’re not supposed to dwell on the waste they leave in their wake. But if memory serves, Modern Family used to at least pretend that it mattered to these people if they lost or broke something.
The one storyline where everything’s rosy is—naturally—the extended Target commercial, where the only real problem is that Claire’s too old and tired and to take full advantage of all the wonderful bargains and tremendous selection that the clean, spacious Target store has to offer. So she sends Haley out to get the last item—a ladybug nightlight for Lily—while she tries to delay the checkout line by slowly buying pack after pack of gum. Claire wasn’t as shrill as usual in this episode, but her being a nuisance to other shoppers for no good reason—why not just pay for the stuff she already has and then let Haley get in line whenever she can?—is about par for the course for Claire’s character this season. She’s become increasingly, irrationally inconsiderate, and nearly always with no real consequences. I didn’t much care for Haley’s scheme to get the last nightlight either, by dressing up as an employee and swiping the item from another customer in the guise of helping him with his packages. It struck me as both preposterous and mean.
Look, perhaps I’m being too harsh here. This is a sitcom, not real life. I can’t judge the quality of the show based on how appallingly the characters behave. (If I did that, I’d never enjoy It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Archer as much as I do.) But one of the reasons I used to defend Modern Family was that it seemed to aim for a certain amount of realism mixed with the conventional sitcom silliness. There are moments in “Express Christmas” that have that old feel, like when an indignant Alex snaps at a tree-vendor for what she thinks is his presumption about her uncle’s sexuality, chastising him for such insensitivity on “today of all days… December 16th.” Or like when Lily mutters “I have two daddies” at that same vendor, after Alex and Mitchell realize that they’ve misjudged him. Or like when Haley starts a new tradition by setting out a platter of “Christmas gum.” Those moments are funny and well-observed, and the gum in particular would’ve made a nice, natural segue into the inevitable heartwarming holiday ending.
Instead, we get the broken tree and the broken angel, and Claire yelling at Phil because he failed to bring home a cooked turkey. I was driven to distraction by this, because I kept thinking about the Butterball that Phil gave away, which was frozen. That’s the kind of minor detail that—like Haley’s unpunished Target deception—is the sign of writers not fully thinking through a situation. They’re just rushing through to their real heartwarming holiday ending, in which Jay saves the day by revealing that he hired a guy to blow snow all over the Dunphys’ yard. And maybe I’m just being a Grinch, but I feel like Modern Family has been blowing too much snow this season.
- More wanton destruction: Did it bother anyone else that in the cold open, Phil walks into the pool while carrying his iPad? (Oh well, that’s what Target’s for, right?)
- Cam raises a good point when he notes that if he and Mitchell go to Missouri for Christmas, it’ll still be a family Christmas. That’s actually a trip I’d like to see.
- Phil just texted, and he’s on his wax.
- Prancer and Vixen… that kinda worked out.
- Are the women on this show having a cleavage competition? So many low-cut tops; so much leaning over. Ladies, you’re not going to beat Sofia Vergara. Button up.
- Donna is off doing her professoring thing tonight. I would thank her here for allowing me to step in, but I’ll just tell her later in the kitchen while she’s making our kids’ lunches.