The title of tonight’s episode is so evocative, it’s almost a shame there’s an actual filmed episode to go with it. First off, it immediately sets me to singing the delightful Spinners classic of the same name—well, almost; the awkward full title is “They Just Can’t Stop It The (Games People Play).” Depending on your generation, you may have started humming Joe South, old timer, or the Alan Parsons Project, whippersnapper. (Crazy that all those songs were recorded in the space of not much more than a decade.) Second, it takes me back to my summer job at my uncle’s carpet factory, where his most distinctive product line was a psychedelic floor covering printed with game boards for hopscotch, backgammon, checkers, and so forth. It was called Games People Play, and we were always excited when it was featured in a Price Is Right showcase. A box of pawns and checkers and beanbags even came with it. At the time, I had no idea at the time of the common cultural reference: Eric Berne’s 1964 pop psychology bestseller about relationship roles.
“Games People Play (the Modern Family episode),” as it will henceforth be known on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page, takes its name primarily from the subplot where Jay and Gloria discover that Mitchell and Cam have held a game night without them. I like the way that the writers ease their way into this conflict, which is a mixture of the contrived and the comedic. Manny thinks he left his backpack, containing the poem he’s reading at Poetry Night, at the Dunphys’; after breaking into the empty house, Jay and Gloria immediately set to snooping. Gloria goes through the medicine cabinets while Jay rifles the mail, triumphantly discovering Phil’s subscription to Bounce, the magazine for trampoline enthusiasts. When Manny decides that he must have left his backpack in Cam’s car instead, they’re off to do the same thing at Mitch and Cam’s house, where they discover the detritus of a Pictionary game involving Claire, Pepper, and a drawing of money + big boobs that they think ridicules their marriage.
The best gag here—echoed in the superior Dunphy storyline—involves an unwitting deliveryman who gets caught up in Jay’s quest to prove that he’s a good Pictionary artist and that Gloria is a horrible Pictionary guesser. Trying to escape while Gloria shouts out wrong answers for his drawing, he explains: “They’re kinda sticklers about the whole next-day delivery thing.” Then when Gloria gets it right while he’s making his exit, he quips: “Any slower and she’d be the U.S. Postal Service, am I right?” and getting no laughs, mumbles to himself defensively: “That’s going to kill back at the warehouse.”
The Dunphys’ farcical road trip in Phil’s borrowed RV also hits its high point with the introduction of some hilariously deadpan guest stars. But since no combination of the words “Ty Burrell excited about a Winnebago” could describe something unfunny, there are plenty of other Phil-centric high points to be had. Unfortunately, the writers seem to have conceived this as a Claire-centric storyline, and her confessionals nearly stop the road trip in its tracks. The setup: Phil gets the use of a tricked-out RV after selling the house of “the one and only Pete Johnson”—the only one that’s California’s top RV dealer, that is: “There’s 835 others.” He promptly names it Jolene (a hysterical micro-flashback shows that he previously tried to sell Claire on owning a llama, also named Jolene) and fills the kids’ heads with visions of vacations to Yellowstone and coast-to-coast excursions. Claire is certain the kids will be at each other’s throats within seconds of confinement in a vehicle, but when they are unexpectedly accommodating, she begins to try to sow dissension just to prove herself right.
It’s a bee that finally provokes a full-on slap-fight in the RV’s passenger compartment, while Phil panics at the wheel and Claire smugly refuses to intervene. When Phil gets the vehicle off the road at a scenic ocean overlook and flees in despair, he’s joined by a couple of other desperate RV-dads. “How many kids in yours?” one asks in sympathy; “Feels like 30,” Phil confesses. Another mentions that he’s been through every state: “Depressed, catatonic, Arkansas…” But when they buck each other up enough to return to their dream vacations (“You guys have given me the courage to go back in there, stand up to my wife, and tell her she was right all along”), Claire is the one who’s had the epiphany. In their guilt over ruining their dad’s plans, the kids unburden themselves in their mother’s hearing: Luke has to go to summer school for failing pre-algebra, Alex got dumped by the two boys she was dating at once, and Haley failed to become a Laker girl (which is “not as embarrassing as failing a class that starts with pre,” according to Luke). It’s pure joy to see Phil’s face light up when he returns to the RV and finds the kids performing Haley’s Laker-girl audition routine: “Dream come true! I don’t even need context!”
But wait! Where are Mitchell and Cam while their home is being ransacked and their drawings critiqued? At Lily’s gymnastics tournament, where Mitchell’s attempts to tone down Cam’s sky-high assessment of their daughter’s athletic prowess (she’s grown from a little girl who couldn’t do a somersault “into one who kinda can”) morph, under the pressure of competition, into full-fledged Little League dad syndrome. The way this plays out can be predicted entirely from the phrase “Little League dad,” but I did enjoy the twist ending: Lily comforts a competitor who falls off the balance beam, earning “awwws” from the spectators, but her unwitting dads give the assembled company a big speech about how she’s going to be punished because “this is not how winners behave; this is how losers behave.” And the closing confessional, with Lily cheering because she made “pre-team” and her dads conflicted about whether everybody’s actually a winner or not, is one of the best uses of that narrative conceit all season.
I’m tempted to divide the storylines as Eric Berne divided the basic relational roles, into Parent, Adult, and Child. Let’s see, Claire is inappropriate playing the Child wanting to be proved right… Mitch is confusing the gymnastics meet for an Adult setting… ah, forget it. It’s called “Games People Play” because there were games in it. They missed a chance to feature Joy Carpets, though. Hard to forgive, Modern Family.
- Right up there among my favorite bits of this episode is Luke suddenly appearing in the cold open when his mom thought he wasn’t at home. “This house still holds its secrets,” he explains darkly.
- As a connoisseur of borrowed RVs (my family regularly rented them to go on summer vacations when I was a kid), I love Phil’s enthusiasm about the amenities of the Verona class with which he’s been entrusted. “He offered me an Amalfi, Claire!” Phil reveals, speaking of grateful client Pete Johnson. “That makes the Verona look like a Portafino!”
- When Jay asks whether Manny has a version of his poem saved on his computer, Manny asks rhetorically: “What kind of man writes poetry on a computer?” “You could have ended that sentence after ‘poetry,’” Jay snipes, a little too mean even for his unreconstructed brand of curmudgeon.
- I cannot see people panicked over a insect without thinking of my all-time favorite Seinfeld line, when Jerry succinctly debunks George’s claim about a sports injury: “He was running from a bee.”
- Manny is justifiably concerned that Gloria might not appreciate his poetry, which has taken a darker turn with works like “The Umbilical Noose,” “A Jail Called Mom,” and “Smother Nature.”
- What is with amiable Luke calling Haley “kitten” and Phil “handsome” while reclining at his leisure in the RV? Can’t say I altogether understand it, but it cracks me up.
- “I could literally transport a polar bear and an orchid and not make two trips.”