From time immemorial, sitcoms have been packing up their characters and sending them to Hawaii or France or Disneyworld or wherever, hoping to get a little network promotional boost from the novelty, and to discover new comic possibilities by dumping the fish out of their usual bowl. I don’t know that many sitcoms have managed to do it better than Modern Family. For some reason (and the question does deserve analysis), what would be a transparent gimmick on another show here becomes the impetus for some of the best episodes of the entire run.
Here’s a working hypothesis to explain why changing the scenery seems to step up this show’s game: When writing for the characters in and around their homes, the thought process starts with situations. What can happen to these characters that will lead to comedy? When writing for the characters in an exotic locale, the thought process starts with encounters. What people inhabit this new place, and what happens when our characters meet them?
The setting into which our ensemble is transplanted is Phil’s dad’s retirement community, Leisure Acres. (As in, “That may be the way they do things in Whistling Pines, but we run a tight ship here at Leisure Park.”) Everyone has arrived for the funeral of Phil’s mom, and in time-honored sitcom tradition, the deceased has left some things behind. For the Dunphy children, a box of treasures (Luke is thrilled by the box itself: “Cool, Rockports!”), in which everyone finds something unique and meaningful but Alex. Despite bragging repeatedly about how she and her grandmother had a “special bond,” she gets a lighter with a note: “This is a lighter.” (“How much clearer could she be?” Haley quips.)
For Phil, though, there is a request, the kind that seems to occur equally frequently in slapstick and melodrama. (Phil, despairing, lets loose with one of the best lines of the episode: “Oh no, she’s going to ask me to throw her ashes in the pope’s face.”) Phil’s note directs him to get his dad fixed up with a particular woman the recently departed is convinced will be good for him. Claire finds the notion romantic, but Phil finds it ghoulish and paternalistic. “When my dad is ready he gets to pick his own girlfriend,” he protests. “That’s the big upside of your wife dying!” Then he sees the neighborhood women descend on his dad like the harpies his mother described, and remembers the basis for her concern: “He’ll follow anything with a casserole.”
In the meanwhile, not one, not two, but three separate subplots play out elsewhere, and the fact that I’m surprised by that number is an important sign of this episode’s quality. When Modern Family is really cooking, it can pack in plenty of separate stories without feeling overstuffed or rushed. The best of the lot, and this too is a surprise to me, is Mitchell and Gloria’s farcical adventure in court. Continuing the running gag that Gloria has a history of legal troubles everywhere she’s ever been, Mitch agrees to help her clear up some old criminal charges. After she moved out, but with her name still on the lease, she explains, “My roommate made my apartment into a house of prrrostitution!” Jay thinks it can all be cleared up like a traffic ticket: “Pay a fine and it’s done, quick and easy,” and Gloria mournfully concedes: “That was the name of the whorehouse.” While they’re waiting for Gloria’s case to be called, a string of other defendants request Mitch’s legal assistance, and when he has some unexpected success (Gloria: “It scares me that winning is such a surprise for you”), he goes full Matlock, complete with drawl, forehead-mopping, folksy expressions, and a very annoyed judge. It’s so exuberantly theatrical that it suits Jesse Tyler Ferguson perfectly. “I might be a simple man, but I do know one thing,” he pontificates when he finally stands up for Gloria; “If a dog don’t baaaaahk …” Fortunately the judge rules in his favor before he has to think of closure for that bit of homegrown wisdom.
Jay’s storyline is the slightest. He figures out he knows one of Phil’s dad’s neighbors because she took his virginity before he shipped off to Vietnam. “This beautiful moment that meant so much to us, set against the backdrop of fightin’ Commies …” he rhapsodizes. “There’s your movie!” In a development that will not surprise anyone who’s ever seen a sitcom, it turns out the neighbor specialized in giving young servicemen something to remember as they headed for the front, and has the box of mementos to prove it. But Cam’s storyline, in which he falls in with a group of mahjong-playing senior women and almost breaks them up by repeating gossip, is a thing of beauty despite its simplicity and predictability. The way the women are charmed by Cam, and the way he immediately and naturally integrates himself with the group, make for big laughs. He quips “What is this, a book club or a Miss America pageant?” to their tittering delight, before responding to their incredulity that he knows the trashy novel they’re reading by reciting the plot and concluding to their admiring applause: “I’m gay.” One of the biddies adorably asks whether Cam knows her gay grandson, and Cam riffs: “About this tall, dark hair, circumcised?”
It’s the main storyline that carries the weight of MF’s trademark dollop of heart, and I’ll be damned if this doesn’t work like gangbusters, too. Claire drags Phil to the house specified in his mom’s final request, but when a grey-chest-haired man appears at the door alongside the woman, they pretend to be selling vacuums door to door. Asked for a demonstration, Claire admits she doesn’t have the product. “You didn’t bring it?! You had it when we left the vacuum cleaner office,” Phil berates her pointedly. “I think it’s fair to say you made a huge mistake.” Upon finding out the man is a brother and not a boyfriend, Phil returns to the house and touchingly explains that his mom always took care of him: “I coughed on the phone once and she overnighted me soup… When I wanted to learn to ski, she knit me a sweater. When I wanted to be a marine biologist, she knit me a sweater with a whale on it.” And Alex learns the meaning of the lighter with the simple expedient of opening the note (“Everything sticks together here,” her grandpa explains) and fulfills another dying wish of her grandma’s: flagrant violation of the rules of the memorial service. (With Paul Newman's lighter, no less.)
It was hip to rag on Modern Family when this season started, as is natural for anything so lauded and yet so conventional. Nothing’s changed as this season ends, and too frequently the show strains to fulfill its promise. But when it’s good, as this fleet, funny, and sweet finale shows, there are few comedies on television more satisfying.
- The rest of the family is joining Phil, who’s already been in Florida for a few days. The most tender reunion is the one he has with his neck pillow.
- Cam respects Grace for the different varieties of animals she put antlers on for her annual Christmas card photographs. Not a single one Photoshopped.
- Mitch, feeling burnt out at work, opines that the funeral could not have come at a better time. “You should put that on the flowers,” Cam snipes.
- Gloria urges Mitch to assist a hapless defendant: “She reminds me of my abuela with her head scarf and her petty theft charges.”
- Classic cremation urn joke: “My dad keeps saying that it’s a size too small but she squeezed into it.”
- Cam learned mahjong at the Central Missouri B’nai B’rith, “the nation’s smallest chapter.”
- I was iffy on the tag with Luke and Manny rocking on the porch with their mason jar mugs of lemonade, until they grunted loudly while trying to get up. Comedy gold.
- When Grandpa tells the story of how he and his wife “made their own fireworks,” Alex is disgusted. But it was only “a couple of glow sticks and a slingshot in the backyard. Which led to some pretty memorable lovemaking.”