Modern Family: "Great Expectations"
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Modern Family: "Great Expectations"

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Modern Family

"Great Expectations"

Season 1, Episode 8

There's one thing that "Great Expectations" gets exactly right.  Anniversary presents given by spouses to each other suffer from an inevitable asymmetry.  In my marriage, Noel plays the role of Phil, thinking up interesting and extravagant gift combinations, always waiting in vain for reciprocation in kind.  I play the role of Claire, giving coupons for hugs, "which are usually free, but this makes it official, which is awesome!"

The guest stars on this episode are loads of fun -- what could be better than Edward Norton playing a bassist and backup singer in Spandau Ballet, the one "between Richard Miller and Martin Kemp"? -- but I don't think it came together as one of the series' best.  The mockumentary angle got lost, aside from a few desultory confessionals, and the rest of the half hour had quite a conventional pace.  The inspired absurdity of Izzy LaFontaine aside, it was just a solid sitcom installment, without the fleetness and nuanced point of view that we've seen at MF's height.  Yet it served well to answer two criticisms of the show: Claire demonstrates real love for Phil (not just frustration with his bumbling), and the Dunphy kids get to extend their characters and interactions.

In the anniversary present A-story, Phil gives Claire a Viewmaster with pictures of themselves from way back when, along with an unexplained image of a bracelet ... the very bracelet that Phil is now giving to Claire!  Seeing how disappointed Phil is with his hug coupons, Claire promises him that his real gift will arrive later that night.  (Cue Standard Sitcom Plot 39B.)  Meanwhile, Mitchell and Cameron decide they're too wrapped up in Lily and need a night out with their old party buddy Sal (Elizabeth Banks).  But when she shows active hostility toward their baby -- "you should kill that baby" and "I'm going to throw her in the ocean" are dead giveaways -- they ask themselves whether she's got bigger problems than her carefree lifestyle and new boobs would indicate.  And the Dunphy kids are going to Grandpa's for Jay's Night, featuring pajamas, sloppy jays, and a Western movie -- but Haley wants to ditch Jay's Night for a party with Dylan down the street.

The extended private concert with LaFontaine, bass guitar plugged into a Marshall amp in the Dunphy's living room, is the comic heart of this episode.  Claire believes that Spandau Ballet is Phil's favorite band because "True" was playing during their first date and is their song.  ("Our song is 'If You Leave' by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark," Phil informs her sadly, when pushed.)  Phil has to pretend to be a "Fandau," but when LaFontaine starts pressing for requests, his charade is revealed: "Just play the hits," Phil begs.  "We'll get to the hits, obviously; we're doing the back catalogue.  Name your favorite B-side!" LaFontaine magnanimously suggests.

But hidden in some fairly standard sitcom direction are sharp exchanges between Alex and her siblings ("Is Grandpa dying?" Luke asks anxiously; "Didn't they tell you?" Alex deadpans).  And there's one more tiny tweak toward absurdity: Jay's intuition about Haley's desire to sneak out the back door during a break from their poker game allows him to briefly bilocate, appearing like a horror movie villain outside the house right as she's making a break for it.

Stray observations:

- "Oh God, that perm!" Claire exclaims, looking at old pictures in the Viewmaster.  "Yeah, it really framed my face," Phil recalls.

- Things Phil wants: Robot dog, night vision goggles, bug vacuum, GPS watch, speakers that look like rocks, yogurt maker.  He can't stop thinking of things he wants.

- Mitchell has a nice little moment when Sal invites the boys to examine the new girls, as it were.  "i'm comin' in!" Mitchell warns with a theatrical wave of his honkin' hands.

- "Meanwhile stateside, another storm was brewing ... in my heart."