Modern Family: "Halloween"
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Modern Family: "Halloween"

I caught up on last week’s episode, so ably handled for me by Brett Singer (thanks, Brett!), and while my assessment was more forgiving, I saw exactly what Brett was talking about.  The big laughs came on the edges of some unusually broad, for this show, sitcom situations -- from Luke’s comment about the fire escapes, for example.  And there is something disappointing about a smart show when the plots don’t reach for something more integrated than they strictly have to, or when they don’t seem to have that extra twist that tells you the creative team really put their hearts into it.

Well, it turns out they were just saving all their mojo for “Halloween,” a candy bowl full of invention and delight.  Holiday episodes can bring out the best in sitcoms precisely because it’s so difficult to find a new way to approach them; sometimes everyone seems to rise to the challenge because it’s such a cop-out to do the same old thing.  And “Halloween” might serve as Exhibit A for my theory.

Look at two of the storylines that are brought together in the Dunphy House of Horrors.  Jay offends Gloria by pointing out some of the more egregious ways she mangles the English language, and Phil gets anxious about his marriage when his neighbor undergoes a separation.  The other two plots are Halloween related: Mitchell mistakenly wears a costume to his new job, thinking that it’s a company tradition; and Claire tries to wrangle the whole family into a major haunted house production for the trick or treaters.  It’s the latter that provides the framework where everybody’s issues come out all out once, and even though at first it seems like Mitchell’s slapstick bit with the suit and the Spidey impression doesn’t pay off, check out what the writers do.  Turns out Mitchell’s horrible Halloween at work isn’t the main event; it’s just the set-up for Cam’s victimhood oneupmanship.  As Haley, in her sexy Mother Theresa costume, dramatically lifts the serving cover to reveal Cam’s disembodied head for the terrified children, Cam spills out the story of being chased by townspeople when he (dressed as Quasimodo) was blamed for stealing a whole house’s worth of candy.

And if that’s not enough extra miles for this Halloween episode, there’s Gloria’s bizarre attempt to enunciate in an American fashion and (best of all) Phil’s incredibly clumsy attempts to pre-emptively save his marriage by being sexy and spontaneous while wearing a corpse groom costume.  A lesser show would have hung its hat on one or two of those elements; a lesser Halloween episode would have ditched them for their lack of intrinsic connection to the holiday theme.  

What gets people excited about Modern Family, it turns out, are episodes like this one: recognizably part of a sitcom tradition, dialogue full of jokes, frame full of physical comedy, but willing to recombine elements and try for connections and comic intersections that are far from obvious.  Maybe it takes a challenge like doing something new with Halloween to inspire the creative team back to some of the heights of last season; “Halloween” reminded me very much of season one’s “Fizbo,” especially in the chaotic climax where everyone contributes their particular insecurity or neurosis.  It’s important to notice those highs when they come, whatever motivates them, because they’re the best demonstration of quality for a show that a lot of jaded TV junkies seem eager to take down a peg.

Stray observations:

  • I had an inkling we were in for something special when Phil sat on the edge of the confessional couch and intoned, “We. Love. Halloween.”  Of course he does, I realized, given his penchant for practical jokes.  It was especially wonderful, then, when Claire blows up and reveals why she clings to Halloween so fiercely; not Phil’s amateur showmanship, but her desire to have a holiday that she controls since Gloria’s taken over Christmas with her Colombian fireworks displays and the gays have taken over Thanksgiving with whatever turkey preparation they find on the Food Network that year.
  • Great little reversal when Claire chides Alex for being more concerned about the exams she’s studying for than her Halloween night preparations: “If you gave this costume half as much time and attention as you give your homework, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
  • Last year Jay came as Snoop Dogg.  Actually, he didn’t come in costume at all; “Haley turned my hat around, told me to say it.  I thought he was a dog detective.”
  • Jay’s bemused asides at Gloria’s dialogue have become a delightful running gag.  My favorite tonight was when Gloria explains that he’s going to be a gargle and she’ll be a village bruja: “I know less than I did before I asked.”
  • Phil needs his neighbor to say that the wife left because of alcohol or cheating -- “Just don’t say it came from out of the blue.” Cut to the neighbor shaking his head: “I was totally blindsided.”
  • “I can’t even remember what her laugh sounds like,” mourns the neighbor.  “Oh, Claire can do it!” Phil interjects brightly, thus revealing that the wife had a laugh that the Dunphys enjoyed mocking.  (“I have to go inside, I have a dish to wash,” the neighbor responds pathetically.)
  • Then when Gloria storms out of the haunted house, Phil begs, “Make it right, Jay ... we’re all just hanging by a thread.”
  • Best belly laugh of the night: Phil swearing through the spooky voice-change machine after departing trick-or-treaters punch him in the groin.
  • “It’s not volumptuous,” Jay points out at the end of his catalog of Gloria’s verbal gaffes, leading one to wonder what occasion she would have to use that word (as opposed to the obvious reasons why others in her vicinity might utter it).
  • “Doggy-dog is a beautiful world full of little puppies.”
  • “Yesterday’s lazy cures today’s crazy.”
  • “You know, it’s ironic -- who could really help you right now is Spider-Man.”

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