In today’s premiere installment of our new “What’s On Tonight?” feature, Todd VanDerWerff pokes gentle fun at the classic sitcom predictability of Modern Family by summing up any given new episode this way: “Everyone will act annoyed with each other, then they'll realize how much they love each other, and someone will say something moving. Anything different happen, Donna Bowman?” After tonight’s episode, Noel turned to me and asked plaintively, “Why can’t it be all Phil?”
We’ve all known sitcoms that were taken over by breakout characters who were at first minor parts of the ensemble, and after Ty Burrell’s early success in Modern Family’s first season, some viewers were rolling their eyes in anticipation of the series becoming The Phil Dunphy Show. But here we are, a few episodes into the third season, and the rivets are beginning to pop out of the structure almost everywhere but in the Dunphy household. The cringe-to-laugh ratio in the Mitchell/Cam storylines is approaching 1 to 1; this week, Cam pranced down a street in pursuit of a hit-and-run driver with his arms extended and wrists limp, screaming in a girlish tone. (I don’t mind finding humor in Cam screaming girlishly, but two episodes in a row is a bit much.) Even Gloria and Jay, who emerged as the unsung heroes of season two’s second half, have devolved. Gloria refers to how violent everything was in Colombia in a humorously thick accent, check. Jay hasn’t been given much to do, disappointingly, and where his bemused observations used to anchor the ensemble, now they just disappear in the chaos.
Jay has some nice moments in his small subplot this week, but they were definitely low-key. Samm Levine (of Freaks And Geeks fame) does a guest turn as a young developer who just took over his father’s condominium business. Jay is pitching a contract to install the closets sin his latest project, a partnership he’s had with the father for years. But now the son complains that the closets Jay is offering don’t have that je ne sais quoi. “What do you want to build?” he asks Jay. “Closets,” Jay answers. “I was kinda hoping you’d say dreams,” the developer confesses. “That was implied,” Jay attempts. Back home, Manny is fretting over his report on the Mafia, because his teachers are more impressed with razzle-dazzle than substance. (In fairness, he regards many modern innovations, like wheels on backpacks, as unnecessarily flashy: “You’re going to school, not boarding a flight to Denver.”) And neither of the Pritchett men want to hear Gloria’s assessment of the situation, which is unfortunate, because she believes she has all the answers.
The problem with Mitchell and Cam is that increasingly, as we get to know them, their relationship seem to be reduced to one or two irritating tropes. Cam is officious and easily offended; Mitchell is long-suffering and… easily offended. I’m just not sure Mitchell trying to stop Cam from butting in where he’s not welcome has many yucks left in it. (Although I did like the final line of the cross-promotional Muppet Movie-themed cold open: “I was always a fan of the Muppets, especially the two guys in the theater who wouldn’t shut up.”) When their Prius is rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver, Cam wants to pursue the driver and bring him to justice, while Mitchell prefers to call the police and surrender the field.
Like a breath of fresh air from a different sitcom entirely come Claire and Phil, dealing with the humiliation of meeting Duane Bailey, the city councilman and ice-cream-cake aficionado from last week, who is running for re-election. (Claire seems to be the only woman in town whose name and backstory Duane can’t remember.) When Claire entertains the thought of running for office, Phil promises to hold together the household despite her misgivings about who would cook and clean and make sure the kids do their homework and take them to all their activities. (“It must be so hard being a single mom,” Phil commiserates without a trace of sarcasm.) But while she’s at City Hall picking up the paperwork, Phil pops Luke in the eye while wrestling with a Band-aid, gives Alex the nighttime allergy medicine sending her into loopyville, and discovers that Haley lost $900 of her friends’ money trying to obtain fake IDs, leading to a terrific scene of physical comedy at Jay’s house where Phil is simultaneously expressing horror at all these mishaps while trying to cover up as many of them as he can, for as long as he can.
To be fair, the stuff about Haley and the fake IDs wasn’t Phil’s fault, but it is the catalyst for the two (two!) resolutions. Happily, nothing syrupy here, and I even get some joy out of Mitchell’s triumph as the men of the family decide to take charge and fight back against people who decide to change the rules and run out the back way rather than playing fair; he tackles the fake-ID dealer in full flight and proudly displays the grass stains on his jeans when the group returns with the money. Gloria, meanwhile, has convinced Claire that she should run for office despite Duane’s stranglehold on the female voter population and the likelihood that she won’t win, because she’s tough enough to be okay with losing.
It’s okay with me if nothing different happens on Modern Family. I’ve said all along that it’s not whether the show finds any new veins of family comedy to mine; it’s how it presents those classic tropes, whether there’s a fresh take and some new character interactions to bring them to life. But aside from the evergreen entertainment value of Phil—muttering supportive nonsense to Claire and then warily admitting that he doesn’t quite know what he’s getting to, regressing to Luke’s age whenever allowed, and expressing both confident knowledge of his nature and utter astonishment at it— the vegetables are beginning to go rotten in the crisper drawer, and it might be time to clean out the fridge and restock.
- David Cross is even more delightfully smarmy this time out as Councilman (and puggle breeder) Bailey, and one wonders if he wrote some of his own dialogue: “Pretty soon, we’re stopping at every single corner. Why don’t you ask Canada how that’s working out?”
- Luke has saved over a thousand dollars by getting both a packed lunch from his mom and lunch money from his dad every day, plus scraping loose change off the hallway table.
- Phil encourages Claire to run for council by complimenting her: “You’re easy on the eyes when you put a little effort into it.” His secret motivation is that he’s turned on by powerful women: “Michele Obama, Oprah, Condoleeza Rice, Serena Williams—wait a minute.”
- When Claire arrives at Jay’s house looking for delinquent Haley, Phil produces her proudly: “There she is, not a scratch on her!”
- I know this is all Phil quotes, but the man was on fire tonight—especially compared to the rest of the regular cast. He even gets multiple chances to name his fighting appendages after soft folk-rock groups: “Either he gives us the money or he gets a private performance from England Dan and John Ford Coley!” followed by a reference to both fists and feet as “Crosby, Stills, Nash, AND Young!”
- In Cam’s family, you learned to drink beer and drive a tractor at the same age. “Not at the same time—this was Missouri, not Texas.”